July 02, 2015

Of Police and Politics: Omar Shahid Hamid's The Prisoner is written for the desi at heart

“You think I didn’t feel bad for that old man that day? Of course I did. We all have daughters, sisters and wives. But we stay quiet because we don’t want what happened to his daughter to happen to our loved ones.”

This book makes it clear from the get go that there is no good or bad in this world. Certainly not in Karachi, where the majority of this book is set. In terms of outlining the gray areas of a city’s moral code, Omar Shahid Hamid’s debut novel is in a class of its own. This book is not only an eye-opening, in-your-face account of what the police force is really like, it’s also honest, angry and vulnerable, if a book can be said to be all those things.

To be fair, the blurb is very misleading. Jon Friedland, the kidnapped American whose life everyone is trying to save, doesn’t actually even feature in the book at all until page 330. He is a ploy to get the grinds of the plot moving, to help our multiple characters interact and converse and show their darker sides. His sole importance lies in his nationality as an American and in the fact that he’s been kidnapped. Omar Shahid uses the random American character Jon to show us how all the movers and shakers in Karachi react to the situation: various men characters use the situation to manipulate, lie and destroy one another, revealing along the way the flawed political and social set up of a sprawling metropolitan like Karachi. This author knows this city, and he knows the police, and it shows.

“Whether it was the Inspector General who wanted to hush things up after his spoilt son shot someone at a party, the city police chief who wanted him to pick up the bill for his wife’s shopping excursions to Dubai or the industrialist who had been caught with an underage girl. All of these matters had been handled with discretion and, over the years, these services had made him indispensable to those in power.”


On the surface this seems like a thriller. American journalist Jon Friedland, kidnapped from one of Karachi’s more posh areas, is going to be dealt with a very public execution on Christmas Day unless the combined intelligence of Pakistan’s best and brightest can recover him alive. But the question is not only will they save the poor kidnapped American from the clutches of the evil menacing Jihadis and set the world back on track? The mystery does exist, of course. The book races through five days of harried conversations which revolve around bringing the American back, but saying that that is all the book is about is to say that terrorism is the only problem plaguing Pakistan. It may be a big part of the story, but it’s not what the story is about.

This book is about the law, and specifically those who enforce it. How they work, what they do, why they do what they do. When one cold morning, Constantine D’Souza, Superintendent of the Karachi Prisons, is called upon to allow an Army man to visit a prisoner, he finds himself dragged deeper and deeper into the mystery of the kidnapped journalist. The prisoner, Akbar Khan, is an ex-police officer thrown into prison for killing a prominent political personality. He seemingly now holds the information that everyone, including the police, the government and the agencies so desperately need to free the American journalist for their own personal reasons.

The book flits between the past and the present, introducing us to characters and then taking us back to when they first rose to prominence, or went into the shadows. As Constantine spends his present-day time being called here and there to answer questions by the increasingly agitated higher-ups, the past helps us trace his previous friendship with Akbar, their days on the force working together, and how events led to Akbar’s incarceration and Constantine’s position on the Prison team.

This book is written about Karachi for those who know the city. There is liberal, almost excessive use of swearing, a lot of haramkhor and saalay interspersed with the odd bastard and bloody thrown in for good measure. There are even Urdu words and phrases used generously during conversations, with the routine arre, thana, kya karoon and badmash right alongside the slang word for currencies (peti, khokha). This book is true to its roots, and has a degree of legitimacy in dealing with its characters. It peels at the layers of the Karachi involved in running a country, in maintaining law and order and exerting authority over a city of millions.

The characters:

The Main Character:

Constantine D’Souza is both content and frustrated, both calm and angry. Through the flashbacks in the book, we meet a man who is quietly disgusted with those around him, but also sometimes with himself, with his inability to do anything – such as when an old man comes begging for help from the police to save the life of his young daughter, who has been dragged into a local political station to be repeatedly raped by the party workers.

“So it was inconvenient to have the old man beg for his daughter’s life, was it? 
What about our job as police officers?”

Constantine is an odd mixture of naivety and street-wise toughness. I didn’t feel anything for him, even during the few moments when his life was in danger/he was about to lose a job/his daughter was threatened, but it’s impossible to not be fascinated by the way he manages to both honourable but at the same time hard, stout, robust. He is regularly praised by all other characters for being a decent, trustworthy fellow, and by all indications he is the hero of the story, but he also very casually and callously takes part in another man’s torture. So is he the hero then? Is this man to be admired?

