‘The Scatter Here Is Too Great’: A little book of Karachi

New Delhi: Born and brought up in Karachi, the city fascinates Bilal Tanweer endlessly and in his debut novel he deals with its striking portrait and its people through a melange of stories told in a rich variety of distinctive voices that converge around a deadly bomb blast.

“The Scatter Here Is Too Great” is a story of Karachi – as vibrant and varied in its characters, passions, and idiosyncrasies as the city itself.

When he started with writing this novel, published by Random House, Tanweer had already written a few stories.

“I wanted to tie them seamlessly into one narrative but then I realised I was quite attached to their structures as standalone stories, and there were many clear connections between them: they were all about some aspect of life in Karachi, they were mostly journeys, and dealt with questions of violence,” the writer, who was selected as a Granta New Voice in 2011, says.

“So then I went about trying to find a way to compose them in a manner that justified what I wanted to say,” the Lahore-based Tanweer told PTI.

Asked why he chose a Karachi backfor his book, he says, “The city fascinates me endlessly. And that I love and loathe it in equal measure.”

He uses multiple narrative voices in his novel, which he describes as “The Little Book of Karachi”, and also moves from first person to second person.

“Voice is key to my writing. It embodies the character of the narrator, his worldview – biases, prejudices, blind spots -, and his implied audience,” he says.

According to him, he needed to find the right voice in order to write.

“For this book, I wanted to write in a manner that could do justice to the range of experiences of people in Karachi. I also wanted to deal with the strange relationship that the people of this city have with violence big and small. For all of this, I needed different voices who could give their contrasting perspectives on one event and meaningfully expand our sense of one single event.”

Most of the voices in the book are of people Tanweer has known.

“Many incidents have happened in some way or the other with me in Karachi – or are stories related to me by friends and relatives about incidents that they have witnessed in some form or the other,” he says.

“Ever seen a bullet-smashed windscreen? The hole at the centre throws a sharp clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals.” This image forms the metaphor for Tanweer’s world.

One of stories is of Sukhansaz, an old communist poet who is harassed on a bus full of college students minutes before the blast. His son, a wealthy middle-aged businessman, yearns for his own estranged child.

Then there is a story of a young man, Sadeq, who has a dead-end job snatching cars from people who have defaulted on their bank loans, while his girlfriend spins tales for her young brother to conceal her own heartbreak.

An ambulance driver picking up the bodies after the blast has a shocking encounter with two strange-looking men whom nobody else seems to notice. And in the midst of it all, a solitary writer, tormented with grief for his dead father, struggles to find words.

Selected as a Granta New Voice in 2011, Tanweer has been a great admirer of books that use fragmentary, interconnected narratives to convey the sense of a larger whole.

“Take Aleksander Hemon’s book, ‘The Question of Bruno’, on Sarajevo during the war, for instance. I quite admire how he solves many problems posed by the content of the book using the form he does (e.g. psychological impact of war on normal
residents; the weirdly ambivalent relationship with history and politics that people in the ex-Soviet satellite states).

“Similarly, other books like Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ and Bruno Schulz’s ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ have been important to me because they shook the very idea of what fiction can do or supposed to do.”

Writing non-fiction is easier for Tanweer.

“One spends lots of time researching and writing happens relatively quickly after having read a bit. Fiction is also easy when one has figured out the narrative arc of the story and knows where one is going. But it is usually quite a while after writing in the dark that one reaches the point where one feels one knows what one is writing about,” he says.