Title: The Scatter Here is Too Great
Author: Bilal Tanweer
I spent many a summer away from college with the works of Kamila Shamsie. It was the essence of Karachi portrayed through her literary techniques and characters that kept me rooted to the geography, politics, people and madness of a place that was gradually moving at a pace faster than my own. Thus, essentially, much of the literature centred in or around Karachi is measured by my own fondness for Salt and Saffron, In the City by the Sea, and, a personal favourite, Kartography.
But Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great may have challenged this bias. While I would not put him at par with Shamsie just yet – or perhaps it would be an unnecessary comparison, Tanweer’s debut novel (which I realised only upon completion has been influenced and reviewed by Shamsie herself – a writer whom Tanweer has affectionately acknowledged), and his depiction of the city’s chaos and disorder, is one of the finest pieces of literary fiction to emerge from Pakistan this year.
The book opens with a vivid description of a bullet piercing the windscreen of a car and the web it has created, with tiny crystals encircling the location where the metal has struck the glass. This image will stay with you throughout the two hundred pages that follow. The use of the bullet to symbolize the volatile environment of Karachi reminded me of what the scholar Jaideep Gupte, during his ethnographic research in Mumbai, was told by an interviewee: ‘After all, the [local] word for a bullet and a sweet candy [goli] is the same!’, similar to the usage of the word ‘supari’ that can mean both sweet betel-nut as well as the sum paid to a target killer. In a sense, the story of Karachi told by Tanweer could be the story of many megacities of the global South.
Parts of the book will remind you of other writers in South Asia, not just Shamsie. A central character’s struggle to comprehend his feelings for an interested female (‘It scared me that I could not touch her without damaging her’) may bring back memories of Velutha in Roy’s The God of Small Things (‘If he touched her, he couldn’t talk to her, if he loved her he couldn’t leave, if he spoke he couldn’t listen, if he fought he couldn’t win’).
Particularly interesting is the way Tanweer develops and connects his characters. In many ways, they are allegories of the city’s scatter. You see Karachi not only through their visions, but also their opinions and decisions. One character, while writing about his father’s shortcomings, wonders how ‘poets are hungry and curious creatures – but only about what’s inside them. And the only way they usually get there is by tearing themselves up at seams. They are always scattered inside. They only know how to tear themselves up.’
The complicated weaving together of stories told through various perspectives is complimented by the scatter of the sea, the scatter of the birds, traffic, and emotions. Tanweer is conscious of the fact that you cannot read or write about Karachi without its messy and incomplete edges, but the way he intertwines multiple stories and characters and their accidental connections with one another revolving around a blast at Cantt. Railway station, will make you value the ruckus.
And you don’t need to be familiar with the city’s rhythm to appreciate the novel. You just have to envision it and listen to it. Much of the dialogue between characters appears to have been translated directly from Urdu. In fact, if you are familiar with Urdu or Hindi, you might almost be able to hear the tone accompanying the exchange of words.
Tanweer’s writing style and the voices he plays with mature as the pages turn, yet the scatter keeps you hooked. It might exhaust you; it might leave you wanting more – just as the feeling one gets upon leaving Karachi after a visit of any length: it was sufficient, but not enough.