It is a fact that the world of make-believe cannot compete with the bizarre realities of everyday life. Pakistani politics is a testament to this; reading the newspaper one often shakes one’s head because it often reads like a mix between thriller, tragedy and absurdity. So it follows that a novel about the forces attempting to shape and control Karachi must overlap truth with fiction to create what British journalist Owen Bennett-Jones calls, ‘A cracking good read.’
Reading The Party Worker one is simultaneously aware of Omar Shahid Hamid the counter-terrorism police officer, and Omar Shahid Hamid the writer. The former has intimate knowledge of Karachi and its political machinery inside out; the latter has the ability to tell a good story. The former knows the sordid details of Lyari’s football players kicking around a dead man’s head; the latter puts those details strategically in the book for maximum shock and horror. A wealth of history and information is infused in a narrative that is gripping, fast-paced and terribly exciting.
The structure of the book reminds one of Game of Thrones. Dividing the story into chapters named after characters, each conveying his own point of view, creates interesting results. The reader gets multiple perspectives and different angles to the truth. It also means that one finds oneself in a strange predicament — which villain does one hate or root for?
Will the real ‘party worker’ please stand up? Who is the chief protagonist of the novel? Is it Asad Haider, the assassin turned target who vows to bring down his boss, the Don, after an attempt on his life ends in failure? Is it Ismael, the nervous reporter turned political manoeuvrer who enacts one of the novel’s most unexpected plot twists? Is it Byram, the 80-year-old Parsi who wants to bring the United Front down because of what this party did to his son?
There is also a tremendous sense of fun in the way that Hamid names and describes his characters. Truth and fiction mix to produce interesting nicknames like Langra, Jheenga, Badal Boxer. The scenes involving the Don, ironically named Mohammad Ali Pitchkari (spewing out rhetoric and deceit and then other less metaphoric substances from his person), are most entertaining and very vivid.
The circumlocutions of truth and cyclical patterns of Pitchkari’s thought all culminate in the certainty of his own imagined victimhood. With great skill, Hamid captures the physical and moral corruption oozing out of the Don’s diabetic pores. The Party Worker is a dark book but is underpinned by a black humour that doesn’t, thankfully, cross into cynicism.
While Hamid is very successful in writing about men who live with constant angst and mixed motivations — women in his novel fail to emerge as convincing characters. Sadia Ali and Zaib – who have suffered as much as their male counterparts at the hands of the party – seem to be existing on the sidelines of the narrative. In particular, Zaib’s story – of a dynamic party worker who becomes a betrayed lover and finally ends up being a disenfranchised wife – deserves a chapter of her own.
Yet when we meet her she hardly gets the space she requires to let her story unfold. She, instead, is used as a mouthpiece to hurriedly relate her background in the party in a couple of paragraphs before bidding a final adieu to a male character. Sadia Ali, the second young woman in the novel, also fails to make a significant impression on the reader. Her interaction with one of the main male characters could have been poignant but fails to be so because the writer rushes through it to get on with the rest of the plot.
The narrative in The Party Worker moves at a high speed. Hamid certainly has a lot to relate while keeping in mind the demands of a plot that can’t afford to lose steam. Sometimes, however, this does happen and the smoothness of pace is compromised — the dialogue is occasionally interrupted to give lengthy backgrounds necessary for the foreign reader to understand references that Pakistani readers are very familiar with.
These fissures in fictionality of the text are annoying but not significantly so — the background that the writer provides is as interesting as the story in which it is contained.
What does, however, grate on the reader are the New York chapters — where the American policemen are shown as pizza-guzzling, donut-consuming clichés who fail to capture the reader’s interest. They, however, are redeemed to some extent by portraying how they stand against impossible odds to secure a minor victory for the sake of principle alone.
The Party Worker, ultimately, is a comprehensive account of the urban fabric of Karachi with its detailed descriptions of the social, geographical, criminal and political factors that underpin all activities in the metropolis. It is, like the Don, a cesspool of corruption where one villain will always supplant the other and only the wily and the crafty can survive. There is no good and evil here, only those who have an extra card up their sleeve. And the game continues, and Hamid gives us the privilege to read about it.
This was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is the author of 'How it Happened'.