November 17, 2015

Of Comedy and Cons: Saba Imtiaz's Karachi, You're Killing Me! delights

 You can barely get Karachiites to raise an eyebrow at disaster any longer. I once went on a date with a guy who had been mugged a dozen times and was still nonchalant about having lost nearly a hundred thousand rupees worth of cell phones. A cat on a model’s shoulder on a runway still gets them though.

This book does not endear itself to me at all by quoting Bridget Jones’s Diary in the epigraph, because I hated Bridget Jones’s Diary. I did not manage to relate to Bridget and I hated the writing style, and yet there were scenes where I was really, genuinely amused. Pretty much the same thing happens with this novel.

The Connection

The obvious automatic bond with the 28-year-old protagonist Ayesha in Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing me might be because we share the same field. My background in mass communication and my circle of reporter friends means I was pretty much laughing throughout at the media-related drama. Ayesha’s arguments with her boss, her encounters with slimy men at rallies, and her constant exposure to criminals are all offset by a horrified yet amused tone that I’m very used to in real life.

My newspaper runs a wildly popular comment section filled with posts such as ‘why I hate my hairstylist’ or ‘I was discriminated against at a job interview because my family is wealthy’ and ‘I left my air-conditioned room to join the protest for your son’s murder case’. It has nothing to do with journalism, but now everyone assumes it’s what all of us do.

It becomes even more hilarious when you realize the author’s background, that she has in fact worked for an actual newspaper with an actual blog which is more well-known than the newspaper itself.  But while on the surface the book is presented as comedy, Saba Imtiaz gets pretty serious pretty fast, using her characters and situations to present Pakistani media in a nutshell.

‘Why is the newspaper so spineless,’ I scream. ‘How can you give up on a story that could—no, fuck it, I know for sure that it will—MAKE HEADLINES WORLDWIDE.’
Kamran shrugs. ‘This is a corporation. I’m running a business here. This is not a place where you live out your fantasy of doing some expose that the world will love. I have to put my interests first. How am I going to pay your salary if the government cracks down on us because of this story!?’

Because this is one of the few rare Pakistani books which use the media as a setting, it drops truth bombs left, right and centre. The author is not really concerned with keeping things nice and simple, instead adding in a few sentences here and there among the comedy to keep the reality of the situation in our faces at all times.

News channels are one-upping themselves in the race to show the grisliest visuals possible of the bomb blast. ‘And as you can see we were forty seconds ahead of our rivals in reporting the blast,’ one anchor crows.

What makes it both painful and funny is that most of it is so heartbreakingly true. In fact, pretty much all the depictions of media in this book are spot-on. Any conversation with a reporter worth their salt will convince you that Yes, this is actually How It Is. This stuff happens. And sometimes it’s funny but most of the times it’s disheartening, but when one can’t cry at it then one needs to laugh.

Get to the site after spending twenty minutes stuck in traffic begging the cab driver to find a shortcut out of the snarl. He asks me why I’m in such a rush, and when I tell him I’m a journalist, he tells me about his nephew who was shot in broad daylight when a thug from an anti-Pashtun political party heard the Pashto song that was his phone’s ringtone.

Probably the strongest point in this story, for a reader from Pakistan, will be how much one can relate to the setting. Saba Imtiaz, in this case, tackles everything. She understands, and shows through Ayesha’s regular exposure to violence, how Pakistanis can learn a sort of mind-numbing apathy at a very young age.

My inbox is full of copy that needed to be done an hour ago: Five tortured bodies found near the motorway, two people shot dead as they tried to escape muggers, nine people killed after a bus collided with a train.

The City

The novel doesn’t restrict itself to the media only, taking its time to take pot-shots at the social lifestyles of those living in Karachi.

None of our friends are on time, which is typical for Karachiites, who start contemplating getting dressed at the time the invitation is for.

This form of social commentary works to the benefit of the author, because any reader who has spent even one weekend attending events in Karachi will nod an affirmative to such a sentence. “Ah, yes, that is very true, I totally know what she means’ produces a connection to the narrative that helps keep us interested.

Anyway, tell us what’s happening these days in the city!
Things are so bad, na?’
‘Wasn’t there a bomb blast today? My squash buddy had to cancel our reservation because they’d cordoned off his route.’

What’s interesting though is that Saba Imtiaz seems to be writing for a very small minority of Karachi’s population. In a country where the majority of the population lives under the poverty line, this book caters to a very select section of the upper class; a sort of elitist, uber-rich clique of readers, even though one could argue that she is technically making fun of them here.

I have a drawer full of lacy lingerie that mocks me every morning. I am reminded of a line in 10 Things I Hate About You, one of my all-time favourite films.... ‘You don’t buy black underwear unless you want someone to see it.’

References such as these to American movies, Michael Jackson songs and Martin Scorcese films make the book relatable to a certain few but distance themselves from a larger majority of non-english-movie-watching population. Still, even with that particular pitch towards an exclusive, restricted batch of readers, there are some scenes that are relevant to everyone reading, and also out-and-out hilarious.

How did I not realize he was following me? He must have gotten lost among my list of followers whose bios are inevitably a variation of ‘looking for fraindship’ and ‘NO MoRe SiSteRz OnLy FrienDz No MoRe ThaN FrienD!!!!!!’

I genuinely starting laughing at this scene, because only a few minutes before reading this my sister and I had been going through the list of stranger’s friend requests we had both accumulated, and laughing at the inane preposterousness that dotted our inbox. Hearing a character talk about the inevitable sludge of crappy stranger mails every girl regularly receives helps me share a connection with her that keeps me invested in the story.

The utility company shuts down the power the minute it starts raining, hoping to avoid fatalities caused by electrocution, so now one just has to worry about things like falling down the stairs in the dark and breaking one’s neck instead.

This sort of relatability, this version of if-you-live-in-Karachi-you-probably-know-this tone that the author employs keeps me even more deeply involved in the story. Even though these sentences are short and spaced apart, they remain connected to the narrative while also steeping the book deep into the cultural presence of the city.

The Elitist

It’s probably relevant to note how throughout the novel the author balances two very different social realities. In this case, while our protagonist constantly dines out at expensive restaurants, always has money for beer and vodka, and flies out of the country at a moment’s notice, she also travels by rickshaw (an act most of the super rich consider positively vulgar in Karachi), has a gradually depleting wardrobe and is seemingly perpetually broke. One could write whole articles on the sort of contradiction between wealth and lifestyle displayed in this book.

I find a rickshaw that blessedly agrees to drop me to work for a hundred bucks. My phone beeps a few times but I’ve hidden it in a fold of my dupatta so muggers won’t be able to spot it when they make off with my handbag.

The Hilarious

At its heart, the book is really a comedy, and treats itself as such. Even though it talks about death and destruction and blood and gore, there is a thread of self-deprecating humour that knows how everything in the city is a mess but there’s a joke to be found anyway.

Kamran narrows his eyes and sighs. ‘Well, thank you. I’m glad I didn’t have to spell it out for you. You’ve always been smarter than the rest of the morons out there and that’s why I sent you.’
This counts as actual praise from Kamran. I could totally put ‘NOT A MORON’ on my resume.

It is only in a few places where the sass turns vindictive. Because Ayesha is, in essence, a snarky character, she is constantly belittling her life choices in one manner of another in what one could essentially call comedic but the momentary bouts of self loathing (very reminiscent of Bridget Jones’ internalized self-doubt) sometimes verge almost on bitter. In such moments, it’s hard to tell whether the disparaging tone is funny or simply off-putting.

Why does the world hate me?

The Romantic

I feel relieved, like I’ve been running a marathon and now that Saad’s here everything is okay. I don’t have to be anyone else—the perfectly witty and charming woman to Jamie, the perfectly capable reporter to Kamran—around him. I can just be myself.

The romance is so clichéd that it goes into the territory of chasing-at-an-airport triteness. He’s been her best friend since forever, but she’s never felt that way about him! He only feels comfortable around her, but they’re only friends!! His mother treats her like a daughter, but surely he doesn’t feel anything for her!?!?

Wake up from a nightmare in which Saad is interrogating Jamie regarding his relationship with me. What does this mean?

Uh, what do you think?

Saad smiles. ‘See, that’s a problem solved. Now what else is up?’
‘Jamie,’ I say, and sigh.
‘Oh right,’ Saad says, smiling a little too brightly. ‘How is that going?’

I mean, for God’s sake.

‘He wanted to know if you were okay, and actually asked me to come over and check on you. I know he’s your friend, but the guy’s such a sweetheart... That’s the kind of guy you should be with.’
‘What?’ The thought of Saad and me together is…
Hmm. I inject the same tone of outrage in my voice that I normally do when someone hints at this. ‘No, not Saad, OF COURSE NOT!’

I can’t. I just can’t.

The Flawed

Every person you talk to who has read this book will mention one thing for sure: the consumption of beer/vodka/gin/any-and-every-form-of-alcohol EVERY. TWO. SECONDS.

I take a long sip, and as the cold beer hits my stomach I realize I forgot to have lunch and dinner and I’m running on a stale packet of chili chips I found in my desk drawer.

I get it; Bridget Jones was always drunk, always getting up hangover, always with alcohol in her hand. In this book though, it borders on the ridiculous. No hangout/get-together/party in this book is complete until someone is standing behind a bar, pouring someone a drink.

Two very large whiskey drinks and a plate of prawn tempura later...

But fine, maybe that’s a thing that happens in the super elite, ultra rich circles of Pakistan? Maybe this could be forgiven, but the alcohol is just the beginning of the increasingly irritating aspects of the novel.

I feel terribly sad. I want that life. I want to be in those photos, not pressing the ‘like’ button on autopilot. I recall my last glorious vacation—three years ago, five days in Bangkok with my friend Sam, happily chugging beer in a jazz bar and laughing at the number of women on the streets with fake Louis Vuitton bags and some manner of animal print clothing.

Take into account, for example, how Ayesha goes around moaning and groaning about her ‘sad life’ and her ‘lack of social activity’. Oh boo hoo, how absolutely heart-wrenching pathetic. I get it, being in your twenties and wanting to hang out is a realistic desire, and which one of us hasn’t seen pictures of other people hiking through snow-covered mountains on their vacations and not felt jealous? But Ayesha’s complaining borders on grating, a constant stream of why-doesn't--everyone-give-me-what-I-want version of whining.

This culminates in what might be the most epic flaunting of privileged upbringing ever. Ayesha gets into trouble with the authorities, as any reporter interested in crime in Pakistan is bound to do eventually. Her solution to the problem of being put on house arrest? Literally fly out of the country.

That’s right. Ayesha, who complains daily about money problems, who has no social life and cries continuously about her future prospects, has a best friend rich enough to pay a ticket to get her out of the country at the slightest hint of trouble. Who then helps her shop for expensive, branded clothes, takes her out clubbing and basically treats her like a princess.

If one is looking for a realistic portrayal of media in the country, this book could maybe be a good bet. A realistic portrayal of a reporter in trouble? Not so much.

The Gender Discussions

‘Oooh! So? Do we like him? Like like him?’

Saba Imtiaz does female friendships well, providing Ayesha with a whip-smart, sarcastic and utterly supportive best friend in Zara, a reporter working for another channel. But then she ruins it all by turning Ayesha into a fake, snotty person who regularly hates on other females. The girl-on-girl hate, so easily found in this book, is boring and repetitive and not fun to read. 

..a girl swishes by in a pink and green sari, high heels and a cloud of Chanel No. 5 that ...makes me want to puke. Her hair is a perfect reflective sheet all the way down her back. Sidling up to Saad, she kisses him hello.

At this point, I was groaning: Was this going to be one of those books where the heroine is going to hate on her best friend’s/crush’s/ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend, who will inevitably be super gorgeous and completely put together and yet the said best friend/crush/ex-boyfriend will only have eyes for our heroine, no matter how bad she may look?

I am still in my crumpled t-shirt from the festival, the one that got rained on, as did my hair, sporting the remnants of a tube of bronze lipstick I discovered in my bag when I last groped about for a lighter.

Yes. Yes, it was.

‘So,’ I say, eyebrow arched. ‘Explain.’
Even to myself, I sound ridiculous. ‘Explain’? I’m not his grandmother. I should be happy he’s met someone, even if I don’t instantly warm to her glossy, airbrushed perfection.

What makes me mad is the misogyny here: this idea that any girl who is well-dressed and who knows how to use her make-up (red lipstick? Well-manicured nails? MUST BE a home wrecker) is automatically airheaded and destructive. This idea of equating feminine habits of using make-up with the ‘mean girl’ trope is old and over used and I was disappointed.

I spot Saad and Samya in a corner; he’s smiling at something she’s showing him on her phone.
Probably her five million selfies.

How last century is it to be hating on girls who take selfies? Haven’t we moved past this already? Saba Imtiaz could have done so much more with the smart, self-assured protagonist she had taken her time to build, and sometimes, thankfully, she does, but not enough.

I walk up to the police van on the site and hide behind it to light a cigarette. Ali’s cameraman has a penchant for filming footage of women smoking, and showing it to everyone in the office. Clearly women smoking passes for pornography these days.

These sort of comments on society’s expectations of women fit nicely into the frame of Ayesha doing a job which isn’t considered respectable by mainstream standards in Pakistan. But Saba Imtiaz takes this opportunity too rarely for it to make a difference.

‘You seem like a nice girl. Why do you smoke?’
Even though I’ve been smoking for years, the question always sends me into spasms of guilt. I think of my father, who disapproves of the fact that I smoke but is glad I’m not doing drugs instead. I want to tell the cop off for asking me this when every other man on the site is also smoking...


People tend to think living amid bombs and blood is inspiring. It isn’t. It just makes me feel exhausted with the sheer pressure of either trying to shrug it off like nothing happened or having to write about it—how many new ways can one come up with to write about blood and gore?

This book has some obvious, unfortunate flaws: An awkward beginning, completely random use of headlines which have no connection to the story, a distinct lack of artistic flair in the writing. But Pakistani writers have barely been producing the sort of slapstick, farcical humour that Saba Imtiaz so naturally adds to the story, so this goes on the Recommended list.