Breath of Death

Ali Madeeh Hashmi reviews Saad Shafaqt's debut novel which, as it turns out, is about a subject even more thrilling than cricket

Breath of Death
English language fiction writing from Pakistan is no longer a novelty. A slightly rarer breed from our neck of the woods, though, is the doctor-writer. A well known and much beloved example is the late Dr. Shafiqur Rehman whose light, romantic, humorous short stories (in Urdu) still delight readers.

Breath of Death
by Saad Shafqat
Wisdom Tree, Delhi, 2012. 255 pages. INR 245 (Available at Liberty Books, Lahore/Karachi)

One usually associates medical writing with dry, scientific research articles or the occasional opinion piece about public health or medical politics. It is therefore a refreshing change to see a practicing doctor writing nail-biting fiction. Dr. Saad Shafqat is a Neurologist by profession, trained, like the protagonist in his first novel, at an eminent medical school in Karachi and then at Harvard (in Dr. Shafqat’s case, the Karachi hospital would be the Aga Khan University Hospital; his novel’s fictional hero dwells in the equally fictional ‘Avicenna University Hospital’).

Prior to his first fiction outing, Dr. Shafqat’s non-medical writing resume was fascinatingly eclectic. He has written passionately about the ‘medical brain drain’ from Third World countries and wrote a regular column about cricket on the widely read website Cricinfo (now part of ESPN). He is also the author of cricket legend Javed Miandad’s autobiography ‘Cutting Edge’ (OUP 2003).

In his first novel, the rather bombastically named ‘Breath of Death’, Dr. Shafqat has done a splendid job of creating a gripping page-turner out of many topical issues of our times; terrorism, biological weapons, Al-Qaeda and the misguided ‘War on terror’. Lest the potential reader think that the book reads like a boring socio-political treatise though, be warned: it’s a page turner and once you start reading, it moves along at a breakneck pace.

The action begins with a young man in Karachi being brought into a hospital with a mysterious neurological illness which soon begins to spread to other patients. Our hero, the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Asad Mirza (who bears a suspicious resemblance, in his profession, his medical training and his love for Karachi, to Dr. Shafqat himself) investigates the illness with the help of an ambitious and comely medical student Nadia and soon realizes that he has stumbled on to something menacing, both medically and politically. Without giving too much of the thrilling plot away, we meet, in rapid succession, a University drop out who is now a crack terrorist, the proverbial ‘mad scientist’, an unscrupulous faith-healer and many other colorful characters against the backdrop of a vibrant and chaotic modern day Karachi.

[quote]Perhaps in Shafqat's next novel the attractive sidekick can be the hero[/quote]

One of Dr. Shafqat’s strengths as a writer, honed, no doubt by his medical training and years of experience is his ability to get under the skin of his characters and accurately describe their inner world. Consider this passage from his description of ‘Malik’, the terrorist fixer in Karachi: “He urgently needed to start feeling in control again, otherwise his physical discomforts would worsen...and no doubt those dreaded sharp jabs between his shoulder blades, like some agitated bird of prey digging at his back with dagger-like talons would also return...To a degree, some uncertainty had to be accepted in any kind of project...but uncertainty at the core was like the heinous designs of Satan on man’s soul, and could never be allowed to consolidate”.

Or this one about the scientist recruited by ‘the Network’ to plan a devastating attack on the ‘great satan’: ‘Noticing a speck of grit on the machine...he flicked it off with a finger. Then he fidgeted with his trousers, adjusting them over his hips again. He stuffed in his shirt. Then, noticing a fold that wasn’t quite right, he pulled it out and stuffed it in again... (He) had an established case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It tormented him, but it also made him a meticulous scientist capable of unflagging attention to detail. He consumed Prozac like a staple’.

To Dr. Shafqat’s credit, even the conventional ‘villains’: the handler ‘Malik’ and the evil genius scientist ‘Hamza’ are humanized through a description of their past experiences and the reader cannot help but identify with their pain and their motivations, murderous though they may be.

There is also a horrifying and darkly comic bit about a ‘fakir’ named Baba in which Dr. Shafqat takes us into the inner sanctum of one of Pakistan’s ubiquitous ‘holy men’  and shows us an unsavory aspect of Pakistani society’s dark underbelly.

Throughout all this though, Dr. Shafqat’s characters, while struggling against desperate circumstances remain stoic and mostly hopeful. He does not attempt to explain or make excuses for their behavior or their actions. Like Manto, it is as if he is simply an observer of the action as it unfolds and the mystery deepens. The plot moves along at a brisk pace other than a rather lengthy and boring bit mid-way through the book where the author succumbs to the temptation to ‘explain’ the current political predicament that Pakistan and Pakistanis face. It is an unnecessary diversion that brings the story to a screeching halt and adds nothing to the story.

Other than this slight hiccup though, the book is a fine read. In his first novel, Dr. Shafqat’s love for his beloved and beleaguered city, Karachi, shines through. To his credit, he does not attempt to gloss over the city’s blemishes but neither does he embellish them. And at any rate, Karachi is just the backdrop for an engrossing mystery with both the hero (and his attractive female side kick) and the relentless villains (and their mysterious, terrifying bosses of ‘the Network’) racing against time to accomplish their contradictory goals.

As for Dr. Shafqat’s autobiographical alter-ego Dr. Asad Mirza, we look forward to reading more about him as well as his nubile  and adoring medical student. Perhaps in Dr. Shafqat’s next novel, she can be the protagonist with Dr. Mirza in tow, a case of the disciple surpassing the guru?

Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a Psychiatrist practicing in Lahore. He can be reached at or on twitter @Ali_Madeeh