July 14, 2016

Of Cricket and Con Men: Omar Shahid Hamid's The Spinner's Tale is exactly what a thriller should be like

I don’t think I’m scared of dying. After all, a man like me who has cheated death so many times has no excuse to fear it. It’s dying alone that frightens me.

The appeal of Omar Shahid Hamid’s writing, I’ve now realized, rests upon his knowledge of how the country of Pakistan works. That old, often controversial adage of writing what one knows is nowhere shown more clearly than in his novels, both his previous one as well as this one.

Involving police officers, jihadis and kidnappings, both these books use the same template for their plots, making the comparison inevitable, but it’s hard to say which book comes out as the better of the two. While I enjoyed The Prisoner to a certain degree, The Spinner’s Tale has made me realize why I didn’t completely fall in love with it. And that’s because Hamid’s books are pure thrillers without any proper artistry behind them. We’re not reading these books for their brilliant prose or their deft character handling, but rather because, in the words of the done-to-death review phrases, they are nitty-gritty and fast-paced. They’re smart, entertaining books which focus more on the mystery than on the writing, which are such a rarity amongst the heavy-handed purple prose writings of most Pakistani authors.

Of course, one could easily accuse Omar Shahid Hamid of choosing clichéd topics to write about. Religion, politics and corruption are the holy trinity for Pakistani authors, and all three maintain an almost constant presence in Hamid’s books.

“It’s funny. All these years when we were in college, Ausi was just kind of drifting...but turning to religion seemed to be a seminal point in his life. Since then, he’s discovered his focus, like he knows exactly where he wants to go and how to get there. It’s fascinating how faith changes your life.”

From the starting, this book makes it clear that religion is a major focusing point in this novel. The major protagonist, our chess player in this story, is Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi, a notorious Jihadi militant who has been accused of, among other things, beheading a pregnant American journalist and attempting to assassinate the Pakistani President twice. When Sheikh Ahmed is brought to a deserted outpost in the Nara desert in Sindh and left in the care of DSP Omar Abbasi, he begins a game of cat and mouse by convincing Abbasi to search for letters written by Sheikh Ahmed’s friend Eddy, letters which will apparently reveal the Sheikh’s history. His only demand? That Abbasi bring the letters back and give them to the Sheikh, so he can treasure the words of his best friend.

Arre baba, he’s one of the most wanted men in the world. I’ve heard the Americans are offering a bounty for him, but the government wants him on trial. 
Apparently, they consider him second or third in importance after Osama.”

The story makes it clear from the very beginning that Sheikh Ahmed is a cunning, ruthless killer whose beheading of the pregnant journalist was videotaped as proof, so DSP Omar Abbasi jumps on this chance to find out his history. After all, how is it possible that even during his days of being incarcerated, or hiding underground, the Sheikh managed to stay in touch with such an old childhood friend, one whose affections and loyalties didn’t waver even after videotaped evidence of the Sheikh’s crimes was aired on national television?

“You were in a new world and you needed a new friend. I remember thinking that you must have been the loneliest man on the planet. That is how I feel today. I need a friend and I wish you were here.”

This is thus the premise of our story, a chase for long lost letters, and interspersed with this chase are flashbacks to the Sheikh’s early days as a student nicknamed Ausi. Studying at an elite school, he spends his days discussing cricket with his best friend Eddy and lusting after the gorgeous Sana, who sees Ausi as nothing more than a very good friend. The cricket, the connecting point between these two young boys, is one of the smartest things Omar Shahid Hamid could have done, because in Pakistan cricket elicits almost the same level of passionate devotion as religion.

“You should follow cricket. It’s one of the things that defines us as Pakistanis. It gives us a sense of self-belief as a nation and brings us together.”

Any Pakistani will easily tell you how dutifully cricket is followed in this country. A cricket match can easily shut whole cities down, forcing people to skip important events and stay glued to their TV screens. This book uses that blind, unceasing loyalty to the game by incorporating it into the story, by letting it be the connection between Ausi and Eddy.

“When you explained to me in the greatest detail the variations that Maninder Singh was bowling in his left arm spin, I knew then that we were going to be friends for a very long time.”

Each letter that these boys exchange, as Eddy moves to study abroad and Ausi stays behind in Pakistan, have one or another reference to the latest cricket match, the scores, the players. And amongst these exchanges are confessions, expressions of loss and love, and a constant sense of wanting to stay connected.

“Is this guilt? After all I’ve done? A bit late now, don’t you think? Or is it fear? (Perhaps that is why I am writing to you now. When the shadow of one’s mortality falls upon you, 
you turn to what was most familiar in your life.)”

Which would have worked out great, except these letters are so obviously a narrative device meant to tell the reader a story that they fall completely flat. There is no hint of warmth in them, no proper sense of connection between the two boys. The letters ultimately come off as too pointedly structured, too obviously manipulated to inform the reader of the boys’ background. There is always, I have firmly believed, something in the words of an author that help you care about the characters, help you believe that they are real and warm and living, and in the case of this book, that something is completely missing.  Maybe if the letters had turned into a random, rambling recapping of memories instead of the awful, awkward tone they employ they could have been salvaged. As it is, their tone doesn’t fit into the reality of the narrative at all.

