Omar Shahid Hamid’s new novel The Spinner’s Tale is a racy page-turner, a rollicking ride – but with dark undertones. This is the story of Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi aka ‘Ausi’. Born into a middle-class Karachi household, he studies at a prestigious elite school, becomes strong friends with Sana Safdar and Adnan Shah ‘Eddy’, has a burning passion for cricket, is admitted to a medical college… and becomes a prisoner of circumstances that compel him to join ranks with the student wing of a political party. Thus starts the tumultuous life of one of the most callous, most feared militants of his time.
Hamid is soft-spoken, cultured, courteous – almost at variance with the traditional image of a Karachi cop. A former Karachi Grammar School student, he is the son of former KESC chairman, Malik Shahid Hamid who was assassinated in 1997. Hamid joined the police service and served in some of Karachi’s highest-risk areas for 12 years; he became more than acquainted with the underbelly of what is seen as one of the world’s most dangerous metropolises and decided to spill the beans.
Hamid is a brave man and has the rare gift of being able to portray the naked realities of life in his city. He shocked and entertained readers with his first crime thriller, The Prisoner, in which he deftly captured the larger-than-life figure of police officer Chaudhry Aslam. His second novel is also a crime thriller in which he has exquisitely fictionalized the lives of privileged children insulated from the grim realities of daily life in Pakistan, the psyche of police officials, the intricate workings of political party student wings and, above all, the transformation of a modern, educated and emancipated student into a hardened criminal.
Hamid does not deliver sermons from any sort of moral pedestal. He strips bare what it means to survive in a country as wracked by violence as Pakistan. The protagonist is a victim of his father’s ideals. Ausi’s father is an honest senior civil servant whose modest means do not allow his son to study abroad. As circumstances would have it, he joins a local medical college and ultimately falls prey to the vagaries of student politics.
Hamid skilfully employs different narrative techniques that allow the story to unravel swiftly and effectively. There are flashbacks, letters that help untangle the storyline, a narrative peppered with street slang, the parallel story of a love triangle, and events pegged to the wider kaleidoscope of Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the UK and the US. In spite of the masala and the novel’s popular recipe, The Spinner’s Tale has the distinct undertone of a serious sociopolitical drama. It is a love story, a crime thriller, part reminiscence, part fiction, a social drama and a well-documented depiction of the dangerous times in which we live… all pieced together neatly.
Yet it makes no pretentions to being a ‘serious’ work of literary fiction. Hamid’s language is simple, at times interlaced with an almost ‘desi babu’ tone. The letters that Ausi and Eddy exchange contain intimate details of their lives, even confessions, although it might seem unlikely for such a high-profile target to leave traces of his exploits in documented form.
“It’s not as simple as having lost your family in a drone attack. Some things trigger the dark reaches of the soul”
A strong, juicy storyline keeps the reader hooked and covers up any instances of roughness. “If you think of most of the great novels that have survived 100 years and are still being read, it’s down to them being terrific stories,” explains best-selling thriller writer Harlan Coben. Hamid sticks to this concept. Needless to say, his novels also remain relevant to the present-day phenomenon of educated, Westernized and seemingly ‘normal’ people turning to distorted and extremist versions of religion. There are numerous examples. The London School of Economics-educated Omar Saeed Sheikh was convicted of killing journalist Daniel Pearl; IBA graduate Saad Aziz is the suspected murderer of T2F owner Sabeen Mahmud. Likewise, Muhammad Siddique Khan and his accomplices, who unleashed terror in London in July 2005, remain objects of sociological and psychological study. And this is exactly what the author does. He inspects the external circumstances and psychological complexities that lead a normal person to become a ferocious killer. Yet, his dark subject matter does not strip the account of its multi-textured and lively narrative.
With the publication of his second novel, Hamid has established his status as the first Pakistani crime writer writing in English. He talks a little more to TFT about The Spinner’s Tale.
Love story, crime thriller, part reminiscence, part fiction – a depiction of the dangerous times in which we live
What inspired you to write this novel?
I was fascinated by the story of Omar Saeed Sheikh and it often struck me to ask what it would have taken for someone of his background to become what he became. How would the process have worked? To give you an example from Sheikh’s life: one moment, he was the scion of a well-to-do family, went to private school in England, even attended Aitchison College for a year, I am told, and then went on to the LSE. So what happened from there to the point where he joined a jihadi group in Kashmir? How does a person change so much as to be able to do such horrific things? It’s not as simple as having lost your family in a drone attack or even to have an ideological basis, as most people assume. Some things trigger the dark reaches of the soul. That was what I wanted to explore.
The Spinner’s Tale echoes the protagonist’s interest in cricket, yet it is also the story of a spinner of strategies and conspiracies. What was your idea behind the title?
I wanted the cricket connection to be evident in the title. Subsequently, once I had already chosen the title, it occurred to me that it was also a metaphor for the principal character.
Do you draw up an outline before writing a novel or does the story come naturally to you as you proceed?
I do draw up a rough story arc so that I have a direction to work in. However, it remains subject to change.
You have woven the yarn around a real person, Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man who murdered Daniel Pearl. Were you part of that investigation while serving in the Sindh Police?
I was still at the Police Academy when the Daniel Pearl case happened. I remember, on our study tour to Karachi, the inspector general at the time, Kamal Shah, gave us ASPs a briefing on the case. It was one of the first cases of jihadi terrorism in Pakistan and I think none of us had ever come across anything like it. Who knew that it was a sign of the times to come? So it has always fascinated me, even more so when, later in my career, I got the chance to work with many of the officers who had been directly involved in the case. Just listening to their recollections of how and why events unfolded was a learning experience in itself.
You have brilliantly fictionalized the late Chaudhry Aslam, superintendent police, as a major character in The Prisoner. You have also dedicated The Spinner’s Tale to him. What inspired you to do so?
Aslam was a dear friend and a colleague and I learned a lot from him. I strongly believe that he did a lot for the city of Karachi. He deserves to be immortalised.
An infatuation-love-and-deceit triangle runs through the novel. Isn’t this a much-used film technique – echoing Yash Chopra, as one of your characters aptly blurts?
I agree, it is a technique often used in films, but it is also a grand old literary tool. After all, why stop at Yash Chopra? Didn’t Macbeth draw on the same filmi formula? I don’t consider myself an orthodox writer; I draw inspiration from all sorts of mediums: movies, books, comics, real life… wherever you find good stories.
Do you intend to draw any material from your experiences in the UK, where you currently live, for future stories?
I have some ideas for future books and I will draw on my experiences, wherever they may be rooted, whether Pakistan or abroad. I think any writer draws on the environment in which they are living for inspiration. For instance, one of the things that fascinates me, living in the UK, is the contrast (and, in some cases, the parallel) between police work and investigations here compared to Pakistan. I think doing a book that would explore that sort of theme could be very interesting, especially in light of recent political events in Pakistan, and especially in Karachi
Are you working on any other novel?
I am more than halfway through another book, which I hope to finish before the end of the year. It’s a sort of a sequel to The Prisoner.
Irfan Javed can be reached at email@example.com