A small orbit
From the drawing rooms of Karachi to the depths of the human heart
Sarvat Hasin’s new book is a collection of linked stories, mostly set in Karachi, where the plot of her first novel, This Wide Night (2016), also unfolded. Like its predecessor, You Can’t Go Home Again also follows the lives of a handful of individuals, who form a close-knit group, united by their pedigree and social class. If the Malik sisters of This Wide Night were inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the cast of these stories draws on the sassy bunch of Mohsin Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke (2000). Except that Hasin’s characters aren’t as flamboyant or charismatic. That’s not a disadvantage though.
Those familiar with Hasin’s debut would know she isn’t a flashy writer. Understatement is her strength, coupled with a certain inward-looking style that peels away layers from her characters. In the stories, too, she employs a similar strategy, interlocking the fates of a set of school friends, while tracing the ups and downs of their lives over a decade. As the years roll by, their youthful affections deepen into love or lust, or dissipate into indifference and apathy. Their anxieties, however, never quite go away, trapped as they remain in the claustrophobic microcosm of their wealth and privilege. As one of them describes the dynamics of her marriage: “as if the elements of their life together have been shaken in a snow globe and left to settle".
The collection opens with the group preparing for a school play, where the boys and girls, who grow into men and women over the next few stories, are introduced. Shireen, who is vying for Karim’s attention without making it obvious, is sketched tenderly, outlined by her insecurities. When we meet her again later in the collection, the knowledge of her transformation, from an awkward teenager to a listless adult, hits us with a sharp sense of recognition. Hasin’s technique of moving between the past and the present, using telling flashbacks and nudges, keeps us curious about the destiny of her characters till the end.
Her women, elite and privileged, are conditioned by patriarchal beliefs endemic to their social class—some of which, such as the treatment of their kind, may be nuanced but are persistent nonetheless. They improvise ways of stepping out of their moulds, choosing drugs, promiscuity or even a career in showbiz as exit strategies.
The men, from their same “small orbit", as Hasin describes this circle, are less well-defined, except for two, Karim and Rehan, the latter being the most compelling presence in the collection. Even in the stories he is conspicuously absent from, it’s hard not to keep thinking of his brush with a near-death experience when he was kidnapped as a teenager and released a few days later. What happens to him in the interim is never quite clear to anyone, especially since Rehan refuses to talk about the experience, or claims to have no memory of it. There’s nothing left from that time except for a few scars around his neck and shoulders, and no way of ascertaining if these welts were caused by the bite of a creature or a weapon.
The weakest part of You Can’t Go Home Again is the title story, narrated in the second person, a device that even the pioneers of the short story use sparingly and with caution. In Hasin’s hand, it wavers between being clumsy and formulaic—and almost reads like a cop-out since the focus of the story is a man who is reckoning with a tragedy so intimate to him that he can never speak about it to anyone. We would have much rather heard it from his own mouth.
Hasin’s talent, as her first two books show, is considerable, but, hopefully, with her next work she will step out of the familiar, leave behind her comfort zone, and take us close to a different social milieu altogether.