City of Spies gives us more than a glimpse of life in Pakistan—past and present
City of Spies
PAKISTAN HAS an amazing group of writers who have incorporated political and social issues of the country into their literary worlds. From Mohsin Hamid to Kamila Shamsie to Hanif Mohammad, their books have given us more than a glimpse of life in Pakistan—past and present. To these, we may include Sorayya Khan’s sweet little book, City of Spies, about a not-so-sweet time in Pakistan, when General Zia had just taken over the reins of the country in a military coup. However, City of Spies is less a political novel and more a rites-of-passage tale, even though the background is deeply political.
The book starts in the summer of 1977 when the country is blisteringly hot. Aliya Shah, who has just turned 11 years old, is a precocious child from a privileged background, who has her eyes and ears turned to the political events unfolding around her. Her father, we are told, has worked for the United Nations in Europe, is ‘brown and Pakistani’ and her mother is ‘white and Dutch’, which makes Aliya (sadly for her) a ‘half-and-half’.
The family came to be in Pakistan post-1971, after the Bangladesh war, when then leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asked Aliya’s father to come work for the country. He couldn’t refuse, and so we find a reluctant Aliya and her siblings in Islamabad—‘a city of spies’, with the streets empty and quiet, as her father takes charge of the Water and Power Development Authority. Aliya and her elder siblings attend the American School of Islamabad, and thereby hangs a tale.
Through Aliya’s eyes, we see how America is embedding itself in Pakistan and its affairs. Aliya’s American school is allowed to be built some 40 km outside Islamabad for a growing band of American expatriates in the country. In return, a handful of Pakistanis are admitted to the school on full scholarships. That’s how Aliya ends up in the school, just like the children of other Pakistani top brass, including Bhutto’s son. And yet, for Aliya, school isn’t a happy experience always, even though she makes an American friend for life. Aliya is made acutely aware of her brownness and watches helplessly, as the American boys on the yellow school bus spit on pedestrians and cyclists from the bus. Later, an American will get off lightly in a hit-and-run case, sending Aliya’s world into a tailspin.
The most endearing part of the book, however, is the 11-year-old’s interactions with the family retainer, Sadiq, who also teaches her Urdu.
Despite the title, we aren’t privy to the ‘spies’ network of the city of Islamabad, though suspicious men in dark glasses seem to lurk everywhere—it’s more about spying, if one can call it that, in a household (and Aliya does most of it for us).
The Zia years aren’t really hard on Aliya and her family—her father, despite being a Bhutto appointee, keeps his job. However, as the conservatives take over, things start changing: the excessively loud prayer calls from the mosques in Lahore upset Aliya’s grandfather; her mother is asked to cover up at a party; and an American TV serial, Chips, is censored.
What is chilling is the realisation that the Islamabad that Aliya lived in has now become a far more dangerous place, a fact Khan points out in her postscript: “My home is a barrage of headlines. You see, my country is at war. My cities are burning. My capital is a police checkpoint… My road is a sandbag bunker. My hills, my beautiful Margalla Hills, are an airplane crash site…” The Islamabad of Aliya’s childhood—and the writer’s—is so remote that the only way to keep it alive is by writing about it.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer.