October 13, 2015

Of Bomb Blasts and Multiple Narratives: Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter here is Too Great intrigues


You see, my son, a city is all about how you look at it...We must learn to see it in many ways, so that when one of the ways of looking hurts us, we can take refuge in another way of looking. You must always love the city.

My best friend thought I’d hate this book, and I can see why. There’s almost no sense of proper time-keeping in the storyline, the jumps between character perspectives make no sense and Bilal Tanweer manages to leave almost every ending vague and unanswered.

That being said, I still loved it. It’s a short quick read, entertaining without being melodramatic, complex without being too heavy-handed, reflective without becoming too morose. And the saving grace is that even though it could easily have turned into a didactic sermon about death and morality (what another reviewer called ‘An Issue Book’), Bilal Tanweer is more interested in the characters than in the lesson being learned, which works well on a subtle level, mixing awareness with entertainment.

At its heart, the story is about Karachi, and just like Omar Shahid Hamid’s close relation to the city in The Prisoner, Bilal Tanweer understands Karachi well, and it shows.

The Summary

These stories ... were lost. Nobody was going to know that part of the city but as a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city.

The story follows multiple narrators, switching between characters as they experience a day in the city when a bomb goes off at a station right in the heart of Karachi. From the eyes of both young and old, we see how they are all living their own separate lives, and the story shifts perspectives between them, starting with a different person when the bomb hasn’t gone off, moving to another during the explosion, and finally ending up with another person watching the after-effects of the shock.

That's how we lose the city - that's how our knowledge of what the world is is taken away from us - when what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what there was and we are left strangers in a place we knew, in a place we ought to have known.

Binding them all together is the writer, an unnamed protagonist who grieves for the burning, chaotic city. He is there in the beginning, middle and end, bringing all the pasts and presents together. On the day of the blast, Comrade Sukhansaz, an old Communist poet, is on his way to meet his estranged son and wife when he’s harassed on a bus by a young group of men. Sadeq, a young man with an angry heart, is getting frustrated with his barely-legal job that involves snatching cars from people who have defaulted on their bank loans.  A young man takes a beautiful girl out on a date and freaks out when the explosion leaves bloodstains on his car, an ambulance driver sees hallucinations after the bomb and goes numb, a middle-aged man lies in his destroyed lounge after hearing the explosion, worried about his son and missing his estranged father. The story slowly and steadily ties these lives together through these various narratives, painting a three-dimensional picture of the lives of people who experience such blasts and have to learn to live with them.

The Characters

He said he cared very little for the world. But the truth was different. He was running away from things he loved ... In his crooked messy way he did love people, and in his way, he found that love reciprocated too. But he hated himself for being a criminal. 

There is something risky going on in this book, and I was worried it would ruin the whole pleasure of reading: Bilal Tanweer doesn’t bother with exposition, throwing the reader straight into the character’s thoughts headlong, sometimes even without bothering to give us a name. And because a name is usually the first introduction we have to a character, it rankles sometimes that we don’t even know who is talking. And while a number of famous authors have used unnamed protagonists to brilliant effect, (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison), what makes it more risky in this case is that multiple narrators are being used. It could have all crashed and burned, but once one learns to take it in stride, accepting what the author is confidently carrying on, it becomes a quirk. The characters manage to be nameless but three dimensional, which is a feat in its own, and this is something else to, if not admire, then at least respect.

Now, standing here, it is clear as day: more than anything else, you want to find words for what you feel and think and everything that is dark. And then this terrifying thought hits you: Yes, your father wrote poetry to find a language for his wounds. Yes, you in your own way have become your father.

The Writing

Ever seen a bullet-smashed windscreen? The hole at the centre throws a sharp clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals. That’s the metaphor for my world, this city: broken, beautiful, and born of tremendous violence.

It is the writing that impresses. The story’s voice is crisp and clear, its tone confident. The author uses words sparingly, and it works to excellent effect, successfully keeping the reader hooked long enough to turn the next page. In this book, Karachi is a character, alive and breathing, and it is in this personification that the story does its best work.

I realized that was the difference between my father’s stories and mine. He told stories to find ways into the world, to communicate with it. I wrote to avoid the world.

It is also in the subtle connections of the various characters’ lives that the story telling shines through. In most cases, there aren’t obvious, immediately apparent connections between all of them, but Bilal Tanweer slowly and carefully arranges the pieces so that they intersect, even if for a fleeting second. This sort of writing helps to add an extra level of gratification in the reading process.

...for the first time I am confronted with the fact that places and people are like things: both made of memories and meaningful to us in the same way: we construct ourselves in our conversation with them.

The Unanswered

Each day I came home brimming with the manic psychic energy of the city, with countless nameless voices in my head, and tried to write it all. But nothing I wrote was up to the task of capturing this ruinously mad city.

The most frustrating thing about the book are the loose threads. There are no attempts to tell us what happened after each character has been shifted aside to make place for another narrative. How does the young boy’s mother react when he reaches home with blood on the car? Does the middle-aged ever manage to reconcile with his son? Does the ambulance driver become better? And more importantly, who is behind the bomb?

But we don’t know. We never find out what happens. And I guess one could argue that that’s not what the story is supposed to be about. In its essence, it’s about that particular moment in time which Bilal Tanweer chooses to show us. We glimpse only a tiny portion of each life, and it is that glimpse that is the purpose of the story.

Insulation was the most important lesson you learned on Karachi’s roads: See as little as possible, hear even less, and touch absolutely nothing.

The Recommendation

The book has a few, immediately noticeable flaws: there are no female narrators, there are huge jumps in between the past and present, and characters appear and disappear randomly from the storytelling. But I didn’t dedicate a whole new heading to these defects because they don’t detract from the overall effect of the story. It is still well-written, there are still things worth discussing, and it remains a book that is worth your time. Recommended.

Living in this city, you developed a certain relationship with violence and news of violence: you expected it, dreaded it, and then when it happened, you worked hard to look away from it, because there was nothing you could do about it - not even grieve, because you knew that it would happen again and maybe in a way that was worse than before. Grieving is possible only when you know you have come to an end, when there is nothing more to follow.