The Telegraph
Friday , May 16 , 2014
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The Scatter Here is too Great By Bilal Tanweer, Random House, Rs 350

The book under review has an unusual title — “The Scatter Here is too Great”. It is a debut novel by a young Pakistani novelist, Bilal Tanweer. It is about the city of Karachi, where incidentally the writer was born and brought up. The ‘scatter’ in the title deals with the bomb blast in the heart of the city and shows its effects on the different characters in the novel. The imagery permeates all aspects of the novel — the plot, technique, and the lives of the characters. It is interesting to note that this same image is woven into the narrative, which oscillates back and forth in time, and spins different stories of individuals around the pivotal point of the blast at Karachi’s Cantonment Station.

The picture of Karachi is one of chaos, like any other city of the subcontinent; dingy settlement, traffic snarls, poverty, squalor. Trying to find a sense out of the multiplicity of images, Tanweer tells the tale of small incidents in the lives of the characters. He links them all with the disastrous event that shook the city already bursting at the seams with its manifold problems. Innumerable events and stories in the novel may appear dull and insipid. But Tanweer’s approach imparts a meaning that can only be felt at the moment of their occurrence; for he has a tendency to quickly move on without tarrying further in the moment. It is here that the real talent of the novelist can be understood. When the bully of a school boy, who takes his fellow schoolmate to the seaside, cries after the cops take away his money but his meek friend does not, the reader understands the importance of good characterization. Or when the hardened Sadeq who recovers vehicles from defaulting customers, helps an old man, and feels a kind of sadness for him that is similar to what he felt when his girlfriend had left him, it harks back to the dark tragedies of the Jacobean age.

Similarly, in another instance when the ambulance driver breaks down at the sight of victims, it makes one wonder at the complex and unpredictable nature of human beings. But these are events that Tanweer builds up after carefully crafted scenes. They not only make the readers get into the skin of the characters, but also prepare them for the final denouement. It is in these ways that the writer makes the ordinary moments of life appear extraordinary. The events may seem to be run-of-the-mill, but are capable of creating moments that amaze the reader.

The novel is about characters that somehow have been caught in the melee of the aftermath of the blast. There are so many voices in the novel that sometimes one gets confused. It is just like the city itself, full of din, noise, confusion but not without a hint of unmistakable beauty. It is about a communist poet harassed on a bus by students but is courageous enough to fight them alone or a businessman who pines for his son. It is about a writer seeking solace after the death of his father and writing in order to eke out a living in a difficult city. It is about a young girl who tells stories to her younger brother in order to keep him indoors while she secretly meets her lover on the solitary staircase of her grandmother’s house. It is also about a youth who earns his living by taking away cars of defaulting customers unable to pay their bank loans. It is about strange men and occult practices. But there are other characters that complete the picture of Karachi; slum dwellers, magicians, imposters, bus drivers, cops, students, ordinary citizens of middle and lower middle classes, and most of all, a population that infuses life in an unpredictable and confused city.

It is difficult to ascertain the technique of the novel for it does not follow a pattern, but tend to move with the flow of the narrative. The novel begins with the first person narrative, but Tanweer changes the voice so frequently that it becomes difficult to differentiate one voice from the other. Similarly, the novel does not follow the conventional method of division of chapters.Tanweer experiments with the structure and divides the book according to the different changes in events or characterization in the plot. Thus the novel can be said to be divided into five parts almost like that of a play.

But the story is not only about the physical scatter that lies in the wake of any bomb blast. It is also about the emotional and psychological dispersal that takes place in the lives of individuals in society. Since time immemorial man has been trying to solve the psychological diversion but have been unsuccessful. It defies understanding or explanation. And that is what makes it tempting for writers. Tanweer too, could not resist delving into it in his maiden venture. The novel abounds in incidents where characters are not what they appear to be and the most hardened criminals are shown to have feelings.

The novel is about the innocence and truancy of adolescence, of dreams and dark desires, of writers and characters with different shades, of love and hatred and of human relationships that change with the passage of time. The novel is also about man’s confused impulses that he fails to reveal to the world but, in moments of snatched solitudes, reveals to his own self, in order to derive a sense out of the complexity of its meanings. It is surprising that a young writer, in his debut attempt, has tried to tread a realm that seasoned writers attempt only after an arduous fictional journey. His simple style underplays the expression of the characters’ emotions but they speak louder than words. Tanweer makes use of the art of ellipsis that few new writers in the world of fiction have been able to use with such finesse.

The novel is also a kind of an estimate about story writing itself, bringing in fables and grandmothers’ tales and presenting them in modern fictional technique. It is a beautiful admixture of a story within many stories that sometimes try to question or satirize the tradition of storytelling itself. At times it is a beautiful blending of the ordinary with the sublime. If the first person narrator at one point is a writer, his father is so in another, though both their motives are not similar. One takes to the art of telling stories in order to communicate with the world, the other in order to avoid it. But both were trying to find some meaning of the world they lived in. Thus at the end of the novel when the writer returns home, after a dangerous venture, he contemplates: “Yet this city was unknown and the noise was great. But the scatter must be gathered. You are listening.” The scatter can be gathered, the noise can be understood, but it is hard to decipher who tells the story to whom.

Tanweer ends the novel on a note that can be interpreted in different ways. The images of beauty in the novel are worth mentioning. They make one ponder, smile and sometimes feel sad at the plight of an individual fighting for survival. He is certainly not alone in his struggle in a world that has somehow gone wrong. The novel is a lively portrait of a city with its fun and frolic, humour and violence, joys and tears. It can be said that it is one of the finest tributes of a writer to a city of his birth.