The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

(First published 2013)

In a nutshell, it’s a collection of disparate short stories that converge on a single incident of a bomb blast that happens outside a railway station in the city of Karachi.

The protagonists come from a range of ages and professions; a disgruntled old Communist grandpa, a small time successful businessman, a wayward student out on a romantic rendezvous, an ambulance driver who suffers post traumatic stress disorder due to the blast, another wayward young man who works for a private security company that repossesses cars whose bank installments have not been paid – all of them are caught in the explosion in one way or the other.

A common thread runs through the many narratives: The quest to make sense of the beloved city through a period of turmoil and turbulence; a place that once was but that no longer is. The personal failures in the lives of its many protagonists are superimposed on the failure of the city to give them peace and provide succour.

As a whole, the book fell short of my expectations. Some portions of the stories make for an interesting read in an otherwise rather lacking-in-depth collection of tales that failed to pique my interest.

The circumstantial similarities between a few characters (i.e; their alienation with their fathers) left me rather confused half way through the book as to which character’s story I was actually reading.

The division of the book into 5 main chapters with further sub-chapters without any clear delineation of stories/characters gets one’s head all muddled up, moreso because some stories are broken into two or more parts and told at different places in the book.

For instance the opening and the closing stories, and the one in the middle, are told by the same protagonist. It can be treated as one story divided into three parts. So it can be said that the book falls somewhere between a novel and an interlinked collection of stories but it is neither.

The story (Good Days) of the employee of the private security firm is overrun by ill-used swear words. Whoever said it’s a good idea to use such words in abundance (fuck, fucking, motherfucker, sisterfucker, chutiya, chut etc) in a tight space of a few pages obviously gave a bad piece of advice.

I do realise it’s a debut effort and therefore I must not be too harsh with my criticisms. But the author has been promoted as the “up-and-coming” voice of Pakistani English fiction, a new talent “to watch out for” and thrown into limelight thanks to his impeccable social networking skills, long before he produced his first book. Naturally, dedicated readers of South Asian, particularly Pakistani, fiction have been waiting for his debut work with high expectations.

However, there are a few instances in the book deserving of recognition and, yes, appreciation.

The last story particularly stands out. It’s told by the adult voice of the child protagonist of the opening story: A quest to make sense of the beloved city that has overgrown through the time to become a degenerated and violent place, and that through the life of his deceased father-writer who spent his last days spreading happiness among the people to atone for his own disappointments.

Another story that of the wayward student out on a romantic escapade in his mother’s battered car was good to read. It’s punchline, for me, was the high point of the book. The protagonist takes his mother’s car without her permission. The blast occurs when he’s driving on the bridge with his girlfriend next to him. Luckily they survive the ordeal. Later when they halt on the beach, the guy “cleaned the blood with a rag dipped in the car’s radiator water” because he “couldn’t afford to have anyone find out.” Thus, a very public episode of mayhem and destruction juxtaposed against the personal need to hide the evidence of the blast from his car was amusing, unsettling and ironical.

I’d rate the book 50/50. So 2.5 by 5.

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