Very little fanfare’s been made of Shandana Minhas’s third book, published last month by Harper Collins India. Strange, because this Karachi-based writer’s work is very well known in Pakistan, and received acclaim: her first, Tunnel Vision, was nominated for the Commonwealth First Book award, while her second, Survival Tips for Lunatics, won the French Fiction Prize at KLF last year. But then, that’s Minhas’s specialty, to come out of left field and surprise you as a reader with her wit, acerbity, and prescience.
Daddy’s Boy is no different in the Minhas tradition, then. It’s a quick read (I finished it in 2 days, and at 200 pages, it’s at the shorter end of the novel scale), and one that’s hard to put down once you start. The premise is this: a young man in Lahore, Asfandyar, has always been told by his mother that his father died when Asfandyar was a child. But suddenly he learns one day that his father was alive all along, and has just died, and he, Asfandyar, must go to his funeral in Karachi.
Following his mother’s instructions, buoyed on his love for his beautiful but dull fiancee Lalarukh, Asfandyar makes his way to Karachi, where he comes across three old men who are friends of his father. With rapid-fire dialogue and entertaining jabs, they win over the young man’s trust. He follows them through the restive city as they bury his father, then help Asfandyar to dispose of his father’s flat and whatever is inside it.
But this is no straightforward tale: things quickly go out of control for Asfandyar, and he’s struggling to understand just what he’s gotten himself into. Nothing’s as it seems, not the uncles, not the beautiful, capricious woman who shows up at his father’s funeral, not the city itself. Everything overwhelms Asfandyar, and he finds himself making one choice after another that leads him deeper and deeper into a quagmire, caught between morality and mortality, desire and duty.
Minhas plays with words in a way that no other Pakistani writer does. In this book, the result is a boisterous energy, a story that’s sometimes dialogue-heavy, sometimes description heavy, but always teasing and tricking the reader. “I wanted the prose and the rhythm to mimic the manic nature of our lives in Karachi, be suffused with it,” she says. She also recounts how she wanted to do “something ambitious with the idiom,” in “using the English language to tell a local story.”
As always, Minhas’s work is characteristically dark and cynical, and I struggle with the fact that her characters never seem to find the redemption the reader wishes for them. In Daddy’s Boy, this is because it’s not a morality tale but “an amorality tale.” She refuses, in fact, to give the reader what he or she wants most in order to convey what she knows to be true about Karachi, and Pakistan. “The dark heart of it is the point that patriarchy creates broken people. Broken women, yes, but also broken men.”
Yet the book contains beautiful writing, especially the moment when Anis is buried, and another tableau describing the city of Lahore in breathtaking prose. “I wanted the Lahore stretch to be tonally different to emphasise that difference between cities,” says Minhas of this shift.
Lahore reclines by a river, secure in her charms. Men pass through her. Their gifts outlive them. The Moguls left palaces, pleasure gardens and tombs. Birds nest over their bones. Her present owners too seek to mark her. Green and white minarets watch the sky, their bases tile-lined to wash what has happened away. Recently built roads are bangles on her wrists, every meal in her markets offered as aphrodisiac.
It’s this contrast between ugliness and beauty, between action and observation, that can leave the reader completely off balance, or punched in the stomach, as Minhas’s best friend said after reading the book. Her energetic writing sometimes veers on this side of feeling out of control, but then again this could be a deliberate effect to keep the reader guessing. My preferences tend to lean towards symmetry and elegance, but Minhas’s style is far too punchy for that. She deliberately goes instead for discord and clamour, much the way Picasso’s Cubism shook up the artistic idiom and turned it into something entirely different than what was expected.
Perhaps it’s this daring and disregard for the predictable that ensures Minhas remains an “alternative” instead of “mainstream” fiction writer. Yet as her style evolves, her instincts deepen and her prose progresses towards an ever more polished form, it retains that distinctive capriciousness — much like the women in her stories — that make her work, love it or hate it, un-putdownable. And that’s really what every writer wants.