How do you make sense of a city? And not just any city, but a city that seems to have burst through the seams of comprehension, a city that roars, rumbles and rages, a city that foams at the mouth and spits out madness and blood, joy and horror, hope and grief. In his debut novel The Scatter Here Is Too Great, Bilal Tanweer understands that the dense, disordered intaglio of such a city cannot be embraced in a single frame of understanding and so he puts his fingers on the pulse of Karachi’s great, heaving heart and relays its chaotic palpitations frame by frame.
There is a bomb blast at Cantt Station and rippling out of it is this novel narrated in a myriad of voices: the brother of a shell-shocked ambulance driver, a child with protruding teeth, a car-snatching thug, a writer, a horny teenager, a middle aged entrepreneur writing a book to win his son back, a child who thrives on stories from his elder sister, a young cartoonist. All of these interconnected characters come on stage to give us their stories and the resonance of their multiple voices reveals a faint light of reason amidst unreason, excavates new forms of congruence amidst incongruity.
[quote] “It was the kind of love where it’s impossible to know what you want, and where every act of reaching out lacerates you more deeply, and expression is impossible because no matter how hard you try you’ll inevitably fall at odd angles to each other’s needs”[/quote]
The premise of a bomb blast and the exotic mess that is Karachi could easily make for tacky fiction which propels itself forward by feeding on the fantastic absurdity of the circumstances, but Tanweer’s fiction is much smarter than that: never losing sight of the depth and scope of the humanity of its characters. A character that has gone through life violently at odds with his father reflects in a final moment that what he had for his father was much worse than hate, “It was the kind of love where it’s impossible to know what you want, and where every act of reaching out lacerates you more deeply, and expression is impossible because no matter how hard you try you’ll inevitably fall at odd angles to each other’s needs.” The novel is as much about the many crooked ways of love, the shapes of loss, the curious tangles of relationships, about being human, in short, as it is about inhabiting Karachi, and being inhabited by it.
The city is the locus of love, longing, terror, dispossession and loss and every character of the novel relates to it through her own vocabulary. When negotiating with the city, a character who is a writer observes: “Insulation was the most important lesson you learned on Karachi’s roads: See as little as possible, hear even less, and touch absolutely nothing. Half the trick to surviving here was to learn to extricate yourself from all the invasive influences, so that strangers would stay away. ” Later, this character visits a slum and comes to an important understanding of his life there, but he notes about the place: “Officially speaking, I was nowhere. The place did not exist. A million people here didn’t actually exist on state record; hence this place had no official source of water or sewage lines.” But earlier in his childhood, his father tells him that “a city is all about how you look at it…We must learn to see it in many ways, so that when one of the ways of looking hurts us, we can take refuge in another way of looking. You must always love the city.” Another writer suggests the city as a site for escape, “There are too many lanes and alleys. You never run into yourself there.”
[quote]Tanweer has a remarkable ability to give his narrators – whether child or adult – strong, honest and convincing voices which falter only rarely[/quote]
What magic, then, is it that allows this novel to so effectively reimagine the city through the desires and fears of its people? Part of the answer lies, I believe, in Tanweer’s remarkable ability to give his narrators – whether child or adult – strong, honest and convincing voices which falter only rarely, and in creating vivid characters which take up residence in the imagination. So there is Comrade Sukhansaz, an outdated communist poet wearing a red Coca-Cola cap yet still devoted to his cause, Noor Begum who used to teach children to read the Quran but in old age starts haunting the airport, asking the security guards to send her to Mecca, a teenaged boy for whom the horror of a bomb blast he has just skirted with his girlfriend is shunted aside to address the more immediate need to ensure that he isn’t discovered having gone on a date.
[quote]He realizes that life is untranslatable into language and that the act of writing challenges his painstakingly strained and simplified ideas about life[/quote]
But why imagine and write about the city at all, and what relationship does this have with the reality of it? This question – in some ways a question of its own existence- is also one which the novel confronts through two of its characters. There is no language without deceit, said Calvino and indeed the relationship between words and reality is ever a tenuous one. When writing about a messy reality, the strain on language becomes even greater; “Meaning never matched the words and words always evaded the thought,” as a character of the novel notes. This character rigidly espouses the “two-dimensional simplicity of PacMan” (‘the clarity of where to go and what to avoid’) as his philosophy to life in reaction to the wounds he has suffered from his father, the poet and idealist Comrade Sukhansaz. He starts writing in an attempt to make sense of his life and prove his own philosophy to his estranged son, but finds out both that life is untranslatable into language and that the act of writing challenges his painstakingly strained and simplified ideas about life. But even so, a new order, a different ‘sense of life’ — a more enlarged and compassionate one emerges for him amidst the chaos. Another character rejects the element of ‘fabrication’ in his dead father’s stories and despairs at his abysmal failure at capturing with exactitude the “ruinously mad city” in writing and so he shuns the activity. To escape, he courts emptiness and tries to dissolve himself away into a regimented, inflexible routine. However, he soon comes to realize that writing need not be expected to mirror reality with pedantic precision and in fact stories – ‘fabrications’— have the power of reimagining, reorienting and reorganizing lives, cities, places and people: reality itself, in other words.
An ode to a city, an insight into being and making sense, an examination of writing itself: this is some of what Tanweer’s debut novel has to offer. As one of the characters realizes towards the end of the book, “We need stories to imagine the mad world we live in.” And this is why we read The Scatter Here Is Too Great.
A succinct and beautiful review that was as much a pleasure to read as hopefully the book will be.