The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack - A Reflection

Arsalan Ali Faheem reviews the novel by H.M. Naqvi

The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack - A Reflection
What makes us what we are? What makes the world what it is? No one is interested in asking the big questions anymore, laments our protagonist, Abdullah “The Cossack”. Questions such as the mythopoetic legacy of Karachi’s great patron saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, who, from his tomb overlooking the Arabian Sea, guards the city from tempests and terrorists both.

I inhaled these Selected Works, much like the chocolate wafers from Agha’s Supermarket that Abdullah was once fond of. They reminded me of college-era public bus rides from our dormitories at Karachi University to the city-centre Saddar campus of the Institute of Business Administration. Overloaded like a birdcage stuffed with crickets, the smoke-belching buses would hurtle through the city. You saw too much, heard too much and smelt too much. It was pandemonium, but once you finally jumped off, the mad symphony somehow made sense. In search of answers to the big questions, The Selected Works too hurtles through both Currachee, the city that was, and Karachi, the city that is.

At the centre of this epic is our man Abdullah The Cossack. A somewhat obese, jungle-print-robe-wearing old-timer. Part-time gardener, part-time literary connoisseur, and absentee owner of a cloth dyeing business, he is a man outpaced by time. He hails from one of the city’s old, respectable Khoja families, the Karimullahs. His father, Karimullah K was a business tycoon, owner of the swanky Olympus Hotel, and husband to a beautiful wife, Anees. Together, they birthed five sons. Hidayatullah (Army Major turned real estate broker), Bakaullah (card-carrying communist turned entrepreneur), Abdullah (The Cossack), Fazlullah (agriculturalist and ladies’ man), and Rahimullah (IT manager at an Islamic leasing firm). The brothers had varied trajectories, but while the others were able to establish themselves, Abdullah was seen as the one that went astray. After floundering and philandering for several years, he became his father’s assistant at The Olympus, and was a support to his parents during their final years. “You have not turned out as I expected, but you have been a good son,” his father whispered to him upon his deathbed, handing to him the title deed for the family home, Sunset Lodge.

Sunset Lodge is a large, yellowing, stone structure situated in Garden East. Not far from Gandhi Gardens (today known as the Karachi Zoo) and the Jewish Cemetery. Ensconced amidst a clutter of books, rickety furniture, and other dusty paraphernalia, Abdullah occupies the top floor. From here, when sleep eludes him, he is fond of purveying the city’s comings and goings “I observe the local nightlife from my perch, from the transvestite troubadours chanting vulgar odes on the street to the cockroaches pressed together like dried petals by my varicose foot.” While the others have long moved out, his brother Rahimullah and his spiritless wife Nargis, The Opossum, live downstairs with their two cute children, The “Childoos”. The Childoos are very fond of Abdullah, and he of them. When the three are beyond the visual range of The Opossum, they are known to sing Ra-Ra-Rasputin together. Their uncle fawns over them, somewhat to the chagrin of Nargis and Rahimullah.

Clambering out of bed on his 70th birthday, Abdullah dons his wildcat-themed chamber robe, and walks out onto his balcony to survey the city’s madness. He wonders whether it has all been worth it. He contemplates flight. Would anyone miss him?

However, the hour is not yet nigh. Currachee, Karachi, still needs him.

The die is cast at the rustic Goan Association Hall, home of Karachi’s dwindling Goan Christian community, with a storied history of contributing to the city’s business, arts and music scene. One evening, The Cossack is summoned to the Hall by his friend Felix Pinto, who is holding court there. Known to all as the Caliph of Cool, Pinto made his fame as Karachi’s finest trumpet player during the city’s now half-remembered Jazz Age. The 1950s and ‘60s were a period during which live music flourished, and jazz giants like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington could be found gracing Karachi’s clubs and hotels. When this period gave way to a more narrow-minded national order during the ‘70s, many amongst the educated classes left Pakistan. In Pinto’s case, for Australia. For now, however, Pinto is back on a visit, and calls his old chum over to celebrate his birthday with one more jazzy hurrah.

The Felix Pinto Quartet treats us to dhol-powered renditions of Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Louis Armstrong numbers, and even that colourful Bollywood song, “Shadmani”. Amidst rounds of liver-eroding lubricants, we learn of how Abdullah inherited his nom de guerre (It involved a hotel bar and a group of visiting Russian businessmen). Once the crescendo dies down and the Patiala Pegs have kicked in, Pinto turns to Abdullah. He needs a favour from his old friend. Pinto’s daughter has troubles at home, and her husband is a bum. Can Abdullah take charge of his grandson for a while? Perhaps teach him a few things? Enter one young gangly teenager, Bosco.

