India and Pakistan may be two different countries now but have a lot in common…. And reading ‘City of Spies’ by Sorayya Khan made me sit back and smile. Yes, of course, like our friends in the neighbouring country, we too often think we are ruled by idiots, we too are constantly killing ourselves, we too have loudspeakers that no one loves, and we too sometimes believe that we have a constitution that is little more than ‘a document that was suspended, amended and abrogated so many times it had come to mean nothing’. Enough reasons for loving this tale written by a Pakistani author who now lives in New York.
If the title of this review gives the impression that Sorayya has gone and compared the socio-political matrix in the two countries, let me hurriedly point out that this is not the case. If the title of the book gives the impression that there are pages over-flowing with the sort of things that spies generally do, then no, the author has opted for a young schoolgirl living in Islamabad with her Dutch mother and Pakistani father in the late seventies, as the narrator. The book is not just the story of Aliya, this young schoolgirl, but is more like being allowed to get inside her mind and watching time as it unfolds. She goes to the American school in Islamabad, sees rowdy white boys being irreverent to anything that is not in sync with their own concepts, has one of her teachers tell her that she is ‘not one of them’, and when her school friend Lizzy Simon’s mother responds with an obvious American accent, she regrets ‘wearing a shalwar kameez and tried to burrow deeper…’ As a reader one hardly finds her responses invalid when she feels trapped ‘by the contradictions of my life – the brown and white, the Dutch and Pakistani, the English and Urdu, the belonging and not.’ At home she hears her father constantly rant about the country having ‘more chowkidars here than we know what to do with!’ he is one who ‘believed that that the general had conspired with the Americans in a grab for power… little men, unelected men, stand no chance without the hand of a greater power.’ The book intricately meanders through the tense politics of the times, the new tilt towards hardcore ‘Islamisation’ of the country, the volatile incidents in the Middle East, the burning of the American embassy in her city… and in the midst of all these impossible impressions she observes their house-help Sadiq with his ‘grief wearing him out, grinding him away, leaving a dust-like trail behind his shrinking body…’ Sadiq’s son Hanif gets killed in a road accident and she concludes that he ‘lost his mind… in the exact place and at the precise moment Anne Simon had run over Hanif.’
The book is as much about the ‘the malignant abuse of religion by the powerful’ as it is about Pakistan’s turbulent political history. All this is delicately woven through the matrix of the secrecy surrounding the death of Hanif. We discover Aliya stumbling upon facts that have been gnawing Sadiq’s mind and as she wonders if a few thousand Pakistani rupees really compensate the grief of losing one’s child. All this is juxtaposed between Pakistan’s political unpredictability which is lurching in the midst of ‘a democratically elected government one day, a military regime the next; the prime minister in the national assembly one day, on death row the next; a dapper prime minister in suit and tie one day, a Nazi-like uniformed general in charge the next… a quiet house one Friday afternoon, a mini-royit in it the next!’ The book is as much a story that crawls through the conscience of a schoolgirl like a spy as it is about a country where ‘the CD64s and CD62s were at war with each other, a Cold War, whatever that meant, and their playground seemed to be Islamabad.’ Every form of imagery that Sorayya has devised in this gripping tale is so much like what any of their neighbouring countries face that it is impossible not to draw parallels. This is why while reviewing the book I have so often been tempted to point out that they are as much ‘us’ as we are us.
The political and cultural allusions in the book are bold and expressed without wanting to dilute anything and there will be hardly any reader from this part of the continent who is not going to be left without nodding his or her head in affirmation. For instance, when Bhutto was hanged, the author concluded that despite their anger people there did not have the will to demonstrate forcefully to a General who assumed he was God despite knowing that ‘in person, the man is nothing like his finger-wagging television avatar.’ Even though the author lives in New York, her words through Aliya’s father who unhesitatingly uses the word elephant as a metaphor or an approximation to refer ‘to various foreigners and their interests interfering in the politics of the country.’ Aliya’s grandfather finds the azaans too loud and wonders if ‘our general doesn’t think we should be sleeping’ and wishes the general would ‘halt the muezzin’s amplified assault.’
The book faces the turbulence of grief and anger with God as effectively as it hops on to political commentary of the late seventies in Pakistan, for instance, when Uncle Imtiaz, a friend of her father, who hated the prime minister once and held him responsible for the 1971 war between East and West Pakistan explains that this was so ‘because he’d refused to do the right thing and concede defeat to the East Pakistani political party that had won’. It is important to point out here that the book takes us all over the broad and treacherous avenues of Islamabad and gives us a fleeting glimpse of Lahore, comments on how Aliya perceived the internal upheavals in Pakistan and her struggles with her own values, and does all this without an iota of unwarranted cynicism that may be hurtful to readers from other regions and countries. It is a story well told and powerful enough to stay on in a reader’s memory.
Book title: City of Spies
Author: Sorayya Khan
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
19 April 2022