What Tanweer successfully expresses, is not the beauty of broken lives – but just the broken-ness of broken lives.
A great deal of thought has gone into the form of Bilal Tanweer’s debut book. I don’t say ‘novel’ because it is not intended to be a novel, in the sense of a continuous, cohorent, explicatory narrative. As the narrator’s voice in this collection of voices has it, ‘The world and its stories did not continue or cohere. We were all just broken parts and so were our stories. True stories are fragments. Anything longer is a lie, a fabrication.’ Yet it is not intended to be just a group of fragments either, for the same self-critical narrator also realizes, ‘we needed stories greater than fragments. We needed stories to imagine the mad world we lived in.’ Carefully and guardedly, he tries therefore to give us fragments that amount to something greater. But the very carefulness and guardedness of this attempt, is what compromises it.
The key event in Tanweer’s book, is a bomb blast at a bus station in Karachi. But the book has no interest in who caused the bomb blast, or why. Instead, it uses the blast chiefly for the purpose of providing structure to its vignettes. Everybody whose lives we hear about, a cast of characters that includes, among others, an ex-revolutionary communist poet, his businessman son, a young man out on a date, another young man whose job is to snatch cars from loan defaulters, a girl caught by her family kissing her boyfriend, is connected to the blast in some way- either by being on the scene themselves, or via a relationship with someone who was. ‘Ever seen a bullet-smashed windscreen?’, we are asked at the book’s opening, ‘The hole at the centre throws a sharp clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals. That’s the metaphor for my world, this city: broken, beautiful and born of tremendous violence.’ Tanweer intends to gather the scatter of these wrecked lives, to ‘read the crystal design on the broken screen.’ Particularly because, as he writes later, ‘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. That’s how we lose the city…’
Undoubtedly, there is an idea here, and perhaps it can be seen as a courageous one too. But there is a difference between true courage and bravado, a difference between staring down a violent reality and cocking a snook at it. To treat a bomb blast as a mere grouping device for looking at people in society is to miss something very important about that society, and indeed those people. Violence in society is not a mere circumstance, like a thunder-storm, but a revelatory, emotional human expression itself. A fiction writer who may be rightly concerned about ‘losing’ his city to piling journalistic accounts of bomb blasts that merely ‘name the streets and number the dead’ cannot therefore afford to scurry to the other extreme, and, so to speak, look through the blast and not at it. But that (it seems) is exactly what Tanweer wants to do.
That he does not fully succeed, is why his book does not fully fail. Thankfully for his book, Tanweer lapses into self-doubt and confusion, and shores up by instinct what he wants to damage by design. So for example, he cannot keep the connections between his characters limited to the ‘crystal design’ of shattering violence; there are independent relationships of friendship and family between them, that have nothing to do with the blast. Aesthetically, or realistically, this is certainly an error. That various people connected with a blast should also be connected socially is rather implausible. Nevertheless- it is these connections which make Tanweer’s people compelling, and pull together to give us something of the living atmosphere of Karachi. And what is this ‘something’? Perhaps the best part of it, the part that rings truest, is the lost and bewildered part. What Tanweer successfully expresses, is not (as he seeems to intend, and as he has been lauded for), the beauty of broken lives- but just the broken-ness of broken lives.
For example- the book features a minor obsession with the sea. Most of Tanweer’s people, young and old, are travelling to the sea. In the words of one of them, ‘The sea at eleven in the morning was one Karachi dream that came true each day. It was one part of the city that remained as it ever was.’ But does the sea really represent a ‘Karachi’ dream? We read further: ‘I paid him the fare and looked out at the sea in my window… I dreamed of being surrounded by it. I wanted to lose all land… I wanted to suspend myself in the vast blue… It was another way to look at the city. That was how I desired the city the second time.’
Now, to want to lose all the city’s land is not, I am afraid, a city dream. It is not a way of looking at the city at all, it is not a desire for the city at all. It is a plain desire for escape. And it is this unspoken and most un-triumphant desire that rings true for the reader- at least, for this reader, familiar with the crush and confusion of South Asian cities, which alienates especially the Western-educated mind.
Running away to look at the sea; retreating to childhood nostalgia; learning to walk on streets where “everything could hurt”, and the “most important lesson you learned” was to “see as little as possible, hear even less, and touch absolutely nothing’; facing down strange God-men with good-humoured bewilderment- Tanweer is good at spotting such survival tricks. Yet that is all they are : tricks. Reactionary maneuvres, compromises; certainly not the stuff that make a place beautiful or a people feel at home. The Scatter Here is too Great wants to blur this difference, it wants tricks of living, which we can look upon only with sympathy, to be hailed as ways of life, and a general attitude of guarded timidity, which we can certainly forgive as a weakness, to pass as audacious strength. Its saving grace is that it is not smug, falls down on its own terms, and thus stands as an edifying failure.