Bismarck of Pakistan

July 5, 2020

Sheheryar B Sheikh’s new novel recounts the struggles of the immigrant communities to get recognition

Call Me Al: The Hero’s Ha-Ha Journey by Sheheryar B Sheikh is a saga of a “second class citizen” who rises to power through the organisation of “second class citizens” in the Land of Pure. The novel recounts the struggles of an immigrant community to get their rights and how their struggle becomes violent. The immigrants are fellow Muslims who abandoned their belongings in India for the sake of religious, political and cultural freedoms. They expect a very warm welcome and a treatment similar to what Mohajreen from Mecca received from Ansaar in Madina.

They do not just expect such treatments. They have been promised it. The struggle for a separate homeland was launched to bring a separate identity and prosperity to the Muslims of India. Identity and prosperity are the two reasons for the establishment of Pakistan. The new state comes into being and the faithful leave their lands to enjoy the imagined freedoms. Instead, they face a virtual apartheid in the new state based on language and native origin. The society and the state turn a deaf ear to their demands as if they are not Pakistanis or are lesser Pakistanis. This dismays the immigrants.

The novel is a subjective account of early post-independence Karachi. Immigrants settle in Karachi in large numbers. Most of them are Urdu speaking. Most of them have left behind all their assets in India and moved to Pakistan with only their hopes and desires. Soon, they become dismayed and confused as to why they are being treated the way they are. The novel is an account of how some of them establish their claim to full and equal citizenship.

There is a lot of mocking and fun in the novel. The author amuses his readers with dark humour and shows them a bleak social picture. The politics in Pakistan and the novel have many parallels.

The book shows the eager pilgrims being ‘othered’. They are marginalized, ignored and mocked at public offices. There is still talk of Two-Nation Theory but it does not guarantee them respect and acceptance. Soon, realpolitik takes over and the promises of freedom and prosperity remain unfulfilled.

Call me Al pictures an immigrant community facing deprivation and ‘othering’. Altamash becomes a godfather for the community. Leading from the front, he sets up a political party. There is a lot of mocking and fun. The author amuses his readers with dark humour and paints them a bleak social picture. The politics in Pakistan and the novel have many parallels.

The novel shows the immigrants as alienated people. Their patriotism and Pakistani-ness is regularly questioned. When they organize and launch a political movement, it soon takes a violent turn. They abandon idealism for realpolitik and their chief plays a ‘Bismarck’.

Sheikh maintains that the two main issues were an identity crisis and a language problem. When Altamaash goes to collect his national identity card, he is mocked because of his unusual accent. At the beginning of the novel, he is shown as a very popular figure. His rights-of-the-immigrants narrative sells like hot cakes. Soon he starts demanding a lion’s share in the city’s economy and threatens the traditional political elite. Later, he goes into self-exile and runs his party from abroad through his stooges. For a while the invisibly feeds into his image of a credible leader. Many in the community look up to him as their saviour. He listens to all their complaints and suggests aggressive remedies.

Eventually, being away from the country, he starts losing control over his party. He is betrayed and defied by some of the people he trusts.

The story is told in a postmodernist style using magical realism and historiographic meta-fiction techniques.

Call Me Al: The Hero’s Ha-Ha Journey

Author: Sheheryar B Sheikh

Publisher: Harper Collins India

Price: Rs945

The writer is currently pursuing his PhD in English Literature

Bismarck of Pakistan: Sheheryar B Sheikh’s novel recounts struggles of immigrant communities to get recognition