It is all too easy to get consumed by over-analysis, so side-stepping a discussion on what exactly is the definition of chick lit as a bunch of novels in the subcontinent vitalise the genre, let’s just agree that humour is the key in pulling away from the pack. In her recent overview, Reading New India: Post-Millennial Indian Fiction in English, E Dawson Varughese marks out the 2007 publication of Advaita Kala’s Almost Single as a turning point, and you can’t argue with that. But as the number of Anuja Chauhan’s books in her list show, Chauhan has established her mastery over the genre like no one else — from her riotously hilarious “crick lit” debut, The Zoya Factor (2008), to the political Battle for Bittora (2010) to last year’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls, an absolutely nostalgic spin, full of moments of recognition, for those who grew up in 1980s Delhi.
To their ranks a new writer, from across the border in Pakistan, has nominated herself. Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You Are Killing Me is one of those books that defies easy categorisation, which is no bad thing. It recommends itself, first and foremost, with its laugh a page, wittily and intelligently, as the narrator, a newspaper reporter called Ayesha, negotiates her career (her dreams of a contract to report conflict for a foreign network, her stingy, overbearing boss, her dungeon of an office, her shoestring reporting budgets, her chase for a big Guantanamo scoop), her social life (clothes, eccentric family, hyper friends, bootlegger, boyfriend), her city (this is, after all, Karachi in this turbulent decade, and getting by needs her to do things like change autorickshaws as she crosses “from one gang-controlled area into another”), the particularly complicated codeswitching needed. Call it what you will, but it’s a book that works on multiple levels.
But since Imtiaz chooses to begin the book with a quote from Bridget Jones’s Diary, it is tempting to use the novel to figure out what it is that makes for a good work of chick lit. Of course, more often than not, it is crucial that the narrator (or main character) rid herself of superficial notions of romance in her quest — necessary quest — for true love. In fact, before the book is done, no matter that she already has her feminism and liberalism firmly sorted out, Ayesha will have quite a sobering realisation of who’s what.
The story must be told so that the (again necessary) self-deprecating humour does not sound like pathetic excuse-making, so that the eventual (and expected) reconciliation to one’s circumstances (of course, we know Ayesha will not fly off Westward on that much-dreamed-about fellowship) does not amount to resignation to things being the way they are, so that the exaggeration required to humorously make too much of every setback is nuanced just right to give the reader enough number of instances where she sees reflections of herself or could-be self.
Ayesha’s is, above all, a story of getting to terms with Karachi, and it helps that being sent off for any and every assignment in a publication short on staff and money, she reports on terror, politics, fashion, literature, and extremism, taking in the absurdity of it all, but forced to not look away and cocoon herself with kindred souls. As she chirps at one point, finally: “Between him (Zafar, second-in-command of a crime syndicate), my hairstylist, the bumbling spy at the press club, and a server of Espresso who often lets slip who was at the coffee shop, I could possibly keep track of 95 per cent of the city. Even though I have lived in Karachi my entire life, these are the only relationships I’ve actually invested time and effort in. This should make me sad, except I’m oddly comforted by the fact that inasmuch as I don’t like this city, this is a fantastic place to be a journalist.”
And being a journalist allows her to do profiles of assorted folks as concepts. The fashion designers with a collection dedicated to the military, her party crowd’s cosy bubble, the foreign correspondent’s swagger, the lit-fest regulars’ well-rehearsed, affected chatter, and a colleague who rose above her league with a scoop. The madness of it all is highlighted by a “headline of the day” for every chapter: “Pakistan’s fashion week bares country’s frothy side”; “23 per cent of Pakistanis say white is their favourite colour: poll”; “city wears anti-dengue look”; “agencies having fun with bugged phone conversations”; “Seoul protests North Korean bootlegging in Islamabad”. But put together, it’s a most affectionate take on “being a journalist”. How can it not be when Ayesha can demand, “I’m a journalist, at least tell me what happened.”