Karachi of 70s No More But Nightlife in Pak Not Passe!

Zafri Mudasser Nofil/New Delhi
Karachi of 70s No More But Nightlife in Pak Not Passe!
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
The Karachi of the 1970s, of bars and cabarets, almost vanished with the introduction of prohibition but nightlife is still alive though somewhat constrained, says a Pakistani research scholar whose debut book is a fast-paced story of politics in that country and its power-brokers.

Invitation by Shehryar Fazli is set in 1970s - one of the most interesting periods in Pakistan's history, just before Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's rise to power as the country's first elected prime minister, and the carving out of Bangladesh.

"Even if I was writing in the 1980s, the book's setting would have been radically different. The Karachi of this novel, the Karachi of bars and cabarets, more or less vanished in 1976 with the introduction of prohibition," Fazli told PTI in an interview.

"We then saw military rule return, and a new level of political, ethnic and sectarian violence that hasn't ever really subsided. Given that the novel, its characters, draws so much from that earlier Karachi, and more generally the events of that particular moment in Pakistan's history, it would have been very different in a later era," he says.

According to the writer, Invitation, published by Tranquebar, is the story of exile and a young man's peculiar, and ultimately unsuccessful, quest for a sense of citizenship.

"Since it takes place in a Pakistan about to commence its first democratic transition - the first of several, as it turns out - it can also be described as a political novel. But at its heart it's a very personal story about rootless-ness, the desire to belong to a nation, mixed loyalties and the compromises that result from them."

Fazli is the South Asia regional editor and senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research and advocacy organisation focused on resolving deadly conflict.

He says people celebrate night life in Pakistan "illicitly" nowadays.

"Obviously, you can't just walk into a bar or nightclub as you could back then, but people still have their fun, while the theoretically 'underground' establishments operate and make the necessary 'arrangements' so that the authorities look the other way. So nightlife is still alive and well, even if it is far more constrained."

Fazli says many of the characters are composites of people he know.

"I borrowed characteristics from one person here, another person there, mixed them with others, so that no one is really based on any one individual but that parts of them do exist in the real world.

"There is one exception: Apa. In looks, voice, temperament, if not in action, the character is a replica of a member of my family, named, well, Apa. I just gave her a different role in 1970," he says.

The novel's narrator, Shahbaz, is a young Pakistani from Paris who returns out of a 19-year exile to his home city in West Pakistan, to settle a family property dispute.

He arrives in a 1970s' Karachi preparing for democracy, seething with political machination, corruption and class tensions and, above all, facing the prospect of a changing power balance between the dominant West Pakistani establishment and the Bengalis of East Pakistan.

The property dispute pits Shahbaz against his father's older sister, Mona Phuppi, a strong-willed woman with deep knowledge of Karachi and, unlike Shahbaz, certain of her place in it.

More than defeating his aunt, Shahbaz wants to reclaim a place in a Karachi aristocracy he was once entitled to. He soon accepts the help of an old friend of his father's, a retired brigadier who runs a popular cabaret and is a close associate of Zulfiqar Bhutto, slowly rising to political power.

Shahbaz's new prestige ensures him access to a world of cabaret dancers and general good living that he never had as an immigrant in Paris, and to powerbrokers who can deliver the family property to him.

But the costs of the brigadier's continued patronage and Shahbaz's fear of losing that patronage escalate the more time he spends in the city, particularly after he becomes acquainted with two members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious party willing to go to extremes to keep a young country intact.

When he is finally asked to betray his one true friend in Karachi, a charismatic Bengali taxi driver, Shahbaz faces something worse than not belonging to a nation: being complicit in its crimes.
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