Feeling at home

Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don't freeze up."

The people living in Sarvat Hasin' s new book You Can't Go Home Again do just that. Like all of us, they make mistakes, take their chances, and sometimes end up looking silly. Some keep on going but others do freeze up. This relatively new and fresh spark of a story writer has the right pedigree with a creative writing education from Oxford under her belt. Of course, that does not guarantee readability or readership. But Hasin does not have to worry about that. She has penned a compelling read with this tale which persuades me to read her debut book, The Wide Night, that was longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Hasin chooses the short story format where the tales are intertwined and cleaved with one another, thus offering some context of one in another. The narrative starts with the tale of a group of school-going teenagers in Karachi and grips the reader when one of the lead performers of the school play goes missing. He is found after a week but with amnesia about what transpired during the time. This event impacts all his friends subconsciously, resulting in subtle emotional scabs for the rest of their lives. The seven narratives of the characters seem to be intellectually and emotionally independent but a fine thread connects them in one way or the other with this main story.

Unlike earlier generations when the protagonists from the elite, well-heeled urban segment of society (much as in You Can't Go Home Again) preferred to stay back in the West, 'home' for the characters in this book remains Karachi. 'Home' need not refer to a place, it could be a person as well. These millennials travel the world, study overseas, work abroad, but eventually come home to Karachi to roost.

To their city of birth with a world of government ministers and shipping magnates with their Pajeros and retinues and palatial houses: a Pakistan of blue jeans and holidays overseas and Western education and Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen subsisting alongside underlying convictions about churails and djinns and black magic. They reflect the attitude and ethos prevalent in the younger set seen in contemporary South Asia. Unlike the previous generation, this new set has the world as their home, yet their birthplace with its culture, norms, flavours, sights, and sounds forms an integral part of their psyche but with a generous dose of western garnish added in. Thus, they don't find anything wrong with one-night stands but, at the same time, are somewhat confused. Shireen, for instance, is uncertain about her relationship with her childhood mate Karim who is her part-time lover in their adulthood now. "Perhaps it was nothing," she ponders, "not enough of a relationship for them to even properly break up."

Makes for strange bedfellows, this modern-ness (read Western-ness) and belief in jaadu-tona and "black magic humanitarian" philosophy. Whether it's Maliha who is an actor now with not much resistance from her family on her choice of career ("it is all very normal and lots of girls from good families, whatever that means, have been doing it.") or Naila who needs the help of mysticism and babas to attain Karim who she is desperately in love with, the ancient and the modern co-exist in harmony in 21st century Karachi.

Like in any other South Asian city, the city is their foundation: Karim can't wait to get out of it but Rehan would "rather be home"; it's a love-hate relationship the kind most of us have with our 'home' town. The narrative starts with 'Dark Room' in which Naila tells Rehan about a churail appearing in the mirror and comes full circle with his wife's "eyes glowing like a djinn's" in the last tale 'The Walled City'. The fear factor comes full circle. Yes, what are you afraid of, the reader too asks himself/herself.

The narrative jumps forward and backward, and despite the tale not being linear, it does not jar. Instead, it manages to flesh out the characters and make them human. The stories flow into one another flawlessly and form a whole, giving it a closure by the end. Yes, you can't go home again, but home keeps rolling back with no forewarning at different stages and events of your life.

Sarvat Hasin is my new favourite author, and one I can't wait to read more of.

 

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