Things pick up pace. Abdullah returns home, but while still wondering what to do with Bosco, he is sweet-talked into a trap by Nargis the Opossum, revealing a guile beyond her insipid veneer. Under the guise of celebrating his birthday, Abdullah’s family surrounds him and demands that he permit them to sell Sunset Lodge. Things are no longer as they used to be, when Papa was around. He is reminded that the next generation has needs. Over his dead body. Abdullah flees, but he will be pursued. If love doesn’t work, fire and brimstone will follow.

The Cossack wanders the city in a daze. How did things change so much? He ponders his unfinished investigations of the mythopoetic legacy of Saint Ghazi, which continue to occupy his mind. He weaves through Karachi’s older neighbourhoods whose crumbling Indo-Gothic structures betray a once-glamorous past. Increasingly, they are giving way to claustrophobic apartment complexes and garish shopping plazas. He surveys the city’s culinary anthropology through his favourite eateries, and we pick up the recipes for Orange Pulao, and The Cossack’s very own Quick Chicken Karahi. The backdrop cycles through Garden East, Saddar, Soldier Bazaar, Aram Bagh, Parsi Colony, Bandar Road and others of Currachee’s older quarters, bringing to life the faded stories of their once-renown residents. Parsi, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, they have all lived and thrived here. During its halcyon years after the 1947 Partition, Karachi was the capital of a youthful, confident country, eager to engage with the world. Its airport was a hub long before anyone had heard of Dubai, and its well-watered clubs and discotheques were some of the liveliest this side of the Suez. It was an era of glittering balls, parties, and fine hotels such as the Metropole, The Olympus, The Palace and Excelsior. Once upon a time, Papa and Mummy were there to watch over Abdullah. Once, the Cossack too was young, dynamic, and known to the nation’s notables.

All that was before we pulled off our very own decade of devastation. The 1970s kicked off with the ultimate act of self-immolation – the loss of Pakistan’s eastern wing. While still reeling from this, the country’s first great democratic hope, brought ruin upon the economy by nationalising several segments of industry on New Year’s Day, 1972. In one fell swoop, decades of industrial progress was retarded. Many entrepreneurs in the city’s non-Muslim community, who had toiled and given everything to build successful enterprises and create jobs, lost everything overnight. Betrayed, many voted with their feet. Next, prohibition of alcohol was instituted at the altar of appeasement to fringe fanatics. The clubs were closed, and musicians suddenly found themselves without venue and audience. By the end of the decade, a moustached generalissimo had usurped power. The “free world” struck a bargain with him – arms, money, and legitimacy in exchange for driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Pakistan somersaulted into its most damaging war, and Karachi became a conduit for weapons, drugs, and faith-powered fighters. All paid for by the United States and assorted allies, thank you very much. Crime and chaos followed. Cosmopolitanism was shunned and conformity imposed. The city’s glittering age was well and truly over. By the end, we were left clutching nothing but our own bigotry.

Amidst these meanderings, on a hot day of the Islamic Holy Month, a delirious Abdullah finds himself at the colonial-era Empress Market. Its hawkers sell everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to the innards of assorted mammals. It is the Month of Fasting, and the perspiring, diabetic old Abdullah tries to take a sip from his water bottle. This is enough for him to be accosted by a mob of ruffians, demanding a test of his religious credentials. “What are you doing, are you Muslim?!” shouts an angry young man. It is too much for The Cossack. With courage that can be termed the voice of the city itself, he bellows “This is Currachee! This is my city! I could be Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Hindoo, Parsee. I could be Shia, Sunni, Ismaili, Bohra, Barelvi, Sufi…..anything, everything. If you want to ask such questions, then go back to Kabul!”

Were such words ever needed more? Miraculously, Abdullah is rescued from the clutches of the mob by femme-fatale Jugnu, an enigmatic character who herself turns out to have links with city gangsters.

Can Abdullah save his friends, even while he must rescue himself? Can he conquer destiny?

The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack are not a literary compilation, but rather an act of sorcery by H.M. Naqvi (Cue Ra-Ra-Rasputin). For in these pages he brings back to life the pluralistic soul of the city he loves. To do so, he has seen, heard, tasted, and imbibed in order to collect the tales that so often get drowned out by the clamour of Karachi. He has reminded the world of Karachi’s claim to the status of a great world-city, and his Pakistani readers, not only of who we once were, but most importantly: what is it that we wish to become?

One afternoon, contemplating the battle between good and evil at Katrak Park, Abdullah had invoked the prophet Zoroaster, who said that at the end, light will prevail. Beyond this protracted darkness, beyond the quiet prayers of our long vigil, may it yet indeed.

The author is a development professional. He tweets at @arsalanalif