By Farahnaz Zahidi
When I met Bilal Tanweer for the first time a few years ago, the soft-spoken writer left me a bit nervous. Now, as I read through his brilliant debut novel The scatter here is too great, I know it was his deep observation that intimidated me back then. He doesn’t miss a thing. Having gotten to know him better, Bilal no longer daunts me. His writing still does.
He takes time to open up in an interview. In that sense, the 30-year-old author is a bit like the city of lights itself. His debut novel is Karachi-centric. In the midst of multiple characters leading inter-connected lives, Bilal is the qissa-goh — the storyteller who tells stories that are usually mired in the debris of bomb blasts.
The scatter here is too great shows a love-hate relationship of the characters with Karachi. They accept Karachi with all its battle scars. For Bilal, this city is still home, even though he has been living in the bubble of academic campuses for many years. “I am from Karachi. This book is an outcome of my engagement with the city. It speaks to me, resonates with me. The characters, their languages — all are from Karachi.”
In his words, Karachi is a hard city which has violence and fear but there is a flip side to it. “Because of the large number of migrants, it affords a certain freedom, a certain anonymity. Karachi is a city of contrasts.”
The scenes where the characters travel by bus in Karachi, have clandestine meetings in a Suzuki FX, or go spend holidays with their naani, will speak to every Karachiite. “I am from a middle-class background. That’s the world I’ve known. So it is a conscious decision that I have worded it in this way.”
Launched recently, the book is being received very well. Some of the best publishers in the world have agreed to take on this Pakistani writer’s first literary effort. “My best hopes for this book have been met. I am deeply grateful. Anything more that comes my way would be a bonus,” Tanweer says with humility.
The book comes at a time when anything with the hashtag of Pakistan and terrorism quickly catapults to global attention, yet the book is clearly honest and is not aimed at a particular readership. One can clearly foresee that this novel has the potential to be adapted into a screenplay for a feature film.
“The first reader is the writer himself. As long as my writing is honest to my experience of the world, I am satisfied,” says Tanweer. Almost offended by the idea that someone who writes about the problems of Pakistan may be doing it for instant success, he remarks, “Fiction writers may use these events, but that just means this is a part of their experience, which comes into their work. I don’t think any of them is writing for an imaginary reader in NYC. I am certainly not.”
Bilal does not deny the autobiographical touches in the book. “One big reason I write is so that I can give away a part of myself.”Pouring a lot of one’s self into a work of literature is not easy. “It took me five years to write this novel. The nature of the craft of fiction writing is different from journalism,” shares the writer. Tanweer, who has tried his hand at the latter, and has used that experience to write soliloquies of ‘the writer’ who is one of the key characters in the book. “In journalism, the events are important. But in fiction writing, the writer uses the events to show how they affect the characters. It’s hard but I quite love it. “
Bilal, who is currently teaching fiction writing at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, agrees that this is, in some ways, a good time for Pakistani writers. Apart from international attention which helps get better publishers, there are other benefits. “There is so much up in the air. As writers, we resultantly have a lot more to play around with.”
The book’s treatment of violence and how it affects people’s lives is powerful.
“In times of crisis, we are faced with the possibility of death. That helps us filter the essential from the non-essential. Artists and writers are supposed to take on subjects like war, death and the fragility of the human body.”
While writing is everything to him, Bilal has no ambiguity that living is a far more complex thing than reflection and writing. “The really hard thing is living as a good person. Inside, most of us are petty and insecure. It is far harder to lead a decent life than to write a great book.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2013.
Photo: Aurangzeb Haneef
Book review: The Scatter Here Is Too Great – of guns and roses
By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: December 15, 2013
Available at Liberty Books for Rs795.
As I picked up Bilal Tanweer’s much-anticipated debut novel, each page left me searching for a breather. A break from the profundity. From the cluster of sentences that make one stop, breathe deeper, look away from the book, come back to the page and dog-ear it. Parts that one knows will come up as quotes when one searches for the author’s name on the internet.
But then isn’t that the nature of the city in which his stories are set? Karachi never gives one a break. In one word it is ‘intense’. The Scatter Here Is Too Great, similarly, is not light reading.
The novel reads like a collection of short stories, in which different characters have interconnected experiences — experiences that are born out of the city and an event that affects everyone: a bomb blast. One special treat of the book is that each story has a unique voice and the reader moves from a four-year-old to a romantic teenager to a grieving father to other characters and back.
One cannot help but imagine these stories like the scattered fragments of a car’s shattered windscreen, a metaphor for this city.
Nothing that Tanweer is telling us is new. From Cantt station to Lyari to Clifton Beach, everything is familiar but told in a way which exposes the city to the reader in a new and meaningful manner. One almost wants to take the mini-bus all over again and have chai at a café outside Cantt station. The descriptions are real.
The first chapter in the voice of a small boy captures you instantly, also because of the jarringly simple language, like “I also left school because we had become poor. Baba lost his job at the office where they printed children’s storybooks… The old uncle Baba worked for was shot while walking out of a bank. Two people on a motorcycle tried to snatch his money. When he refused, they shot him.” The writer has not relied on heavy language anywhere. The themes are complex but the language is colloquial, which gives it a human feel.
It tells you the difficulties of young romance which raises its invincible head even in the most difficult of backdrops like an ever-vigilant nani and a lower middle-class setting in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It displays a myriad of relationships. Particularly noteworthy is the difficult relationship of a father and son, when for the father, his ‘purpose’ becomes more important than his family.
Handling the subjects of violence and sectarianism intelligently, the author has not used the predictable method of using imagery that relies on the ethnic or sect-wise description of the characters. There is, thus, a subtle but strong message that the human experience is a shared one, especially in dark times, irrespective of where one’s family trees find roots.
In a time when violence in Pakistan gets global attention, it is a relief that the book does not seem to be targeted at a certain kind of readership. Tanweer is writing for himself and for Karachi. It is, thus, an honest book which makes the reader connect to it instantly.
The novel cannot be reduced to being labeled as just about Karachi. It tells stories that allow the reader to look beyond the headlines. Tanweer has managed to make us look at what we already know in a new way: “These stories, I realised, were lost. Nobody was going to know that part of the city but as a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city.” The Scatter Here Is Too Great is telling these untold and real stories. And we are listening.
Farahnaz Zahidi heads the Features desk at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 15th, 2013.