Of belonging and displacement

February 27, 2022

A tale of horror, of overcoming odds and finding a home where there is none

Of belonging  and displacement

AA Jafri’s debut novel Of Smokeless Fire is a haunting tale of belonging and displacement woven together neatly through a narrative that stays with the reader long after reading the last page.

Set in Karachi, the novel chronicles the lives and struggles of a djinn, a churail and a bhangi, three unlikely friends who symbolise all that is horrific on paper but endearing otherwise. The characters of Jafri’s first novel are well-rounded – heroes and villains; those starved of power and those with boatloads of it; friends and foes; from Mansoor ul Haq to Athanni – each remains etched in the memory of the reader, albeit for completely different reasons.

The setting has not been randomly selected. Born and raised in Karachi, Jafri is well-versed in the city’s dictum, aware of its ability to provide for and shelter those with no place to call home, displaced in the labyrinth of life, struggling to belong but only finding resistance wherever they head.

Mansoor, Mehrun and Joseph are uniquely memorable. Labelled a djinn at birth, Mansoor finds real friends in a young, spirited girl fighting the churail’s title and a sweeper’s son derisively called a bhangi. Even though the three belong to different social classes, their experiences bring them together.

Mansoor’s father, a wealthy barrister and an overzealously religious mother, belonging at the top rung of the ladder of social acceptability, are as tormented as Mahrun’s delusional and unwell mother Kaneez and Joseph’s struggling-to-make-the-ends-meet mother, Pyaro. Three troubled families, three troubled children, three different stories, in a novel divided into three parts, Of Smokeless Fire draws a reader’s attention to all that is vile and repulsive in a society of hypocrites. At the same time, it keeps one invested in the intertwined lives of the three friends and those around them, supporting their character development and advancing the narrative one page at a time.

Jafri combines history with fiction quite effectively. His references to films and literature, history and theology are not lost and certainly not haphazardly thrown together. They add depth to the narrative, often explaining and exploring deeper truths of human nature, societies and their conjoined residents.

It is a story of demons and demonic possessions, but not in the literal sense. The demons of Jafri’s tale are visceral. They haunt from within, turning respectable intellectuals into tortured souls and once liberals into fanatically religious shadows of themselves. The real intrigue lies in extremes and Jafri manages to capture it.

However, it is the trio’s struggle to belong that keeps one hooked. Set in the post-partition Pakistan (1951-1988), the novel poignantly captures the mindset of the displaced. And displacement here does not only refer to the physical shift alone. It is also indicative of the feeling that begins slowly building in the pit of the stomach and gurgles within, rising until one is left sick without relief with unbearable nausea lingering long after the pungent bile has erupted, burning the insides – of the place and the person.

The demons of Jafri’s tale are visceral. They haunt people from within, turning respectable intellectuals into tortured souls and once liberals into fanatically religious.

Each of Jafri’s characters is torn between three realities; the one they were born into, the one they live in and the one they wish to make real. Mansoor, Mehrun or Joseph; Noor, Farhat or any other character from the novel; are all caught in the same cycle. However, not all of them are able to come out the other side engulfed in a smokeless fire, some fume until the sky is darkened, like Athanni, the arch-rival and tormentor of Mansoor, and his ‘unlikely’ friend.

There have been many accounts of what transpired when the subcontinent was divided. The partition wreaked havoc on millions of lives. Many of the survivors were forever lost. Of Smokeless Fire makes a worthy attempt at capturing the angst and anguish of those lost forever, like Noor, who moved across the divide willingly.

The story is about transgressions and controls, each having repercussions. Jafri entices his readers by bringing to life characters rooted in reality. People we meet across drawing rooms, some forward thinking, others putting on facades, never revealing the sinister truths lurking beneath.

There are stark divisions between characters, beliefs, behaviour patterns, and conditions; nonetheless, their lives are connected and fuel each other. Between Farhat and Kaneez, Noor and Zakir, Mansoor and Khaleel (Athanni), the story comes together seamlessly. Plotlines, even when separated and spread across regions, find a central connection in Mansoor ul Haq.

Of Smokeless Fire is a memorable read. Throughout the story, the political satire and references are not lost on the reader. They drive it because they coincide with the characters’ development. Each new turn in the political sphere is to some extent mirrored and reflected in the characters’ lives, too, especially Mansoor’s, who was born in October, 1951.

With each page, the reader can expect to feel more invested in Mansoor, Mehrun and Joseph’s individual stories and at the same time, hope to learn more about Noor and his friends.

Of Smokeless Fire is the story of a boy who was called a djinn and lived up to the title till the very end. It is a tale of horror and of strength, of overcoming odds and finding a home where there is none. It is a story of belonging and displacement, spiced with history. Jafri’s narrative is captivating, tormenting and memorable.

Of Smokeless Fire

Author: AA Jafri

Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Pages: 367

The reviewer is a   staff member

Of belonging and displacement