Altamaash the entertainer misstepped on to history s stage to become a politician and created a lifetime s worth of chaos and destruction in Pakistan.
Now exiled to a London mansion, abandoned even by sycophants, Al yearns to relive the glory days of his rise to power. But the old guard has passed, and the colonial hangover in his home country has almost disappeared. Democracy is taking root, and with it is coming a fragile stability to the Third World. In these times, Al’s desire for doing his best — what s worst for the rest of us — flows into two acts of massive evil: one double-murder that shakes his own complacent party back to full attention; and a countrywide riot — the biggest the world has ever witnessed.
All this Al orchestrates while perched luxuriously in exile in the UK. Woe to the day when he returns to claim the bloodstained crown. But cometh the hour, cometh the man!
Sheheryar B. Sheikh s new novel is a ripping rollercoaster ride through shenanigans of subcontinental politics that will keep you riveted.
Review: One of my earliest memories of Pakistani politics is watching the TV news report of a car bomb blast. Visuals of a car, blown up in a bomb attack, were being shown. Brother of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Murtaza Ali Bhutto, was the person in that car. He died, of course. Now it might be my brain playing tricks on me, because I’ve just finished reading a book about a fictional Pakistani politician who, in his own words, wants to make his country great, “by any means necessary.” Or it might be a cog in my understanding of Shaharyar B. Sheikh’s second novel, Call Me Al. That Al isn’t like Al Pacino, it’s just a shorthand for Altamaash, because hey, exiled in England, the man needs a cooler, hippier, trendier name.
Altamaash, or Al, is one of those Pakistanis whose family came to Pakistan from India, in the wake of the Partition in 1947. He himself wasn’t even born back then, but he sees the plight and the substandard treatment of his brethren, dubbed, among others, as “Mohajirs” by those whose families were always in the parts that became Pakistan. A large number of these Indian refugees settled down in the southern port city of Karachi, which is where Al belongs to as well. Now, the book doesn’t demand that you have the knowledge of subcontinental history in general, or Pakistani history in particular, because whatever is relevant to the plot is explained and imbibed properly by the author. But it does help make the real-life references stand out if you’re aware of what went down in the Land Of The Pure, as the name Pakistan translates to in English. So, Al is aware of the injustices taking place around him, and has the charisma and the acting chops and the cojones to use all of that to advance his own political ambitions, because all he sees around himself in the political class are leaches who are sucking the country dry, widening inequality and mismanaging every single thing. Why should others do what he ought to be doing? And, of course, the country needs a leader, and the people need a Messiah. Who else but Al to save the people from themselves?
In an indirect way, the book is a criticism of the common public, for leaving aside all initiatives for their collective benefit, forgetting that ideas like democracy go beyond loving your favourite leader with all your heart, and investing everything in Messianic figures, not accepting that such figures, by virtue of being humans, have to be flawed. The dangers of this servility and obsequiousness are strewn across the globe, and are depicted in a chilling episode in the book where a person’s nephew dies in the riots.
But more than the public or the system or the ways of the world, Call Me Al is the profile of your quintessential subcontinental politician. And in order to create this profile, the author takes the help of three POV characters. The funny thing is, even when the POV character isn’t Al himself, it is his eyes we see the world through, and his thoughts we read.
Starting the book was tough work. The plot seemed stuck in glue, and the three POVs mentioned above kept showing different viewpoints of largely the same events, except when they showed the inner monologues of these characters. It took me some time to plod through that, but once I did, and once the story moved past the double murder, the experience became much smoother and faster. The multiple POVs, which I was berating until then, actually started making sense, as a profile of Altamaash the Politician — through past, present and future — started taking shape. And kudos to the author for making these similar-different viewpoints engaging. Even when you’re concerned about what’s going to happen next, the monologues and the satire/sarcasm/jokes help you stay onboard.
Speaking of satire, the subtitle of the book is “The Hero’s Ha-Ha Journey.” It sets up that despite the blurb clearly stating that the actions Al undertakes are detrimental to the wider society and his country, Al thinks of himself as a hero. Even when he knows he’s being evil, and he’s wonderfully self-aware that way, he manages to justify his actions to himself. Why? Because ends justify the means, because the goal, the country’s wellness, is bigger than any one person’s sufferings. And sacrifices are important for plans of this magnitude. If Al can make people laugh along the way, even better. I found a lot of passages where I couldn’t suppress a giggle or a chuckle, and at times I also laughed out loud. At other times, the situation is so markedly grave that only satire makes sense.
The author uses fictional variants of the major political figures in Pakistan in the 1990s-2000s. There are other name changes too, and I particularly liked that there was a news channel named Dusk. Brought a smile to my face.
An odd thing about the plot is the way I kept thinking how the author will tie the double murder to the power games in the book. And when the connection was made finally, while it did make sense, it still had an ambiguity built into it. I won’t spoil things here, but to me it seemed that there were better ways for Al to shake his party from the slumber. No such complaints on the riots front. Exquisitely done, that section mirrors almost every riot you’ve ever seen or heard about, especially — you guessed it — in the subcontinent.
The language of the book is polished and literary, and the tone gradually builds. Once you align yourself to these, the rest of the experience is bump-free. Another feature is the parallels the book draws between its story and that of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, with the three sections alluding to Dante’s Inferno, Purgatory and Heaven. How the Nine Levels of Hell show up is a journey I’d leave for the reader.
Verdict: Despite a slow opening, Call Me Al arrests you with its sparkling prose and clinical profile of its protagonist. A recommended read.
Genre: Drama, Satire, Thriller.
Reviewed as part of the Blogchatter Book Review Program. Click here to know all about it.
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