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Tales of a Cossack from Karachi

  • HM Naqvi’s new novel is a bold literary experiment featuring a septuagenarian hero
  • ‘The Selected Works Of Abdullah The Cossack’ takes a nostalgic look at the Karachi of the past

Karachi today clings to the glories of its past as a commercial entrepôt. AFP
Karachi today clings to the glories of its past as a commercial entrepôt. AFP

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It is apt that H.M. Naqvi chooses a septuagenarian protagonist entering his twilight years to chronicle Karachi, a city whose present is a decaying bouquet of its past glories. And the stories of both the man and the city are twinned because of their contiguous histories.

The eponymous hero of The Selected Works Of Abdullah The Cossack is a self-styled phenomenologist and historian. The book opens on the morning of his 70th birthday. The Cossack is dressed in his mother’s jungle-print robe, with his dentures rattling in his pocket, stewing in a “downpour of self-pity” as well as an irrational hope for his remaining life. His current purpose is to write an epic on his favourite Sufi mystic and the patron saint of Karachi, Abdullah Shah Ghazi. This is a project of great ambition with a lofty title to match—“A Mythopoetic Legacy Of Abdullah Shah Ghazi”—one that the far less saintly Abdullah hopes will imbue his unexceptional life with meaning. Yet, the book that finally comes together is a quixotic adventure across the city’s colonial bastions, swish hotels and grimy underbelly.

Naqvi gifts his ageing hero with wry humour and gentle self-deprecation. Physical decline and impending mortality are facts but so is the present in which, despite being “sad, fat and old”, Abdullah is also alive in every sense of the word. He is a crumbling edifice troubled by haemorrhoids, dependent on insulin, weak-kneed, pulpy and pallid, but he is also the Cossack, a living legend, equally capable of a verbal duel and an exhilarating romance.

The book casts a languid and melancholic look at Karachi’s past and Abdullah’s salad days, meandering through the city’s glorious jazz age, its cosmopolitan vibe as a commercial entrepôt on the Arabian Sea. The present, on the other hand, is shaped through crumbling nostalgia, a strange and dizzying romance, family melodrama, birthday parties, funerals, property disputes and poetry. Action-packed showdowns are offset by anti-climactic interludes—in one scene, our hero goes from saving his lady love from the clutches of the fearsome don of Lyari to becoming a delirious patient felled by a dengue mosquito.

Naqvi’s strength lies in empathetic character portraits, whether of a callow teen or a salacious spinster well past her prime, as well as the context which makes them so. One of the ways he achieves this is through the wonderfully detailed marginalia that run across the book. These are little capsules of personal and anecdotal history, dissection of local myths, and clever asides on the life and times of the real and fictional characters that populated the Cossack’s world and Karachi over five decades. Naqvi pushes the boundaries of the novel by experimenting with the character of Abdullah, who also doubles up as a literary device. The writerly persona of the omniscient narrator and erudite scholar is undercut by the memory trails traversed by a rambling old man.

Naqvi adds yet another stylistic device using Bosco Braganza (or BB) as the editor of this work and the man who compiles the Cossack’s assorted writing and marginalia into “a cogent manuscript”. As Abdullah’s one-time companion on a series of strange and serendipitous adventures, he is a key character. From a “dark, gangly lad of twelve or thirteen wearing a parenthetical moustache” to a respectable ophthalmologist with a family of his own, Bosco’s coming-of-age story is the perfect foil to the Cossack’s impending mortality. BB’s voice also cuts through the grand narrative of the Cossack, offering a simple and poignant tribute to a man who once cared for a floundering teen. And it is through BB’s compilation of the Cossack’s writings that the story continues, both from the point of view of plot as well as style.

While Naqvi’s stylistic interventions are daring and unique, these occasionally become the albatross he is forced to carry. The literary devices and manipulations show through in patches, often at the cost of narrative flow. Occasionally, the bare bones that emerge after unscrambling the stylistic interventions tend to disappoint. One might feel that the Cossack struggles under the weight of his grandiose ambitions and his story lacks the heft it promises. Or this could be yet another masterful ploy by Naqvi and the perfect rhetorical foil for a world-weary narrator.

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