Twenty-Three Million Stories

Mar 2014

Issue 6 Book Review

Bilal Tanweer, The Scatter Here is Too Great (New Delhi: Random House, 2014)

Bilal Tanweer, The Scatter Here is Too Great (New Delhi: Random House, 2014) | Click through and get it today! Your click through will also help support Tanqeed.

Bilal Tanweer, The Scatter Here is Too Great (New Delhi: Random House, 2014) | Click through and get it today! Your click through will also help support Tanqeed.

The Scatter Here is Too Great disguises itself as a collection of short stories, it reads like glimpses through a railway carriage–or, to follow the novel’s leitmotif, a bus crawling its way through choking traffic. Vignettes emerge from disconnected points of view and are just as quickly snatched away, leaving the reader craving more from this light, deceptively simple novel.

The city itself is familiar to those of us who inhabit it. There are only so many places in the world that a Pakistani returns to when they think of the gagging fumes of diesel, the pulsating rhythm of fear and joy and frustration, the sudden calm of the open sea. Tanweer takes us hurtling headlong through the streets of Karachi–on a bus packed with beautiful and grotesque characters: Marxists, thieves and poets; a boy and his beloved on their first date in a tiny car jacked up to hit its top speed of 77 kilometers per hour; birdmen and magicians through the winding avenues of Bohri Bazaar. Staying true to life and death in the city the novel also features a bomb, but those who read this novel for a comment on terrorism and violence in Karachi will find themselves taken on several different tangents. Its variously enraged, elated, inebriated, infatuated and melancholic protagonists lead the reader through memories that open up more questions than they answer.

 

Like some of the best fiction written from a child’s point of view, the first story is in some ways the most violent: the helplessness, sadness and hunger of life in a big, brutal city is captured perfectly in this short, sparse confessional.

I have protruding teeth and because of this everyone at school called me parrot, parrot. One day I beat up this one boy who called me parrot, parrot even though I did not say anything to him. He had short brown hair. I caught him by his hair and then I beat him. But I did not know I said bad words to him and his father and his sister too. This happens when I am angry. One of the other boys later told me I used the sister-word to abuse that boy with brown hair, his father and his sister. He said that I said bhenchod to him. It is not a word I would say. Not to his father. But everyone says that I said this word. Everyone cannot lie.

One of the earliest reactions to this novel commented on how well it captured the voice of middle-class, Urdu speaking Karachi. The reader is immersed in the world of Tanweer’s characters with an immediacy and intimacy that takes hold from the very first line. Its debt to the Urdu novel is undeniable, and in his interview with Tanqeed,the author cites the influence of Urdu greats such as Noon Meem Rashid and Naiyer Masud. It may also remind readers of another exciting entry in this genre, Musharraf Ali Farooki’s Between Clay and Dust, which brings the English novel in Pakistan into contact with a vast and rich heritage of Urdu fiction and writing.

Halfway through the novel another story plunges us into the dense, smoke-filled world of a young carjacker–half entrepreneur, half hooligan–tracking his elusive quarry through perilous traffic. It takes on with aplomb a heritage of drug-induced gritty realist fiction inhabited by Hunter S. Thompson and more recently the works of Denis Johnson. Other stories echo a caustic, self-deprecating irony that could be Manto, and others are nods to the gorgeous and grotesque dreamscapes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his unmentionable South Asian counterpart.

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The novel marks a major departure from the treatment of the city at the hands of some of Pakistan’s most widely-read novelists in English, including Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie. It is tempting to cast Scatter as a representation of a non-elite view of Karachi, poles apart from a fluently English world of private schools and travels abroad. One could also go a step further and suggest this as the “authentic” Karachi novel, but to do so would be a disservice to its attempt to shatter the linear narrative, to resist a single voice. More pedantically, women are considerably under-represented in the stories. Nearly all the voices are male, and women are largely viewed through the lens of their lovers, brothers and sons. This is not to say the women we see aren’t flesh and blood characters, but in a form that privileges the narrative voice it is odd that the female voice simply isn’t heard. So, literally and metaphorically, this novel is not representative. And, if we take its philosophy to heart, nor should it be.

In conversation, Tanweer is a realist. As much as he enjoys thinking about form and style, he submits that the ultimate aim of fiction is to engage and to entertain. “My audience owes me nothing. I have to earn their attention.” His rich and diverse literary inheritance gives him an edge over most Pakistani English writers of his generation: a friend once described Tanweer’s own narrative voice as “perfectly bilingual.” Tanweer’s claims to have worked hard to “unlearn” his academic degree in writing, but the novel artfully reflects a curiosity about the written word in Urdu and in translation, with death as the ultimate full-stop, with a reverence for the macabre, the bizarre and the inexplicable.

