HM Naqvi: Karachi on his Mind

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HM Naqvi captures the dilapidations of age and a city in his new novel

The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack | HM Naqvi | Fourth Estate | 270 pages | Rs 599

WHEN I READ Home Boy, a couple of years after it came out, I was dazzled by it— perhaps because I hadn’t yet arrived at the age of the protagonists, and the novel’s intricate canvas allowed me to imagine a life in New York City. HM Naqvi’s debut novel, published in 2009, followed the lives of three young men of Pakistani origin in New York in the period immediately before and after 9/11. It propelled him to considerable fame, won him the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and touched numerous readers, including me. In 2019, Naqvi remains surprised at the novel’s success. “I know many who have worked diligently on a novel or two,” he says, “but have never been published. I didn’t think mine would.” “One’s first successful stab at anything,” he notes, “is always exciting: constructing a birdhouse, driving a motorcycle— a Honda 70, incidentally—cooking palatable daal, keema.” He found it surprising that something he had written had resonance for others.

But the period after publishing Home Boy was an uncertain one for Naqvi. “I was actually somewhat lost,” he says, “I felt empty, as if I had said what I had to say and had nothing more in me.” He remembers that he read Runciman’s magisterial History of the Crusades, Akhil Sharma’s moving An Obedient Father, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland at that time. He “dabbled” in reportage: writing pieces on art, Karachi’s Bruce Wayne and a pilgrimage he made to Nani Mandir in Balochistan, one of the holiest Hindu sites in the world. And most revealingly in the context of the book that followed, he spent time wandering around Karachi on foot—“rediscovering forgotten cantons of my city”. Nine years later, Naqvi’s second novel, set in Karachi, The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack (Fourth Estate; 270 pages; Rs 599), has hit the shelves.

The novel tells two stories—that of a man in his seventies named Abdullah whose vitality is only mildly dented by the challenges of progressing old age, and that of Karachi. Sharing a large but crumbling ancestral house called The Lodge with his brother and the latter’s wife and children, Abdullah’s position in his house is precarious—he remains among the last holdouts in the family’s plan to sell the property. At one point, gathering tomatoes from the family garden, he remarks, ‘…as usual, I feel like a thief in my own house’. Naqvi was inspired on a walk in the city when he happened across a row of houses that dated back a century—ancient as far as Karachi is concerned. He says, “As I was asking the kids loitering on the street playing cricket who inhabited them, I perceived a silhouette in the window on the second floor. I wondered who he was.”

The shadowy spectre he refers to grew into the character Abdullah the Cossack whose largely solitary life reading and writing is tempered by time spent with his nephews when their disapproving mother isn’t around, and trips to the Goan Association to see his friend, a well- known and well-regarded jazz musician, Felix Pinto. But a chance meeting with a woman on the run called Jugnu and the entrusting of Feliz’s grandson, Bosco, to his care infuses his life with new meaning. Naqvi says, “I suppose when one ages—think Roth, Bellow, Updike, Márquez, Llosa—one ponders the geriatric predicament.” He points out that although his protagonist “suffers from diabetes, haemorrhoids, cataract, he is young at heart”. Abdullah, he says, “has the same anxieties as you or me: how does one live a meaningful life?”

He clarifies that Abdullah the Cossack isn’t simply inspired by similar figures who populate Karachi, but also drawn (perhaps) from himself. The book’s blurb describes Abdullah as a ‘larger-than-life but gloriously unaccomplished man…’. When asked what drew him to such a narrative, Naqvi draws parallels between Abdullah and the regrets of his own life. “Sometimes I think if I were a better man,” he says, “I would have taken the Civil Services exam and even if I would have built a bridge or tunnel somewhere in a remote corner of the north—let’s say Parachinar—or dug some wells in the South—say Nagarparkar— I would have done something for somebody, for many.” He continues, “Or better yet, I should have gone into medicine: as a doctor, I would have been able to reduce other’s pain. There are many doctors in my family who have worked in lower-income neighbourhoods. That is meaningful work.”

“I suppose when one ages—think Roth, Bellow, Updike, Marquez, Llosa—one ponders the geriatric predicament,” says HM Naqvi

When he was growing up he says there was a dearth of literature set in Karachi though it was the sixth largest city in the world. Off the top of his head, he can only recall coming across Adam Zameenzad’s The Thirteenth House, Zeeba Sadiq’s 38 Bahadurabad and an essay in Granta, “perhaps, by the great Sara Suleri”. But, in recent years, he’s found that Karachi has finally been reified in fiction with a spate of novels set there: Kamila Shamsie’s In the City by the Sea, Omar Shahid Hamid’s three novels, Karachi, You’re Killing Me! by Saba Imtiaz and Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great.

Abdullah’s academic interest in Karachi’s various histories result in essays on food, religion, geography and more that are interspersed with the chapters on his forays into the neighbourhoods and different social realities of Jugnu and Bosco. One of the pieces of Karachi history the novel illuminates is that of Goan migrants who moved across metropolitan South Asia because, as Naqvi puts it, “the Portuguese were bastards”. In colonial Karachi, the Goans achieved great success, he says, “they have shaped the history of this city”.

Does he still, as he is known to, write through the night? He says he now writes till about four in the morning before winding down with some reality TV or a talk show while sipping soup and feasting on cheese toast. He wakes up after midday or thereabouts and, after some light exercise, has breakfast around three. From four to half past six he works at a café before heading home for a 20-minute nap followed by work from home from eight to 11. After lunch at midnight, “something substantial— haleem, nihari—I hurtle into the darkness again”, he says.

I ask about a 2011 interview he did with the Iowa Writers’ Program where he said that since the publication of Home Boy, he hadn’t had to suffer destitution, but that as a writer, he anticipated the return of adverse circumstances at some point. He replies, “When I come across an old interview, I often wince— it’s like happening across an awkward teenage picture in a forgotten drawer.” He explains, “Since that particular interview, for instance, I have burnt through my cash—the advance for Home Boy allowed me to write Abdullah the Cossack but not save for retirement, a rainy day (God forbid, the treatment of some serious malady).” He says that he wished he had been wiser with money, that he had developed an instinct for investments, but it hasn’t happened yet. “Let me know if you have any ideas,” he adds.

On keeping his balance in the unreliable world of publishing, he says that over the years, he has learnt not to think about it much, as one has to manage one’s head and heart since there’s no getting around that it’s a tough industry, a tough business. He’s been writing since he was five and hopes to write till he is dead.