The author’s new offering is a moving portrait of a man and a city’s struggle to stay alive.
Abdullah was contemplating suicide when he was summoned to the Goan Association. The call came from his friend Felix Pinto, called the Last Trumpeter of Karachi. Abdullah, called Cossack, had just turned 70 and was alone. Years had passed after Abdullah helped Pinto escape to Australia, because the young man he had a bar brawl with became the PM of Pakistan. Pinto plays jazz for his friend’s birthday and entrusts Abdullah with the responsibility of caring for his nephew.
Pakistani writer HM Naqvi’s second novel, after the acclaimed Home Boy, is the story of a lonely old man suddenly discovering a reason to live. Where there is life, there is love. Abdullah soon meets Jugunu, a woman who is connected to a gangtser, and falls in love. Now with a boy to care for and a lover to love, Abdullah is a transformed man. But transformation has its limits when you are 70 with a collapsing body.
It has taken Naqvi a decade to write his second novel. Home Boy, which won the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2011, was about Pakistani-Americans in New York after the 9/11 terror attacks. This time, Naqvi sets the story in Karachi where he grew up. Currachee, as Naqvi calls the great port city, becomes host to an ocean of memories in his new novel. The past and present live side by side as Abdullah gathers the courage to light up the skies of Karachi with the flames of his will to survive.
The novel begins with Abdullah’s memories of the jazz age in Karachi. “When jazz came to the city (in 1953), it caused traffic jams.” But music was in the blood of the Goans, who trickled into cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi in the middle of the 19th century to escape the Portuguese. D’Souzas, Fernandeses, Rodriguses, Lobos and Nazareths formed the Karachi Goan Association. Below the floor of the building housing the association is a library and a wine shop. When a new PM imposed prohibition to appease fundamentalists, many Goans packed and left.
The secular city is recalled on another occasion when Abdullah, when asked if he was a Muslim, says: “This is Cyrrachee! This is my city! I could be Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Hindoo, Amil, Parsee. I could be Shia, Sunni, Ismaili, Bohra, Barelvi, Sufi, Chishty, Naqshbandy, Suhrawardy, Wajoodi, Malamati, Dehria, anything, everything.”
Naqvi’s aged hero once ran a successful hotel and lodge in Karachi, a job entrusted to him by his father. Before his father dies, Abdullah is made the trustee to a small fortune, the family estate. He clings to the decaying property as he counts on his and the city’s past as air to breathe. The wine-drinking Jugunu is “causing palpitations” in the vicinity of his heart. But Urdu and old Hindi songs keep rescuing him. “Maut zindagi ki hifazat karti hay,” (death safeguards life) sounds good even if it is a threat by his scheming brother. And in love, Abdullah sings the ghazal, “Aaj jaany ki zid na karo” (Don’t insist on leaving tonight), to Jugunu. Naqvi’s protagonist may be a representative of the rich, but this witty old man’s belief in humanity is real. The author’s new offering is a moving portrait of a man and a city’s struggle to stay alive.
It is a mirror that could reflect any other great city in the subcontinent.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer