Ghausia Rashid Salam on Saba Imtiaz’s ‘pretty fantastic’ debut novel
The year is 2010. Yours truly is a young, sheltered 20-year-old, newly discovering the world outside of the pretty tower built for her by society and patriarchal traditions. Passionate by nature, she decides to change the world “by being a journalist.” As we collectively pause to laugh hysterically, she busies herself in keeping up with newspapers on a regular basis, and discovers a female journalist who seems to cover an awful lot of stories. Months go by. Yours truly’s personal life is in turmoil, but her delusions about journalism don’t fade. Meanwhile, the female journalist seems to be covering even more stories, especially on politics. Still locked up in her pretty little tower, our protagonist is fascinated by the woman, who seems more intelligent than the other journalists she’s had the displeasure of speaking to.
Fast forward a few years. Yours truly is jaded and bitter, and our journalist—Saba Imtiaz—has just published a ridiculously witty novel, ‘Karachi, You’re Killing Me!’ I might have escaped my tower, but if there’s one thing I retained of my embarrassing early 20s, it’s a healthy respect for someone I don’t even know. As soon as I heard Saba Imtiaz had written a book, I knew I had to read it, and my reasons were entirely feminist. I knew it wouldn’t be a stereotypically shallow book about ‘how it happened’, and while the plot wasn’t my usual cup of tea, I was certain I wouldn’t be disappointed. Surprisingly, posting a photo of the book on my Facebook page resulted in vicious zaati hamlay since apparently, not everyone was as enthusiastic about it as I was. Be that as it may, I recovered from my shock and picked up the book once more, and I’ll admit: I sort of love it.
Ayesha isn’t relatable solely in terms of her financial situation. She’s real and genuine. Again, it’s the small details that you barely notice unless you sit down to analyze the book. It’s her issues with men and dating, and admittedly it has a lot to do with her work but, despite that, you sympathize bitterly with Ayesha. It’s her revealing how elitist writers can be that makes you nod furiously with agreement, as if you’re sitting and having a chat with Ayesha at that very moment. It’s her annoyance with people who make Facebook-stalking a challenge that makes you chuckle with guilty mirth. Plus, this book has a cat.
Writing through the perspective of a middle-class urban woman in Karachi means that you actually see the city for what it is; I’ve seen people criticizing the bombing towards the end of the book as too unrealistic but, honestly, those people live in sheltered bubbles and have no clue what goes on outside of their privileged worlds. The bombing is actually the most realistic part of the novel, as Ayesha placates angry would-be rioters who wind up helping her and her boss get to the office safely. Having had my fair share of terrifying Karachi-experiences—despite the pretty tower I spent most of my life locked up in—it’s easy to see how realistic it is.
The novel does have its flaws, though. One major flaw is the contradictory characterization of Ayesha. I hate to admit it, but if you’re strapped for cash and still keep buying and consuming copious amounts of alcohol, you’ve got a problem. It’s an unfortunate fact that novels that originate in Pakistan frequently feel the need to bring up alcohol and I’m going to address all writers here, and not just Saba Imtiaz, because focusing on just one writer is deflecting from the issue. I know Pakistanis struggle in terms of identity, considering that the world thinks we’re all bearded/burqa-clad terrorists, and I know the frustration of foreigners being surprised if I say I’m a feminist or an atheist, but that’s not our problem. Their ignorance is not our problem. We do not need to write books in which we constantly allude to characters that consume alcohol to prove anyone wrong. We, as a nation, as writers, are much better than that. So let’s stop it, all right?
What irked me the most was Ayesha referring to Islamabad as “one of the dullest, most out of touch places.” I do understand how Islamabad and its elite population could be perceived as “out of touch” and I do agree to an extent, but the “my city, your city” comparisons are tedious, and when they enter into Pakistani literature, they become even more flawed. We’re not Karachiites or Islooites or Pakistanis, we’re human beings. We belong to humanity, and our allegiance should be to the human race, not to one city or country. I do understand that this is Ayesha’s perspective, not necessarily the writer’s, but my objection is simply that it translates to bad writing. Some aspects of Karachi or Pakistan, such as the labeling of Westernized people as “burger” and more traditional ones as “bun kabab,” or the constant “this side of the bridge” referring to the divide between perceptively posh and middle-class areas are a deeper reference to the class divide in the city, and the rapidly increasing middle-class can be incorporated into writing because they convey complex ideas regarding class in simplistic terms. The constant criticism of cities in a country that sees its fair share of conflict, especially in literature, is lazy, and lazy writing is synonymous with poor writing.
The good news is that whatever flaws ‘Karachi, You’re Killing Me!’ may have are the kind of flaws that kind be found in almost any debut novel. In fact, as far as debut novels go, this one is pretty fantastic. It’s witty, it’s easy to relate to, and it may be fiction but it isn’t a world alien to us. You could flinch at the somewhat annoying drawbacks of the novel but you’d read it a second, third, fourth time anyway, because it’s sharp, crisp writing with a steady pace that doesn’t lag or speed up at any point. And chances are that the next novel Saba Imtiaz writes will be more polished than her debut venture. I’d be first in line to buy it either way.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is a contributing editor for the magazine.