HM Naqvi’s new novel is an ode to Karachi; a window into the tyranny of ever-narrowing social mores oppressing the happy-go-lucky children of a liberal age
Every few decades, a work of creative genius explodes on the literary horizon.
The Selected works of Abdullah the Cossack, a novel by celebrated writer HM Naqvi, is one such work. Four decades after the publication of The Crow Eaters (1978) by Bapsi Sidhwa, in which the city of Lahore is a leading protagonist, HM Naqvi has come up with a novel in which Karachi (or we may call it Currachee) is a vibrant, dynamic, shape-shifting character. It is, arguably, the most potent character in the novel.
Naqvi’s The selected works of Abdullah the Cossack is to Karachi what Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is to Moscow, Dickens’ Bleak House to London, Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities to New York and Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters to Lahore. Set in the aptly named ‘Sunset Lodge’ located in a quarter of the city inaptly named ‘Garden East’, the novel is a kaleidoscopic depiction of the Shias, Sunnis, Ismailis, Bohris, Goans, Anglo Indians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and ‘Hindoos’ who have and still populate the megapolis. It is a meandering journey across the architectural topography of shrines, mausoleums, dhabas, lodges, tea stalls, Victorian edifices, faceless apartment buildings, and, most prominent of all, the Olympus Hotel, which make up the built environment of Karachi.
Eclectic and idiosyncratic as the city are the culinary experiences and expositions of Abdullah, encompassing haleem, nihari, orange pulao, pakola, paan, palla fish, ‘minced meat with potatoes", biryani, sajji, shikanjabeen, paratha, bitter gourd juice for diabetes, and "Rooh Afza for the pious". And scattered throughout the novel like a cinematic soundtrack are the Benjamin Sisters, Boney M, band baja, qawwali and traditional wedding songs.
But to characterise the work as primarily an ode to Karachi is a grave injustice to the scope of this multilayered novel. Set in Karachi, and undoubtedly the city is a major character, the heart of the novel is a multifaceted human story that transcends space and time; a story of the bonds and bondages that compel members of a family to live together with unresolved and unresolvable differences; a window into the tyranny of ever-narrowing social mores oppressing the happy-go-lucky children of a liberal age, an age that faded to oblivion in the 1970s, but remains poignantly alive in the memories of lonely septuagenarians like Abdullah.
Abdullah is a 70-year-old bachelor, scion of a once prominent family. He earned his moniker "the Cossack" in an episode from 1974 involving Russians at a nightclub. But, when we meet him, those days are long past. He leads a carefully contained life which is turned upside down by the threat of eviction from his family home by his scheming brothers. It is not a simple property dispute. For Abdullah to leave the Sunset Lodge is to sever ties with his once glorious past, his identity. He is visited by such gloom on the morning of his seventieth birthday that he contemplates launching himself off the balcony of his house. After all, "we are nothing more than the sum of our memories and experiences" as Michael Scott puts it.
In his signature style, Naqvi describes the lodge. "Then there is the Sunset Lodge (named thusly because the vista of dusk from the veranda was said to be spectacular). Conceived by the renowned Moses Somake, a local Jew who also designed Uncle Jinnah’s residence, Flagstaff House, the Lodge was fashioned in what they call the Indo-Gothic mode. The central structure, hewed from yellow limestone quarried in Gizri, is flanked by semicircular turrets featuring narrow window. A stairway ribbons down one side and another down the back, leading to the garage and annexe that once housed the domestics’ quarters. There are three bedrooms downstairs plus a parlour furnished with oak wainscot where Papa would host bridge nights on a plush green table (now lodged in the kitchen), and three and a half bedrooms upstairs, not including the garret. Bosco inhabits Tony’s tiny old room which still houses his collection of multicoloured bongs and remains plastered with posters of Hawaiian Elvis Presley and sixties pinups, including Jean Seberg wearing not much more than a hat. My parents’ erstwhile abode serves as my bedroom & library, drawing and dining rooms."
In an unanticipated turn of events, later that day Abdullah’s Goan musician friends throw a birthday party for him, a jam session, to bring alive for a moment the "jazz age" of a bygone era.
The day has more surprises in store for him: a chance meeting with an intriguing siren named Jugnu whose "obsidian eyes" get Abdullah’s ageing heart to pump faster; and the sudden guardianship of a teenager named Bosco, grandson of his old time pal Felix pinto. As the story unfolds, Abdullah finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble as his brothers, particularly ex-communist Bakaullah, turn the screws on him to get him out of the Lodge.
With both Bosco and Jugnu in tow, Abdullah flees Karachi, heading to the interior of Sindh to garner the support of his brother Tony who had ages ago removed himself from the family fold and its complications. After several twists and turns in the tale, Abdullah successfully manages to reconcile disputes with his brothers. He also succeeds in disentangling Jugnu from a terrifying mafia boss (once upon a time, he was also smitten by her charm).
On the surface, the plot of Abdullah’s late-life adventures may seem a simple tale of survival. In fact, the novel is a complex dish -- anthropology, architecture, philosophical ramblings, art, horticulture, history, jazz culture and culinary musings simmer unfolding layers of flavour in a mouth-watering feast.180 charming footnotes add further zest to the meal.
The names of characters such as Felix Pinto, Bosco, Caliph of Cool, Rambo, Tony and many others sound hauntingly familiar to those who know what Currachee once was. They are the names of people who have either left their bodies or their city. Karachi, the city of lights by the Arabian Sea, with its glittering bars, lively clubs, a potpourri of colourful ethnicities and colonial chalets is no more. Naqvi has revived that forgotten society and culture in this elegant book.
"Old Goan rockers, however, will tell you that they were grooving to jazz even earlier. They will tell you that their forefathers had started trickling into Bombay, Calcutta and Currachee by the middle of the nineteenth century to escape the Portuguese, a dashed scourge in the Annals of the Colonial Enterprise. They were D’Souzas, Fernandeses, Rodrigueses, Lobos, Nazareths, erecting St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the Irish Fusiliers and the Currachee Goan Association not long after, organising choirs at the former, staging Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the latter. Music, they will say, is in their blood."
HM Naqvi, with his gloriously rich diction and lush writing, is undoubtedly the most stylish English language writer of Pakistan. The narrative oscillates between jazz and qawwali, bars and mausoleum of Abdullah Shah Ghazi (RA), fine hotels and murky waters of Manghopir, past and present. This novel must be treasured and savoured like vintage Chartreuse.
Having the privilege to know him for a decade, I can see reflections of his own life in few brilliant passages. But that is a tale best left to be told at another time, at another place and in another world.
The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack
Author: HM Naqvi
Publisher: Harper Collins