A must-read doctor novel

October 23, 2022

The author humanises the Pakistani medical professionals in an entertaining read

A must-read doctor novel

It’s gratifying to read fiction situated in Pakistan and written within the local context – stories that reflect the Pakistani condition and put a spotlight on the local milieu, culture and society. Over the years, English novels written by Pakistani writers have progressed from explaining Pakistan to the West to books that can stretch one’s thinking about everyday life in Pakistan.

Rivals is the second novel by Karachi-based Dr Saad Shafqat. It is modelled on his experiences at Karachi’s leading teaching hospitals where he has worked as a professor of neurology – the acronym from his fictional hospital, Avicenna University Hospital (AUH), is the same as that of a famous medical facility in the city.

The novel is predominantly about ambition and success at Avicenna University Hospital. Though ‘mostly’ a work of fiction, as the author points out in the foreword, some of his characters (as he has admitted in some interviews) are composites of certain people he has known in his professional life. There is no doubt that Dr Shafqat has followed Mark Twain’s advice to “write what you know”. In a medical thriller, that helps since the author’s knowledge of medicine and clinical experience is pivotal. The content reflects that.

While the book tells an exciting story about intrigue in medical circles, it is also an excellent portrayal of contemporary Karachi, a city prone to violence and witnessing a deteriorating security situation, deplorable traffic and the heartrending disparity between the rich and the poor.

Dr Shafqat’s instinct for storytelling is excellent. He delineates a battle of the sexes with a flourish, juxtaposing the type-A personalities of his leading characters, Dr Tanya Shah and Dr Hammad Khan. Dr Shah is described as a high-maintenance, graceful chief of trauma surgery at the AUH, with a proclivity for classic Louis Vuitton bucket bags. Where the author deploys a female voice, he appears to understand the female psyche and is able to portray the character’s strength and vulnerability in a balanced way.

Power women, cheating husbands, loyal friends, bad bosses, envious colleagues, disadvantaged patients: Rivals is a compendium of very real people.

Dr Hammad Khan, an associate professor and chief of ophthalmology at the AUH, is an alpha male. He has a beautiful wife, great home, children, a good job and fame, neatly packaged in designer wear. The author’s attention to detail is highly enjoyable: from the Cap’n Crunch cereal that Hammad Khan’s daughter Zarmeeneh eats; to the Salvatore Ferragamo cologne that the successful doctor wears; to Dr T Shah’s Maria B shirt and Gucci dark glasses – the book is full of minute details that place the characters precisely in their socio-economic reality in the reader’s mind.

Writing in such detail also helps the author delineate the city’s enormous class divide. He describes the haves and the have-nots while building his story. The descriptions of Karachi’s old and new money; the young suicide bomber who detonates a device in Empress Market; the beggar woman at the traffic light; Shakoor Rabnawaz, the ambulance driver; Nyla, a child victim of the blast; and Nasreen, her mother, are impressive. Dr Shafqat’s description of the cacophony of modern-day Karachi to which all his characters are subjected is top-notch: the blaring, the beeping, the indescribable stench and even the sky seems unhappy, a dirty blue with wispy clouds twisted up into a frown.

The author also has a penchant for cartography. It seems, from the references to roads and streets that he is allowing us to map the city in our heads as we read the book. If you know Karachi, you will see where each character is at any given time because the author will tell you. “Mangal Khan was changing lanes on Shahrah-i-Faisal, positioning for a hard left on to Tipu Sultan Road. Avicenna was just a few minutes away…”

With this backdrop, Saad Shafqat is able to create the tension and uneasiness for the reader that the title of the book promises. It’s palpable, like a taut string ready to break if pulled in either direction. This keeps one hooked as the latent hostility between the leading characters is revealed. The stories of the other characters are weaved in like an ensemble cast – albeit a bit slowly – to link with the leading duo’s medical and personal rivalry. These people reveal more about the two as we read about their interactions. They include Dr Shah’s driver Mangal Khan and her assistant Zarak Afridi; Dr Hammad’s friends’ Drs Raja and Ghazanfar, Kiran, a young brand manager of a pharmaceutical company. The author also introduces other themes, like the predilection among some people for the white man as master, bringing to the fore the exaggerated self-importance of the hospital CEO, Peter Kraus, and head of HR, Grace Wilson, who revel in the local obsequiousness.

Power women, cheating husbands, loyal friends, bad bosses, envious colleagues, disadvantaged patients – Rivals is a compendium of very real people through whom Dr Saad Shafqat fosters empathy for and humanises the Pakistani medical professionals in this light and compelling doctor novel.


Author: Saad Shafqat

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021

Price: Rs 1,050

The reviewer has worked at the country’s leading magazines. She currently writes, edits and  freelances in print and on social media

A must-read doctor novel