His complexity also lies in his conservatism. While he himself admits that he’s the son of an Anglican priest and feels uncomfortable when exposed to billboards showing the bared skin of women, he has had an affair, has slept on and off with women and is intimately acquainted with Karachi’s red light area by virtue of being posted in the police station nearby. This, coupled with his Christian identity, makes him more 3-dimensional than all the other characters in the book. His role as a Christian, which helps him be the intermediary in situations of Sunni-Shia conflict, also put him in trouble in regions where being a Christian could be life-threatening. Casually being called George Bush ka chamcha are all part and parcel of being a Christian in Karachi, and Constantine, whose name is repeatedly bastardized to Consendine by the majority of the characters, is very aware of how his religious identity affects those around him.

 “This job enables me to survive in this city. It means no one will be rude to my wife and daughters, that my family will not have to pay extortion to the UF thugs or the police. It means I can get an electricity meter and phone line much quicker than an ordinary person.”

Constantine is realistic and understands his place in the world. He is neither aiming too high nor desperate to climb any ladders. In the case of the American journalist, Constantine does what he can when he can, all the while trying to protect Akbar, keep those in charge happy and save his own skin. And it is in his desire to walk a straight path that his personality gives us the strongest comparison between him and his closest friend, Akbar Khan.

The Second protagonist:

“You can’t live your life always scared of the fact that someone is going to take a shit on you from above.”

Akbar Khan is the book’s main attraction: a smart talking, no-holds-barred police officer who has been thrown in jail for something which he was set up for. It is Akbar that everyone comes racing to when they can’t find any trace of the American journalist, although Akbar lives in a A-class prison cell by himself, not talking to anyone else except for the tableeghis who routinely visit his cell for religious purposes.

(SPOILER ALERT: On a side note, while everyone goes around being awestruck at Akbar’s access to information that no one else knows, it takes them till page 148 to connect the dots about who might be supplying Akbar with information. And even then it’s only Constantine who grows suspicious of the tableeghis. Really? Come on! They might as well have held a placard saying ‘Look here, idiots! We’re Akbar’s only connection to the outside world. We are the source!”)

Akbar is another contradiction, a police officer who routinely hangs out with thugs, small time criminals and underworld gangsters while killing, arresting and torturing various hooligans throughout the course of the book. He picks and chooses the sins he doesn’t approve of, and is ruthless in hunting down the crimes he doesn’t endorse. All this, of course, with a sense of humour and a couldn’t-care-less attitude that seemingly disappears in jail, but comes back with time.

“Jail is the magic diet. Try it, and you’ll lose that belly of yours.”

If Constantine is the voice of this book, Akbar is the brains. It is his story we are really interested in, his meteoric rise to prominence, his fall from grace, his power even during incarceration. And as the book progresses, it is Akbar’s character that reveals more about the police and the underworld than Constantine’s own observations.

“He realized he had finally seen the chink in Akbar’s armour. It was that he had too much faith in the people he held dear. In an imperfect world, in a profession that taught one very early on to become an arch realist, Akbar, by some crazy quirk of fate, had remained an optimist.”

The other players in the game:


Let us not talk about the very originally named Don from this book. Let us instead replace the word Don by the name of the actual, real-life Pakistani politician Altaf Hussain, and instead of the words United Front use the name of the locally based political party MQM. Good? Is everyone in? Ok then.

“Things changed when the United Front MQM came onto the scene and brought a new brand of goodna politics. Their leader, the Don, Altaf Hussain, had started out as a student activist at the university. He created the system of the UF’s wards and ward bosses. The wards were crews of young men who were supposed to create a party structure at the very basic neighbourhood level. But in reality they created a parallel government where they had the power of taxation, dispute resolution, punishment, even life and death, over the citizens of the city.”

There we go. All you need to know about Karachi’s political system, so succinctly explained. The author has gone out of his way to talk about Altaf Hussain create a fictional character who will be a true representative of the gangster life. Is Altaf Hussain not living in UK though? No worries, that’s explained too.

“The Don’s word was absolute law in the city. The party he created had evolved into much more than a simple political movement. It had an international network that mixed crime and politics and... The Don himself sat at the apex of it, monitoring everything from his modest suburban New York London town house, holding the city in a vice grip.”

Omar Shahid Hamid is ruthless in his parallels and doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Anyone living in Karachi will be intimately familiar with the workings of the political set up of the United Front and its imaginatively named leader.

“The Don granted his blessings and favours like a medieval potentate, in return for absolute and unquestioning loyalty. Every command of his was obeyed, on pain of death.”