Photo credit: Asadullah Tahir

Photo credit: Asadullah Tahir

Tanweer credits his introduction to literature to stories of hauntings and possessions in Urdu news digests: supernatural, apocalyptic visions faithfully reproduced as fact. “What I loved about them is that many of these stories had no closure.” In a world where we are plagued by slippery realities, Scatter is about a city and its twenty-three million stories each searching for a voice. Tanweer doesn’t write all of them, but when he does, he nails it.

TQ:What are people curious about when they read your book and they meet you in person?

BT:I think the questions that people are most curious about are usually about Karachi: why I chose to write about Karachi and what intrigued me to write about it. I think the reasons are personal. I think all great work comes through an engagement with a physical space, a sustained engagement with it. It’s an important part of my subconscious, and who I am is Karachi. And that’s what really forms the reason for why I chose to write about it.

There was a surprising lack of curiosity about the formal aspect of the book. Because it has an unusual structure people are, I think, either intimidated by it or unsure of how to react to it and they skirt around that question. And I think that the question of the form of the book is quite central to it.

TQ: Your book tends to be interpreted quite literally. What is it about giving people a glimpse of a world and then snatching it away?

BT: The moment that we’re living in, that stasis–that stable reality— is denied to us in our everyday experience of the city. It’s a constantly changing reality. The world that we inhabit today is not the world we’ll inhabit in two years and that has a significant impact on the narrative that you’re telling yourself. At the same time, there is a limitation as well. For whatever reason, our brains are hardwired to seek narratives. For instance if I tell you “I started using a comb and I became bald.” Now logically there doesn’t need to be a correlation between those two things. But because I’m telling this to you as a narrative, you establish a causal relationship. What this book is saying in some sense is that this world is too complex for a traditional causal narrative.

However this book also recognizes that the only way we understand things is by constructing narratives, and so there is a tension that exists between the fragment and the larger whole.

TQ: Tell us about your writing process.

BT: When there’s a deadline it’s very easy. I just do the thing I have to do to deliver and I do nothing else. Otherwise I do everything to avoid writing. I read things I’m not supposed to read, books that have nothing to do with my writing. And obviously they feel far more seductive than they usually do. Deadlines create this wonderful clarity. This book was done in fragments, so the structure of the book is reflective of the process. I was writing in fits and starts. I wrote this in long and short spurts of intense focus. The final story in particular took me very long to finish: I started writing it in the summer of 2008, revised it in 2009 and again for my thesis in 2010. And in the last six months before submitting the manuscript I revised it again. Because the onus on that story was incredible, it had to bring the entire book together, and also justify the form of the book.

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TQ: There was a list of writers whom you mentioned were influences on this novel in particular…

BT: The novel is in conversation with several writers, and I can go story by story. But certainly David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson… Naiyer Masud is there, all throughout. There is Intezar Hussain and Noon Meem Rashid. One of the stories has been written in the style of a column that used to appear in the weekly Urdu magazine Jang called “Naqabil-e-Faramosh” which means “The Unforgettable.” It’s written by people who want to recount supernatural incidents that had happened to them or somebody they knew. So, you know, somebody has experienced a jinn, somebody has a relative who had been possessed by a demon. And what I loved about them–I used to read these stories religiously and they would haunt me–is that many of these stories had no closure. And I think that now that you mention it this was my introduction to literature because a story without closure haunts you, and it’s always in your head.

Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator, and teaches creative writing. The Scatter Here is Too Great is his first book.

Erum Haider teaches Political Science at LUMS. She has previously written under the pseudonym, Bushra Zaidi.

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2 Responses to Twenty-Three Million Stories

  1. Issue 6: Mobs and Movements | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 10:33 AM

    […] Bilal Tanweer, author of the novel The Scatter Here Is Too Great who sat down with Erum Haider to discuss his debut novel. In this issue, we explore such tensions between the fragment and the whole: the […]

  2. TQ Chāt | # 5 | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 9:24 PM

    […] and the whole: the mobs, the movements and the great teeming multitude. We brought you reviews of The Scatter Here Is Too Great and The Corpse Washer, and essays on communal riots in India, labor organization in the Gulf, the […]

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