“I’ve been thinking stuff. Things feel different. It’s not normal, the way we live our lives, you know? All the drugs and booze, the endless parties. We don’t do anything worthwhile.”
An important reason why this book can easily be skipped is because the author has chosen two of the most useless characters ever created to be her protagonists. Nida, a twenty-one year old college student desperate to escape her conservative family, starts a relationship with Omer (the son of a powerful political figure) on her summer vacation. Part of her new boyfriend’s gang of friends is Bugsy, an RJ who gets involved in political turmoil because of an old acquaintance. In theory, they could have been great as the proponents of this narrative, but in execution what we were left with is a pretentious and spoiled hero in Bugsy and a directionless heroine in Nida.
I guess the only redeeming quality Bugsy has is that he has at least some semblance of agency, in which Nida seems to be completely lacking. Not only does she exhibit a severe lack of motivation, she also suffers from a too-pure-for-this-world syndrome because nothing she does can convince our hero that she is, in fact, an abominably useless person. When forced to read the conversations trying to pass as banter between them, Bugsy would be swooning, and I would be rolling my eyes. There were horrible flashbacks to the time I read Twilight for the first time, with my rapidly increasing bafflement over what, exactly, Edward found attractive in Bella. In romantic love interests that I read, I don’t want to have to resist the chemistry, much less why it exists in the first place. And I’ve read too many excellent pairings to bother having any patience for couples whose attraction to each other is based on, well, god knows what.
I snatch a quick look at Nida. She looks hot. She’s holding an empty glass and her face is flushed, her eyes bright and glassy, her lips wet and red. Her black shirt is low-cut and tight, curved cleavage on full display. She gives me a huge hug, tripping a little over her heels.
I wouldn’t even have minded if Bugsy’s sole purpose was to get Nida in bed, because it wouldn’t be lying to the reader about his intentions. But to pretend that he’s so charmed by her, besotted, really, is then tantamount to so many levels of ridiculous. The book ticks all the wrong boxes in trying to explain why these two like each other: most particularly when Bugsy settles on the particular vomit-inducing statement ‘she’s not like other girls’.
“I appreciate that she doesn't pretend to be shocked or scandalized, something most desi girls feel obligated to do when they hear anything related to sex, balls, dick or pussy… She's nothing like the giggly annoying girls that are endemic to Omer's parties.”
This misogyny on our hero’s part seems to be embedded in the DNA of almost all our characters. As a personality trait in a few odd people here and there, it makes sense for a richly populated world to have sexist people to balance out our hero and heroine and their hopefully mature sensibilities. Unfortunately, in this book Nida and Bugsy are just as bad as the rest of the slut shaming population that they choose to hang out with.
In fact, not only are they misogynistic, most of the people in this novel also happen to be pointlessly mean. I understand characters being disdainful and haughty if they are, say, superior in intellect, or very famous, or at least better in some recognizable manner. But our protagonists have no talents, no spark of intelligence, nothing that makes them stand out from a bunch of other equally unremarkable characters. Which makes it mostly insufferable how they look down on everything and everyone.
In fact, pretty much the only thing the book seems to get right is the politics of the country. Even though the concept of fictional portraits of real-life political figures has already been tackled before by Omar Shahid Hamid and so reading about a caricature of Imran Khan (Mian Tariq in this title) doesn’t feel very exciting. Still, the reality of politics in Pakistan, that level of euphoria in a rally or helplessness in everyday trivial matters when faced with corruption and laziness, are very well-drawn.
Commentary like this, which focuses primarily on the society, on the culture of the big city and the rich folks, is pretty much the only part of this story that I loved. Unlike Hamid’s tale, which used the social observations as the back drop in which the plot could thrive, with Akbar’s writing it was the city itself that drew me in. I’ve mentioned it before, how Pakistani authors treat cities as characters, and it’s true for this novel as well. I love how Lahore was depicted, with so much personality: the staying up late, the food, the sense of alienation, the demographics, the politics, everything was so well done. For each useless character or scene, there is always a paragraph of smart observations that draw the reader in.
In fact, I could confidently admit that Nadia Akbar writes really well. There is clearly great command over language, a substantial vocabulary, and lots of confidence in the way she handles her narrative. Unfortunately, it was a narrative about characters I didn’t care about, or else I might have loved this book. I obviously have my issues with the random and completely inane italicization: I mean, someone explain to me why phrases like paindu and jaali are left unitalicized? What even is the editorial policy being followed here? As an editor who goes through hell working in a desi country producing books in English, this fight is a daily battle, so I go crazy trying to figure out what other publishers are doing, and frankly this book is a mess from all angles. Still, if you aren’t bothered by formatting, there’s great writing here. About idiotic characters, no doubt, but compliments where they are due should definitely be mentioned.
I know they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover for this title is gorgeous. So pretty. So many points to the illustrator Shehzil Malik (who also designed the brilliant cover for Amal Unbound), and for the publisher for deciding to go with this one. I still wouldn’t recommend you pick this up though. If you feel really inclined to read about things in the same vein, go check out Mohsin Hamid instead.