Dealing with youth and college life in his maiden novel, The Still Point of The Turning World, Sheheryar B Sheikh takes up a subject charged with political flavour in his next book, Call Me Al. In this book, the Pakistani expatriate author crosses the boundaries of the college campus and explores the life of a mature character whom he artistically fashions. At the surface, the novel is about a person’s rise to power and all the foul means he adopts to obtain that lofty stature. The life of the central character Al (short for Almataash) is unfolded through the narratives of George Gary Grefory Jaffar (also called GGGJ) and Ned.
The intriguing fact is that GGGJ and Ned are murdered by Al in the initial stages and the story is narrated by their spirits. By doing so, the author skillfully blends both the physical and metaphysical worlds together. The uncanny ambience marked with supernatural elements magnifies its surreal appeal. As Christopher Marlowe remarks that conflict is the essence of literature, Sheikh’s work delineates the clash between the good and evil forces.
Ned represents the Prufrockian predicament of a lonely man who has an all-consuming desire for love and finally dies in its pursuit. A deeper sense of alienation remains quite predominant in the minds of the migrants who have to leave their home and hearth due to the ghastly partition of India. They are maltreated as the “second class” citizens in Pakistan. The portrayal of their struggle moistens many eyes. The author also cocks a snook at the shoddy political spectrum.
Ironically, ours is a world where the hardcore criminals as the elected politicians preside over the destinies of the common citizens. Al again emerges in our mindscape as a classic example of the crime and political nexus. He masterminds conspiracies, and is yet put on a high pedestal in the political sphere. The novel aptly holds a mirror to the society as in many countries people have to lead lives under the shadow of fear due to the nefarious clout and hooliganism of the political hoodlums like Al.
Al dominates the canvas of the narrative which appositely makes him an eponymous antagonist. Altamaash prefers to be addressed as Al only, which implies that he considers himself equal to Allah. The enigma about Al deepens as he intensely loves his mother and daughter, but hatches a plot to eliminate his father. He idealises his grandfather but has no compunctions in sacrificing his wife. With the creation of AI, the author succeeds fully in presenting the perfect prototype of an unscrupulously wicked politician who indulges in heinous crimes but tries his best not to be directly dragged in any of the cases. Although Sheikh paints him in the darkest possible hues, because of his certain redeeming features, the readers develop an ambivalent love-hate relationship with him.
Similarly, individuals like GGGJ and Ned pale into somewhat insignificance in front of Al. The mind of the readers remains occupied with AI and they keep expecting the next move of this shrewd player of political chess. How the mighty politicians are adept in hushing up the matters pertaining to their inhumane acts is laid bare when no headway is made in the botched-up investigation about the murders of GGGJ and Ned.
But they say how influential and well-connected one may be, no culprit can go scot-free in the court of the divine. The law of karma takes its course when the law of the human land fails and eventually brings about nemesis to the guilty. How Al is meted out the retributive justice must be left to the readers to find out.
The author deserves plaudits on the mode of expression he chooses to convey his tale. The usage of flashback and flash-forward techniques reveals the writing competence of the writer. How he unites the whole plot into a well-knit organic unit is indeed remarkable. The usage of quality language also testifies the raconteur’s command of the language.
The novel is through the figment of the author’s fecund imagination, the references to cities lend it the semblance of reality. With his forte of portraying the full-blooded characters pulsating with life, the book is loaded with many such personas. On the whole, the book must find its place on your bookshelf.