I have started to widen my reading just to keep myself aware of what is else is out there. I looked at books coming out of our neighbours including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. I read ‘Shodh’ by Taslima, ‘The Match’ by Romesh Gunesekera and ‘Turtle Nest’ by Chandani Lokuge. Amidst all the clamour about Taslima and her being bundled about, it was surprising to see the criticism that came even from literary circles about her being an average writer. However, I found ‘Shodh’ to be a decent read. As for Gunasekera and Lokuge, I didn’t go very far with their novels. So it was with doubts that I picked up ‘Tunnel Vision’ by Shandana Minhas. My only other exposure to Pakistani literature was Saadat Hasan Manto , though I don’t know if he classifies as one. More about Manto later.
Now here is a book that is a clear winner. Everything about it is right. The cover has a face half covered by a shroud with a hazy picture of a busy thoroughfare. I like the play on the title – Tunnel Vision. It connotes the myopic view of the average South Asian, narrow and coloured. It also refers to the blinding light at the end of the tunnel that supposedly hits departed souls as they enter the afterworld. This is a super debut novel and certainly promises some great work coming to us from Minhas. She has an easy style of writing and engages the reader right through the novel. A refreshing sense of humor and brilliant sense of comic timing sets this book apart.
Ayesha, the central character meets with a near fatal accident and lies in a coma. Her soul hovers over her body and she is watching the drama of her family’s grief, their hidden angers, while hidden secrets are revealed. The style is ‘stream of consciousness’ as Ayesha reveals her past, her fears and the reason for her angst. She is an attractive middle class working woman in Karachi who is dealing with a multitude of problems – the disappearance of her father, the lack of love from her mother, her inability to sustain a relationship. A strong willed lady, her prickly exterior is actually her defence and her way of dealing with her lot. Her views about her mother are quite severe and is her response to her mother’s total severance of tenderness after the birth of her brother Adil. Jahan, the mother is also a very strong character with two sides to her, her apathy towards Ayesha and her infatuation with Adil. Throughout the novel Ayesha is fighting the inevitable, her slow but steady transition to a splitting image of her mother. She is also acidic, bitter and selfish. Beneath the dry humour and bitterness there is a sad young woman who just wants to live her life by her rules and her beliefs and is unwilling to conform.
As is expected the male characters are weak and almost inconsequential. Abba lives two lives and is hollow. Her love interests Omar and Saad are tied to their respective mother’s apron strings. Adil is self centred and cares more about self perservation and his new girlfriend even in the time of grief. The uncles are simpletons who are timid and intimidated by their wives and their sister.
Minhas scores with her humour and uses lines and phrases from various sources like the rear of rickshaws, trucks, buses and jingles as chapter titles. This gives it the sense of realism in a setting that is astral and nowhere near believable. Karachi is almost a character and has a huge role to play in the narrative. Karachi is like any metropolis in India, the same traffic jams, the same filthy government hospitals, the same pollution and corruption. There is so much in common between us and our neighbours, our middle class norms, our hatred for the political class, our views of forward thinking womenfolk. May be that was why I related to it more.
The narrative slips and so does the editing in a few places. But then those are minor flaws in an otherwise brilliant novel.