Love, life and liberty

May 29, 2022

A Pakistani slum boy pursues his future ignited by dreams of the American good life

Love, life and liberty


t’s always exciting to read fiction situated in a familiar context. First-time novelist Zain Saeed joins a growing fraternity of Pakistani authors writing in English who put a spotlight on people and places we recognise as ours. We want to better understand their particular environment as the story unfolds.

Sharif Barkati, the main protagonist of this Utopian gem called Little America has an organically developed persona situated in a Slumdog Millionaire theme. His story is not an unlikely one – it’s great that the author doesn’t confine him to a stereotype. Rather, he delineates his very real, layered world with empathy and expansiveness. Little America reverberates with the hero’s emotions throughout its 300-page length and keeps the reader hooked.

What is Little America? It’s a dream place imagined by our hero, Sharif Barkati, who’s been enamoured by the American lifestyle ever since his school days at an elite Karachi school. He is an underprivileged boy from the city’s central slum, Mehmoodabad. His school years are defined by the disparity he faces. He handles his awe of being in the same company as the rich and westernised kids in his class with panache. In fact, he becomes a conduit to some of their daring experiences which he sets up for them, the most successful of which is his car service for young lovers allowed to do what they wish in the back seat. Within this storyline, Saeed paints the local milieu with a clever brush, via his protagonist, who describes idling SUVs and large mansions with the greenest grass, “affluent smells and smug clothing.”

The author explains the deep-set craving for a better life in our part of the world very well. It begins with a beautifully rendered postcolonial representation of the Pakistani elite expressing their divided identities with effortless ease. Descriptions such as Barkati’s of his English teacher Mrs Kamal are to the point; after all, the hankering for the West began with the British – “…she had short salt and pepper hair, the voice and vocabulary of someone from a Jane Austen novel…”

The fantasy world of Little America holds a mirror to society. It’s where dreams and crazy visions of the imagination emerge as Sharif Barkati’s story bursts furiously through

Little America transcends the ordinary rags to riches stories – Sharif Barkati struggles to alter his underprivileged reality. He is joined by fellow countryfolk, awestruck by the globally transcendent American way of life desired ubiquitously across the world – 21st Century imperialism at play. In the heart of Third World Karachi, Barkati imagines a place called Little America, inspired by a couple of drawings he has done on a piece of paper. After graduating from high school and while working as a waiter at a local restaurant, he sets up a version of Little America with a friend in a derelict colonial heritage building somewhere in Karachi – an underground club of sorts. “It was never a party or a gathering – it was simply the life of the night, a time to do whatever you pleased.”

It’s fascinating to read Saeed’s accounts of this era in Sharif Barkati’s life. The story progresses further when Little America becomes an even bigger reality after Barkati’s serendipitous meeting with a rich financier who has returned from America. He says: “…you become a native delinquent desperate to please the coloniser, even though he looks like you, was born in this very city.” The millionaire called TJ ropes him in to build a huge complex on Karachi’s periphery, complete with an under wraps ‘American life’, with everything from alcohol in underground clubs, to forbidden sausages on the barbecue.

As the Little America experiment takes off, thousands of fictional Pakistani people discard the sham of piety and middle-class morality to partake in the bright lights of this shiny new escape. Most of them come from the aspirational middle classes who reveal that if you scratch the surface you will not necessarily find a wealth of duty and obligation, rather an over-arching desire to be free. As Lady Liberty rightly says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Saeed exposes a modern-day Pakistan, where a desire to discard stifling norms and authoritarianism inspires ordinary people to move to Little America.

The fantasy world of Little America holds a mirror to society. It’s where dreams and crazy visions of the imagination emerge as Sharif Barkati’s story bursts furiously through – a fallback from creating the fantasy, his deep connection with his best friend Afzal; his obsession with the love of his life Laila, his sense of duty to Amma and Abba etc.

Zain Saeed is an accomplished writer. He takes you from the past to the present in his hero’s life with effortless agility. Does the Little America experiment work or fail? Read the book. If you’re a dreamer, a rebel or an idealist, you will love it.

Little America

Author: Zain Saeed

Publishers: Reverie Publishers, 2021

Pages: 320

Price: Rs 1,200

The reviewer is a freelance journalist. She has been the editor for Hello! Pakistan and an assistant editor for Newsline magazine. She writes on arts and culture

Love, life and liberty