This awkwardness finds its way into the characterization as well. One of the things a number of Pakistani authors have tackled is explaining the background, the history of the home-grown terrorist. After all, what kind of past must one have in order to justify such atrocious killings, such wanton destruction? Surely a horrible, tortured one. And yet we have examples like Saad Aziz, a Karachi-born graduate of IBA, one of Pakistan’s most elite business institutes, who was one of the killers of Sabeen Mehmood, Pakistani human rights activist and social worker. Aziz’s whole schooling ran along the lines of privilege (O’level from Beaconhouse, A’levels from The Lycuem, BBA from IBA) and even his business prospects tended towards the wealthy (internship at a multinational, owning his own restaurant at Sindhi Muslim), and yet Aziz was found to be involved in multiple terrorist operations. This reality finds it version in this book too, with everyone expressing disbelief over the fact that the Sheikh studied at such an elite institute.

“I miss school. What a privileged life we led! If only I could return to a world where my only concern was how to get through my O levels.”

But even though the book uses an adaptation of that reality, it fails to properly connect the dots of Ausi’s transition from the smart, serious student to a rampaging psychopath. Sure, his entrance to university life is disappointing, what with his father not paying for his university education abroad or his rejection from the cricket team for his lack of connections. But his overall need for destruction is so sudden, so violent, that it doesn’t feel real. One of his friends dies and he goes on a total rampage at his university, beating up professors, settings fire to things. Surely there has to be some distance between a friendly, socially engaged university student and one who believes it is completely acceptable to raise your hands at an adult.

You are not weak, you are lost. I was too. Sometimes we have to wander in the wilderness before we find our true destiny. And the pain we suffer fashions us. It tempers us like a sword that is raked in hot coal.”

The book attempts to trace this story, of how Eddy and Ausi’s separate paths take them further away from each other even as they keep in touch, but it doesn’t do as good a job as one could expect. There are constant shifts in story telling from the past to the present, which start to become irritating after a while because it’s hard to keep track of what happened when. Only when we learn to accept the fact that something in Ausi is angry and looking for revenge, does the rest of the story begin to slot into place.

Ahmad Uzair Sheikh is a broken man, and he knows it. The problem is, no one else knows it.

And of course, it is at this point that religion creeps in. Angry, dissatisfied young men in Pakistan most often find the concept of jihad being forced down their throat, because what better weapons of destruction then those who believe the world has wronged them? This must be why madressahs all over the country find it so easy to recruit followers and eager enthusiasts ready to kill themselves through suicide bombs, because no other explanation seems to make sense to me.

 “You are a Muslim. You have a duty to wage jihad to protect the weak and oppressed. On top of that, you are a Kashimiri. You have a double duty to wage jihad against those who have occupied your country.”

Add to that the Kashmir issue and this book really racks it up a notch. Ausi, or as he is slowly starting to become, Sheikh Uzair, has Kashmiri roots, and that is where he runs to when he gets in trouble. And that is where his training properly starts.

He has discovered that ninety per cent of this war is fought for propaganda. The lalas try and convince people that Pakistani terrorists are invading the peaceful land of Kashmir to stir up trouble. On the other hand, his people stick to the version that it is the unending cruelty of the Indians that has led to this uprising. There are lies on both sides.

A book about terrorism is incomplete without some mention of violence, but Omar Shahid Hamid takes this a step further by placing us inside the mind of the terrorist as Sheikh Uzair justifies his actions. Even as Omar Abassi, our DSP at the beginning, races across the city trying to put together the strands of Ausi’s life, contacting his family and friends, we spend our time instead various other character’s minds, seeing how they think, and it is within Sheikh Uzair’s mind that the book produces its most chilling phrases.

“Sometimes I think random violence is the best way to grab people’s attention. You have to shock people, deliver a 2000 watt jolt to their system. That is how you change the world.”

Again and again the story shows us how Ausi’s mindset is shifting, how the people he surrounds himself with affect him personally, how he plots and plans to hurt those who have hurt him.

“If you cannot find humour in the business of killing, then what can you find it in?”

Even though one could consider Omar Abbasi the main proponent which forces our plot forward, it is the questions that the reader needs answer to. Can we trust Sheikh Uzair about the contents of the letter not being a secret code? Where is this mysterious Eddy? Who is this man who trusts such a well-known and villainous terrorist? And what keeps these two men connected to each other across time and space, with changing lives and priorities, and differing views on so many things? It is in the attempt to answer these that the plot moves forward, delivering one of the most surprise endings in a Pakistani fiction book I’ve read recently. If only for that ending, I’d say this story was worth it.

Eddy doesn’t understand why one group of people wants to kill another group of people over things that happened 1500 years ago. But Ausi understands that this is a basic instinct, and people need symbols to justify doing the things they could never do otherwise.

Recommendation

To change the world, you must violate it first.

This book gets a lot of things right: the pace, the action, the building up of the mystery, but it also gets a number of things very wrong, especially its treatment of the female characters (including failing the Bechedel test and Sexy Lamp Test so spectacularly it becomes almost a joke. Is Omar Shahid Hamid incapable of writing female characters who are more than props to allow the men in the story to fight, grieve or show their manliness?) Overall, if you can convince yourself to forgive these failings, then I suggest you read this story, if only because such an honest account of the Pakistani police system, terrorist set up and overall mania in the country is generally a hard note to get so right.