Book review: The Party Worker
Omar Shahid Hamid, from Karachi Police's counter-terrorism department, writes a nuanced, pacy thriller
When the author’s bio in a book is as eventful as that of Omar Shahid Hamid, you wonder whether the story he has written will ever match up. Hamid, who works at Karachi Police’s counter-terrorism department, just returned to active duty last year from the five-year sabbatical he took after the Pakistani Taliban attacked his office.
His third novel, The Party Worker, hits the ground running with a murder attempt gone horribly wrong in the heart of New York. The intended victim, Asad Haider, has betrayed the Party (always with a capital “P") for which he worked for 28 years. Why he did so and who tried to kill him are not mysteries—these questions are answered early on. Instead, Hamid’s gripping tale—about a group of people in Karachi and New York working to bring down Mohammed Ali Pichkari, aka the Don, leader of the United Front Party—shows us how politics and violence are inextricably linked in Pakistan’s largest city.
The Don, who began his political journey by speaking out against Islamic radicals, has been living in Brooklyn for more than a decade, ostensibly due to threats to his life. While he controls the Party from there, he also seems to have some devoted allies within the CIA, as the two American policemen investigating the botched shooting find out. These officers are remarkably professional, discounting within minutes of discussion the terrorism motive that would be uppermost on the minds of any investigator in the West. Apart from a stray reference to Fox News, no one else in this part of the US seems to subscribe to the notion of associating terrorism with a particular religion.
Hamid’s familiarity with Karachi is evident, and the chapters set in the city are a pleasure to read. From Ismail, an unscrupulous journalist looking to make a quick buck through blackmail and other nefarious means, to Baba Dacait, a notorious gangster who has emerged as the only opposition to the Party’s misrule, most of his characters are earthy and believable.
In this Karachi, one will find children kicking around a severed head on a football ground, but the blood and gore is leavened by some gallows humour (at one point, Baba Dacait half-seriously considers hiring suicide bombers in bulk to blow themselves up outside his rivals’ offices). The New York chapters suffer in comparison—with the dialogue sometimes sounding stilted—and the reader waits impatiently to get back to Karachi.
The book is not without its flaws, of course. In this story of men working against each other, the women characters have no agency or control over their own narrative, which is a pity in a book that otherwise offers nuanced characters. Also, we never get a real sense of what the Don thinks, even though the other characters are obsessed with him. How did a firebrand leader who had the courage to speak out against religious fundamentalists as a young politician turn into a corpulent, corrupt lump? A convincing answer would have provided another layer to this narrative of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Even so, Hamid’s book must be read by anyone who wants to understand the scale of the tragedy facing a society where corruption and lies can only be defeated by more of the same, turning the victors into the forces they vanquished.