Zeeba Sadiq’s 38 Bahadurabad continues to provide an absorbing portrait of Karachi’syesteryears — especially through the female gaze
Karachi has become a literary plaything. Through a dynamic corpus of fiction, writers have lamented the shadow of violence that has laid siege to the city. In Kamila Shamsie’s In the City By The Sea and Kartography, and Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great, readers are offered multilayered dissections of the terror and solace that coexist in the streets and by-lanes of Karachi. Amid the clamorous din of voices that document the darker side of the metropolis, we often tend to overlook the writers who have captured the essence of Karachi’s halcyon days – a time before the bombings, ethnic strife and bloodbaths.
A vast majority of novels that are set in Karachi have a distinct emphasis on the city’s past. For instance, Aamer Hussein’s Another Gulmohar Tree bears echoes of early post-partition Karachi. With its evocative renderings of Hotel Metropole, Elphinstone Street and “rehearsed readings” at the British Council, the novel recreates a forgotten era and comes out with a compelling story.
Zeeba Sadiq’s 38 Bahadurabad (Faber and Faber, 1996) also provides an absorbing portrait of Karachi’s yesteryears. In this emotionally resonant novel, the author recalls incidents and anecdotes from the 1960s that occurred in her childhood home in Karachi’s neighbourhood of Bahadurabad. At first glance, the private residence isn’t a glowing miniature of the city at large and often seems detached from its realities. And yet, Zeeba Sadiq’s debut novel appears irrefutably real because it draws on the private sphere to depict the mood of the times rather than spooling outwards in search of a lost Karachi. This technique proves that what we remember about a city is largely influenced by personal recollections rather than events in the public domain.
Billed as a “unique blend of autobiography and fiction”, the novel comprises a series of interconnected sketches that allow Zeebande Sadiq – a possible alter ego for the author– to revisit her formative years. Her recollections are fuelled by the impulse to understand the paradoxical image of Dr Sadiq, her beloved father, who, she discovered aas a nine-year-old, was a bigamist and had another family. The author’s quest to identify Dr Sadiq’s hidden complexities pulls her into a whirlpool of memories associated with 38 Bahadurabad. The house, with its marble-tiled patio, coconut palms, rose bushes and rhododendrons, isn’t just a locale in the book; it is a culmination of the time she spent with her father. Therefore, the novel can be perceived as an adult’s effort to peel back the layers of the past and unravel truths that had been concealed from her.
38 Bahadurabad occupies a delicate, self-protective boundary between fiction and creative memoir. At first glance, the novel’s shifting points of view and deviation from the rigour of autobiographical accounts might encourage readers to believe that facts have been embellished with fictional detail. It is tempting to assume that Sadiq’s novel carries the spirit of a creative memoir because it feeds our voracious appetite to probe deeper into the writer’s personal life. However, 38 Bahadurabad lacks the stylistic and intellectual fearlessness of other creative memoirs penned by Pakistani writers, such as Sara Suleri Goodyear and Hanif Kureishi. As a result, Zeeba Sadiq’s book occupies the indeterminate boundaries between fiction and autobiography, and benefits from the ambiguity that comes with the territory. Had the author written a strictly autobiographical account, it would have been marred with narrative gaps and appear somewhat incomplete.
38 Bahadurabad isn’t the story of a neighbourhood in Karachi. Instead, it explores the private chaos of a happy childhood tarnished by loss. At no point do the characters appear disconnected from their social setting.
The novel’s opening quote has been taken from John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row. The passage refers to Lee Chong, the grocery store owner on California’s Cannery Row who appears in the prequel but doesn’t feature in Sweet Thursday, as a “dragon of goodness”. In the sequel, it is revealed that Lee Chong has sold his emporium and retired, leaving those who considered him a permanent facet of the waterfront street confused about the “secret turnings of his paradoxical…mind”. The opening quote effectively represents Zeeba Sadiq’s purpose for writing 38 Bahadurabad: to examine the secret workings of her father’s mind.
Even so, the narrative examines the inner recesses of Dr Sadiq’s mind in an oblique manner. Throughout the novel, readers are immersed in the comfortable domesticity of Zeebande’s childhood home. The author’s recollections of her time with Dr Sadiq are inextricably linked with anecdotes about her mother Shemsunessa Shirazi (who is called Appai), her much-married grandmother and their domestic helper Laxmi. With each interlocking sketch, Zeebande recovers a lost slice of history – be it a comic moment, a painful memory or a confession.
More often than not, the narrator makes a conscious effort to straddle the private moments of sadness with an element of comic relief as a way of coping with dark memories. For instance, in Dr Sadiq and the Servants, she recalls how her father would “pause to enjoy the early-morning birdsong” while he would be gardening before it was “lost amid a crescendo of street noise and activity”. While this passage points towards Dr Sadiq’s brief moments of contemplation, the narrator doesn’t profess to know the thoughts that streamed through his mind. Instead, she focuses on what she remembered about those moments. For that reason, the chapter ends on a lighter note, with Appai chiding her husband for displaying “all the proclivities of a servant, and not those of a respected physician”.
In a similar vein, any references to the sad realities of her father’s past are often neutralised by his ineptitude in specific domestic situations, and his amusement and consternation over his daughter’s antics. This is primarily because Zeebande struggles to draw intricate lines of connection between her father’s emotional journey and her own troubled nostalgia. As the book approaches its bleak end, the physician’s death leaves the narrator in a conflicted state because the grief of losing a parent is conflated with the family’s decision to bid farewell to their home.
With time, Zeebande carries with her the haunting truth that her father had abandoned his first family and that she was, in essence, “the gift of disobedience”. Years later, when she encounters her half-brother as an adult, she discovers that he had been told about her existence but assumed that she was “some waif and stray” that Dr Sadiq had adopted. As a consequence, a journey towards understanding her father’s motivation morphs into self-loathing and the vague belief that her father loved both families.
A large number of these interconnected sketches veer away from Dr Sadiq and move deeper into the inner courtyard. This allows Zeebande to escape into the happier moments of her childhood and establish a safe distance from her mission to understand a father she will never truly know. Comic recollections of conversations with her mother and grandmother serve as a much-needed reminder that her childhood memories aren’t entirely tainted by grief, even though she still carries invisible scars from the past.
38 Bahadurabad isn’t the story of a neighbourhood in Karachi. Instead, it explores the private chaos of a happy childhood tarnished by loss. At no point do the characters appear disconnected from their social setting. Zeeba Sadiq’s novel indicates the dramatic possibilities of weaving tales with people rather than places as the central focus. At a time when writers have mined the dark, distressing literary possibilities of life in Karachi, the shift towards people-centric narratives may serve as a blessing in disguise.
Zeeba Sadiq, who was born in Karachi and spent her life in London, passed away in 2010. Apart from 38 Bahadurabad, she penned an unpublished novel titled A Suit of Knight and the introduction to a 2007 edition of William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris: Or the New Pygmalion. However, 38 Bahadurabad bears testimony to her ability to use humour, human foible and tragedy to present a memorable story about a city that is filtered through its inner quarters.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya