February 12, 2016

Of Pakistani families and Stereotypes: Haroon K. Ullah's The Bargain from the Bazaar is boring


A few months back, I bestowed on H.M. Naqvi’s 2009 novel Home Boy the honour of being the most patronizing book I had ever read. In retrospect, I can see I might have been too hasty in my judgment, because Home Boy has now been delegated to the second position. In its place stands  The Bargain From the Bazaar by Haroon K. Ullah, a book filled with such ridiculously high levels of bad storytelling, superior condescension and lack of character building that it seems to take bad writing to new, as yet unsurpassed, lengths.

This is a sad thing on its own, because the subject matter is interesting in a slightly outdated way. Pakistani politics, religion, terrorism: all of these have been done to death, but it is in the newer, more creative ways of discussing the same thing over and over again that literature can bring us the greatest joy. Sadly enough, this book, pitched as creative non-fiction, is as far away from being creative as it is possible to be.

“How much longer can we last like this? Every time there’s a bombing, they go around and arrest a lot of people. Some are released; some we never hear from again. But does it stop these suicide attacks?”

The Summary

Awais would listen respectfully to his elders but early on developed the habit of forming his own opinions, taking his own counsel. In that sense, he was very much his father’s son.

Awais Reza is the hero of our tale, a man who zooms through a whole childhood, all his teenage years and a slap-dash marriage within the first nine pages. And that is because it is not Awais that we are really interested in. For the author, it is Awais’s three sons that provide the playing field for all the ideas that the author wishes to stuff inside this book. Salman, the oldest, goes through a pseudo-rebellious phase as a druggie before reforming himself so easily it’s as if never happened. Kamran, the golden child, can do no wrong with his scholarships and his smart girlfriend. Daniyal, the extremist, has no concerns other than his religion and his desire to destroy the ‘infidels’.

The case of Awais Reza was another example of the state going after the defenceless little guy so it could look as if it were hitting hard at Pakistan’s free-ranging militants without actually having to take on the bully boys who knew how to shoot back.

Daniyal’s excessively religious habits lead to suspicions cast on him, which leads to Awais getting arrested, which leads to the author gleefully expounding on and on about the injustice of society and how horrible everyone is, from the government to the politicians to the extremists.  And while that in itself could have been excused, what makes everything fall apart is how flimsy the handling is. Things move slower than normal, characters are two-dimensional caricatures, the dialogue is flat and unemotional, and even in a summary I can’t make it sound interesting. It just all falls apart.

The Bad

With faith, discipline and selfless devotion to duty, there is nothing worthwhile that you cannot achieve – Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Quaid-e-Azam

This book makes a mistake right at the beginning with its use of clichéd quotes. Each chapter starts with a passage from a famous speech, a Quranic ayat or lines of translated poetry; each and every person quoted is someone illustrious, someone well-known and most importantly, someone involved in politics and/or religion. In some cases, this could be brilliant: real-life figures and their sayings provided as a counterpoint to a fictional narrative could, maybe, if done well, provide an interesting parallel, a sort of real-life attachment to the story. In this novel, the quotes manage to come off not only as hackneyed and unoriginal, they also contribute nothing to the story except for a dry textbook feeling.

Which leads us to our next major problem: this novel might be masquerading as creative non-fiction, but in reality, it is nothing more than a boring history lesson wrapped into a weak attempt of a plot. And not just any history lesson, but the kind where the professor’s voice drones on and on during a hot afternoon as you stare out of the window, bored, feeling time drip by slowly.

It is uncertain exactly how and when the renowned Anarkali bazaar first came to be a popular trading and retail center. It is likely that distant settlers used the spot as a convenient marketplace, and the venue simply persisted and expanded over the years. There are clear historical references o the bazaar going back at least two centuries.

There are facts piled on facts about Pakistan’s past, about the subcontinent’s partition, about Anarkali bazaar in Lahore, about Pakistani youth and Pakistani politics and Pakistani terrorists. It is information that doesn’t help move the story forward, doesn’t help us connect with the characters, doesn’t do much of anything, actually. And while loads of other authors have talked about events such as partition, the difference between a writer and a history professor is that the writer must be able to make one feel something, even if it is described within two pages (case in point: Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Bride, which within one scene - that of migrants forced to pee on top of a moving train - manages to describe all the horrors of partition).

Even when the story gets back to the characters, it manages to remain dry and dull, fully following the Tell, don’t Show aspect of storytelling. We are told exactly what each character is like, what their likes and dislikes are, what traits they possess. This is reading from a distance, slogging through sentences that feel stilted and awkward.  

She was a sweet-natured and industrious student with a strong will to success, determined to make her parents proud and to help her family survive the harsh conditions of post-Partition Pakistan.

One can’t escape the commentary even when we are talking about the characters. For fear of the fact that the reader might try to, god forbid, make their own assumptions from the characters’ habits, this book tries to make sure that you know exactly what certain habits are meant to imply.

Salman Reza had always been the rebellious type. Drug use was not an uncommon rebellion: according to Pakistan’s own health minister, fully half of young people between ages thirteen and twenty-two used some type of drug about once a week.

There is also no complexity to the characters. We are literally introduced to the religious brother when he becomes religious. There is no background, no talk of growing up. He’s suddenly radicalized and we should just accept it at face value. What was he like as a boy? What led to his slow radicalization? For that, there are no answers.

Daniyal Reza, who came of age during this era, was typical of the young men who became deeply involved in Islam, encouraged by a group of extreme-minded religious students. It wasn’t long before he joined a madressah in Lahore headed by a fiery, proselytizing mullah.

Which is a shame because something this book could have done brilliantly was to discuss how three boys growing up in the same household with the same parents ended up so different. That would have been creative non-fiction worth reading. Instead, we get stock characters, type casted into the roles the book requires. None of them grow on their own: they don’t come alive on the pages, and so they die the slow, agonizing death of a lacklustre effort on the part of the author.

The three of them did not laugh very often or engage in the kind of joshing usually seen in a tight-knit group of young men. They were ultra holy men hell-bent on pleasing God in heaven; there was little time for pleasantries.

What makes these characters even worse is that they seem to be nothing more than mouth pieces, a way for the author to pit two arguments against each other. This dumbing down of a complicated situation involving politics, religion and morality to a basic ‘good versus bad’ mentality is the type of writing that does no one any favours, and instead feels like a cop out, a way of attempting to paint a grey world in stark shades of black and white to make the reader feel comfortable.

Daniyal said, “In religious texts it is written that we must live under Islamic law and no other. The guidance is very clear on this.”
“But what kind of Islamic law?” Kamran asked. “The Islamic law of truth and justice? Or the Islamic law of intolerance and cruelty?”

The flaw in this book and its argument rests on a very fundamental level: that of a lack of complexity. Extremists are excessively evil with no doubts or regrets; the educated people are smart and ‘modern’ and understand religion better than anyone. This is visible even in a closer study of the characters, which throws up one stereotype after another: the well-educated mother who sacrifices her job for her family, the university-age girl fighting her parents for her right to choose her marriage partner. All these attempts at pigeonholing make me worried about how these characters affect the reader, when there is so much bad to wade through to get to the good.  

Suddenly she was in tears. “How did we lose him?”
“It was nothing you and Abba did,” he assured her. “It’s really nobody’s fault. It’s just that some people develop extreme feelings about religion. Who can say why?”

The Good

“They won’t let anyone visit me. There’s a fellow in here for killing his cousin because she refused to have children. Stabbed her fifty times. He gets visitors every day.”

One must look carefully and closely to find the good in this cesspit of a novel, but of course careful perusal of any text will produce something of worth. It’s like that story about a literature class where the professor explains how a writer’s depiction of blue curtains is representative of the writer’s deep sadness. My point being, if you look hard enough, a positive spin can be given to everything, and my assessment of this novel is no exception.

“I do not disagree that a pious life is disagreeable, but extreme religious views are contrary to Allah’s wishes.”
“What is ‘extreme’ about obeying God?”
“God can be obeyed in many ways. Sometimes people go too far, beyond what Allah asks of us.”

Sometimes, for example, the book veers on track almost by accident and starts talking about what the blurb actually promised us. It takes us to the heart of the middle class family, and the basic division that divides a nation: the idea of religion, and how far to take its teachings. Most middle class families in Pakistan pursue Islam but to an extent, and most middle class family members will tell you that they are against violence, that they do not believe in the jihad of the terrorists and that they are horrified by the actions of a select few in the name of Islam.

For the weary people of Pakistan such as Awais and Shez Raza, it no longer mattered who took responsibility for the killings. Sudden death and destruction had become as common as the bribes paid to survive. The people were used to disaster.

This sort of representation of the citizen who is sick and tired of the constant turmoil in the country, who just wants to make a living and raise happy, content children, is the best part of the book. It slips in quietly in between the story, paying homage to the reality of living in Pakistan.

“Has anyone noticed? Unless there is some major incident, people don’t seem to take much notice anymore. As a society, we’re getting too comfortable coexisting with the extremists.”

This book also forces the reader to question the system, what with all its mention of corruption and injustice and the unfairness that prevails in dealing with criminals in this country. Because while the repetition of these topics can get irritating, it is also undeniably something that requires talking about. It is something that needs constant reiteration, until people are forced to sit up and notice.  

“It is not Islam we should blame. It is the way certain people of questionable goodness use religion as a weapon to gain control over the masses. It’s really an old, old story and is found in cultures throughout history. Religion itself scares people and can be a powerful tool of oppression and intimidation.”

Of course, it’s hard to decide whether all the parts that are good deserve to be considered good. For example, on the one hand this book provides a lot of history, which, you know, yay, information, knowledge! But here’s the crux: most of the history is about Pakistan: its emergence, its bazaars, its people. Every Pakistani child knows this already, which begs the question: just who is the audience supposed to be here?

“We’ll get through this horrible time. Besides, what the hell is the alternative?”

Recommendation

Awais was released, but he was a changed man, his soul having been damaged by the very government he’d risked his life to upload. There was a grotesque irony about the business.

This kind of subtle placement of phrases and words, the pointing out of the ‘grotesque irony’ assumes in the reader a lack of the ability to contextualize. Not only does this book pretend to speak from a place of superior intellect, it’s also moralistic and didactic in a wearying way and does a disservice to the reader in its assumption that the audience is dumb. Also, it’s like slogging through the longest history class ever. For all intents and purposes, this book fails in its purpose to entertain or engage. My suggestion? Skip it