Anyone living in Karachi understands what a strike call is. A sudden, urgent announcement on television, a few loitering boys on the streets holding guns and containers full of gasoline, and the streets will empty in minutes. Shutters will drop, markets will shut down, vendors and shoppers will disappear in the wind. Panicked parents will call their children; people will rush home from their offices. It is a kind of brutal, perverse power play, the ability of one small group to wreck such havoc on the lives of the people of such a huge city.

 “It was far more impressive to be able to shut down a city of 16 million on the strength of a long-distance phone call.”

This book talks to everyone living in Karachi the way we talk to our best friends. It condemns and calls out and describes and explains our lives, and then in the end, it cautions. It anticipates. It hopes.

“The Don has caused so much pain to so many people in this city, you think their prayers don’t reach God?”

Nawaz Chandio:

Nawaz Chandio is another example of the same casual blurring of lines between fiction and reality. In most books there is this thing called an all persons fictitious disclaimer, which goes something like: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. I think someone forgot to tell Omar Shahid Hamid about this particular clause. But anyway.

Take Pakistan’s current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was in exile in Saudi Arabia from 1999 tilll 2007. Whose brother, Shahbaz Sharif, was the leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly in 1993 in the house when Manzoor Wattoo was the Chief Minister of Punjab.  Shahbaz Sharif, who then became the Chief Minister of Punjab himself in February 1997 after his election to the Punjab Assembly for the third time in the 1997 elections.

 “This Nawaz Chandio fellow, for instance. The brother of the opposition leader Yousuf Chandio. He’s been in exile for many years, but we know he’s been in contact with anti-state forces. His brother aspires to become the next CM, but he’s got some dubious friends in the underworld.”

I just can’t even. There’s a lot to be said for an analogy, and then for outright caricatures. In this case, the lines which separate what’s real and what’s fictional are wavy, hazy and lazily drawn. Nawaz sharif Chandio isn’t exactly a very respectable, upstanding pillar of society, and Omar Shahid Hamid takes such abject pleasure in pitilessly destroying Chandio’s character that it really brings a new meaning to the phrase ‘playing out the fantasies’.

The Agencies

Pakistan’s Agencies are a dramatic lot: regularly criticized and praised in equal measures. The ISI, FIA, CID and the other bewildering array of intelligence personnel involved in saving or controlling the millions of citizens living in Pakistan live in shadowy places. And given the high levels of superstition, ignorance and jingoism that are so prevalent in our society, there are more rumours than one can handle.

“The agencies are never under any party or government. They are above the government. They decide who gets to rule and who doesn’t.”

No one can argue with the fact that a lot of shit goes down in Pakistan every day: Bombs and kidnappings and bribery and discrimination and ethnic strife and you get the point. And with every other problem, someone or the other will point towards corruption in one agency or the other. And yet, the world goes on.

 “The opposition parties will rant and rave for a while about how the government is using the Agencies to intimidate its enemies, but then they will all shut up and change their tune when they realize that they are about to form the next government...As for the rest, well, the chattering classes in this country will always chatter, but never really do anything. Deep down, they are quite happy to keep us around because the alternative is quite unpalatable for them.”

The jihadis

“The truth is, Consendine, I’m scared. How do you intimidate someone who is willing to give his life up for God? How do you fight that? It’s like setting yourself up for failure.”

Ah, The jihadis. How does one begin talking about them? In this book they are the main antagonists, the people who have kidnapped the American and so set everything into motion. But in the real world, the jihadis occupy a larger, more ambiguous territory. For some they are the saviours, doing the Lord’s work, fighting the good fight. For others, they are the vile enemies, representative of all the horrible parts of Islam. And in the middle ground are those who try to condemn the bad and embrace the good, those who straddle a middle path between following the religion and living in this world. 

“These jihadis were different. They scared him. Their faith was frightening... A man with no hope was a man with no fear. You couldn’t reason with them.”

There really is nothing I can say about these jihadis that those with more informed arguments and more dependable data haven’t already said. Those who join them, those who condemn them, those who discuss them, they all need to embrace one fact that this book takes to heart: that these Jihadis are human, and so they are vulnerable and can be manipulated, just as equally as they can be destructive and vicious.

The recommendation

“The nature of power, and of those who wielded it, did not change, whether it was a village or a cosmopolitan city like Karachi. Those who wielded power always wanted things done their way.”

All the characters, the setting and the situation in this book attest to one thing: that corruption and virtue can exist side by side. This book is bitingly candid in its assessment of its own city, and doesn’t hide behind pretences.

Recommended for everyone who is a desi at heart, or who has lived in Pakistan at one time or another. It might break your heart, you might need to take breaks to ingest what you’re reading, but it’s like watching an accident in slow motion: you are repulsed, but you can’t look away.