Many shades of grey

December 15, 2013

Many shades of grey

Omar Shahid Hamid’s debut novel, The Prisoner, is an astonishing work: not only is it a fast paced, unpretentious and politically insightful story but it is one which depicts those most demonised of professionals -- Karachi’s policemen -- in a rather heroic light.

The plot of the novel is fairly simple: it is December in Karachi and the security authorities are frantic because an American journalist has been kidnapped and investigators are getting nowhere in their attempts to recover him -- something they need desperately to do in order to control the damage that the abduction is doing to the country’s relationship with the US. With no leads in sight, they realise that possibly the only man who can crack the case is a policeman, Akbar Khan, but the problem is that he himself is a prisoner in a Karachi jail.

To get this man on their side the agencies approach him through his friend and former colleague -- and now jailer -- Constantine D’Souza, SP of the prison where Akbar is incarcerated.

As attempts to trace the kidnappers continue over four days, the story of these two men’s careers unfolds and we learn of a background of treachery and betrayal within the police force and the intelligence community.

The Prisoner
Author: Omar Shahid Hamid
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2013 
Pages: 352 
Price: PKR765
Akbar is described by his colleague as "perhaps the best police officer in the Karachi police" but he is also a cop who operates outside the constrictions of law, and who proudly admits to bumping off criminals he considers scum and who would probably have been acquitted through the due process of law.

But, despite this vigilante approach, he is dedicated to fighting crime and upholding the authority of the Police force. However, he is undone when this anti-criminal approach to policing is abandoned by his superior officers as they are compelled to bow and scrape before the dictates of various politicians including those from the mafia-like ethnic party (the UFP) which has the ability to hold the city hostage at will.

We learn that, like most effective police officers, Akbar Khan had managed to make a lot of enemies so that when the opportunity arose, a number of people were happy to contribute to his indictment. As Constantine reflects on this, "So this was how the great Akbar Khan would come to his end. Not through a Ward boss’s bullet but by the knife that his own officers had stuck in his back."

As the investigators race against time to try and locate the American hostage, we are given interesting insights not just into urban politics, crime and policing but also into the interaction between the police and the army’s intelligence agencies; in a scheme of things where the agencies (here described as "the Bleak House Wallahs" and the "Kalay Gate Wallahs") are indisputably more powerful.

The fact that the heroes are Karachi cops who are ‘rankers’ rather than officers from the elite cadre recruited through the civil service is also extremely interesting as it challenges the widely held chatterati notion that in Pakistan’s police forces, the elite officers are the good guys and the non-English medium rankers are the bad guys. In this story, we realise the good guys are simply those with the courage to fight against criminals.

It would be absurd to categorise this book as merely a Dirty Harry/Serpico type of crime thriller but it is certainly as compelling and gripping a story as anything from that genre. The Prisoner takes the reader into a landscape and moral universe which is both very familiar yet completely new, a world where things are not black and white but rather "many shades of grey."

The author knows this world of violence and urban politics well. He is a not just a Karachi police officer, but one who was wounded on duty and whose office was bombed some years ago. His father, a senior bureaucrat, was gunned down in Karachi while chairman of KESC almost two decades ago.

Omar Shahid Hamid’s novel highlights the plight of law enforcers whose authority has been eroded and who have today, with the additional element of jehadi and religio-militant warfare, been left to fight on the front line without institutional or political support.


"I wanted to highlight the  contradictions in our own thinking"

TNS: Why did you decide to make your central character a Pakistani Christian?

Omar Shahid Hamid: I thought it would create an interesting dynamic for the protagonist. If you look at the history of the Karachi police, Christian officers have played a significant role in the past, and though there are only a handful now, nonetheless, Christian officers are there and flourish in the current environment as well. I felt it would be interesting to explore how they navigate the complex dynamic of policing in Karachi today, and whether or not their religion acts as a hindrance or not. As I make clear in the book, the religion issue interestingly works both ways.

TNS: Akbar khan is described by one of his colleagues as "perhaps the best officer" in the force, yet he is also in his jurisdiction a law unto himself and boasts of having killed various notorious and vicious criminals. Despite these ‘extra judicial’ hits --you write about his great courage. There’s a confusing sort of morality at work here: was it difficult to convey that in the book

OSM: I exactly wanted to highlight the contradictions and confusions in our own thinking when it comes to the police. Policing in a city like Karachi, with its myriad of problems and pressures, exists in a lot of grey areas and perhaps this is a fact that is not always necessarily acknowledged by people. But it is this quality that makes the police such a fascinating subject for fiction. The challenge is to reflect the nuances of our society and an organisational culture where individuals who are far from being paragons of morality, are nevertheless called upon to do extraordinary things every single day. For me, if I am able to succeed in conveying this, then I consider it my success.

TNS: One of the main things that emerges from the story is that the city police force has been undermined not just by political expediency and the interference of intelligence agencies but by the police leadership itself. How much of a factor is this in reality?

OSM: I would say that when we speak of any kind of external interference in any government organisation, leave alone the police, which automatically implies a collective failure of leadership. Moreover, I don’t think this is a new trend, but something that has been deteriorating for the past thirty years, as a general trend in declining standards of good governance. But in the police perhaps certain examples have become much more stark, such as the collective failure on our part to investigate or stop the murders of almost 400 officers over the past ten years, who were involved in past operations in Karachi. This is in my opinion the most glaring example of a collective failure of leadership, because for a police commander anywhere in the world, one of the most fundamental duties is to protect your own men.

TNS: Was The Prisoner a one-off, or do you plan to carry on writing fiction?

OSM: I do intend to continue writing fiction, if I am lucky enough to keep getting published.


Many shades of grey