Books by print journalists that take the experience of being a journalist as their subject tend to be blessed with double vision, an ability to take the quotidian details of a work day — bomb blasts, muggings, inane socialite evenings — and render them simultaneously ghastly and hilarious. This is the case with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938), and war correspondent Edward Behr’s memoir Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? (1978). It’s the case too with Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, one of those rare books that makes the reader laugh even as she waits for that bloody climax, the explosion in the bazaar she has come to expect from Pakistani novels. But Imtiaz avoids clichés. Indeed, she subverts them, even managing to inject laughter into a scene involving a confrontation with fundamentalists.
Her protagonist Ayesha covers everything from public meetings to fashion events for a Karachi newspaper, is underpaid, has a vile editor and hopes to find love despite her work life and the city’s incestuous social scene. It’s a world at once familiar and exotic to the Indian reader who — until the advent of social networking — rarely thought of Pakistani women as progressive, professional or plucky. Ayesha is all that and grimly funny too. Here she is on a show at the city’s fashion week:
“A horde of male models, all dressed in fatigues and combat gear, marches out. No, I swear. They are actually marching, like they’re in an army parade… The speakers blare an old Noor Jehan song. From 1965. From the WAR, for the love of all that is holy.
The next set of models have bulky jackets, blue backpacks that look exactly like the one sported by Ajmal Kasab in that CCTV shot and what looks like barbed wire wrapped around their legs. What is this supposed to be?
OHMY GOD, I AM WATCHING MODELS DRESSED AS SUICIDE BOMBERS.
This isn’t happening. This is worse than the cliches associated with fashion. It is actually — oh dear god, the suicide bomber models are now looking at me. Scary.”
Possessed of a delicious sense of irony, sensitive to snobbery and the many hierarchies we live with on the subcontinent, and a keen observer of Karachi, its sudden violence and the easy camaraderie of its streets too, Ayesha is a great character. The reader suspects she is a projection of the author, of Imtiaz — also a journalist from Karachi — and that some real folk have made their way into the book. “The guessing game has occupied a lot of friends and acquaintances since the first excerpt was published. I’ve found it rather amusing because some of the guesses have been so outlandish,” Imtiaz says in an email. “It’s hard to explain to people that none of the characters were drawn from any one single person, but I used mannerisms and quirks of people I’d not just met but also heard about.”
Some Pakistani reviewers, perhaps distracted by the mentions of partying, amounts of alcohol consumed, cigarettes smoked, and the epigraph from Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary have termed the book ‘chicklit’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“I think there’s a tendency to dismiss anything in fiction, television or film that’s a romance or comedy and features a female protagonist as chicklit or chick flick. It’s odd, offensive and annoying, but these labels have stuck,” says Imtiaz.
This reviewer thinks Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, which lists all those things young journalists should watch out for — plagiarist lovers, ways to avoid writing about the editor’s wife, and how to stay on the sweet side of fundamentalists — should be required reading in media courses. Imtiaz insists that’s absurd. “That’s very kind of you, though I feel most young journalists may abandon their plans of ever working in a newsroom after reading my book,” she says presumably only half in jest.
By turns a comedy of manners, an incisive look at the journalistic life, an examination of a city with a dangerous edge, and an attempt to stand chicklit on its head, Karachi, You’re Killing Me! is, quite simply, a very good read.