Picaresque, politically shaded novel of life in 20th-century Pakistan, a country and time fading into memory and rife with nostalgia.
The good old days weren’t always so good—but they weren’t so bad, either. Yousufi, well-known in Pakistan but, at the age of 92, just emerging outside that country, delivers a rollicking epic told through the person of one Basharat Ali Farooqi, a bit of a sad sack who constantly makes tough luck for himself: “Now Basharat began to regret his foolishness: why had he loaded into a ramshackle car goods worth twice the car’s amount?” So goes a typical moment, with Basharat wishing a thief would come along and relieve him of his worries and instead courting the attention of the police on a different count. Basharat is nothing if not aspirational, though he seldom succeeds in rising to the rascally heights of his father-in-law, Qibla, who has the look of a devil about him: “His big eyes bulged from their sockets. They were always bloodshot—really bloodshot. As red as pigeon’s blood.” Fearful countenance aside, Qibla is a fellow whose schemes never quite work out according to plan, either. Caught up in the chaos of India and Pakistan at the time of the 1947 partition, Basharat, Qibla, and Yousufi’s other characters do what they can to get by, discovering that if you can’t go home again, you can’t go elsewhere, either. Yousufi writes of the most serious events with balloon-puncturing good humor, and his chapter titles alone are worth the price of admission: “Do Lizards Breastfeed?” “The Teachers Have Eaten Up the Orphanage!” “I Was Punished for the Horny Camel’s Misdeeds.” Doubtless Yousufi courted the displeasure of fundamentalists and nationalists in writing this novel, published in Urdu in 1990; the introduction, good and substantial though it is, might have done a touch more to set it in its context and discuss its reception. But that’s a quibble unworthy of Qibla.
A pleasure to read and a welcome window on a world we know too little about.