Humanity on trial

May 31, 2020

Osman Haneef’s debut novel presents an intricate narrative that carries implications beyond the fate of its characters

Osman Haneef’s Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih seems to owe an immense artistic debt to Harper Lee’s magnum opus To Kill A Mockingbird. Buoyed by the stamina of a lawyer’s struggle for justice in the face of racial prejudice, the novel bears echoes of the much-revered classic of modern American literature. The only difference is that Haneef’s debut novel strikes a personal chord with Pakistani readers through its fresh literary take on the country’s blasphemy laws.

Set in 2007, Blasphemy is the story of Sikander Ghaznavi, a lawyer who has returned from the United States, and is passionately involved in a legal battle to secure acquittal for a Christian boy named Danesh Masih who has been falsely accused of blasphemy. In order to achieve this, Ghaznavi seeks the assistance of his former lover, Sanah, an astute human rights lawyer who understands the machinations of a corrupt legal system better than he does. As the courtroom drama inches towards its spine-tingling denouement, the protagonist ponders the role of humanity in a country where justice is habitually put off and the truth is often undermined to facilitate the narrow interests of a few bigots.

In brisk, lucid prose, Haneef’s debut novel presents an intricate narrative that carries implications beyond the fate of its characters, especially in Pakistan where religious discrimination stifles several minority groups. Though the novel never pulls its punches when it excoriates the controversial blasphemy laws, it skilfully avoids heavy polemics that can distract readers from the essence of the story.

Lengthy explanations are eschewed in favour of spellbinding passages that ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. An engaging plot, sprinkled with exciting twists and turns, offers a moving meditation of how controversial laws are used to exploit the marginalised sections of society. With its emphasis on depicting court battles that culminate in regular miscarriages of justice, Blasphemy paints an intimate portrait of the dark side of modern-day Pakistan.

The author succeeds in creating multifaceted characters that are rooted in reality. At no point do the characters appear to be straitjacketed. Unencumbered by any stereotypical moulds, they bounce off the page as rich and intense as the people who negotiate similar battles on a daily basis.

While Ghaznavi is portrayed as a well-meaning defender of the law, Haneef never allows his protagonist to become a paragon. Instead, his human frailties create a realistic yet memorable central character.

At its core, the novel chronicles the story of a homecoming. Ghaznavi returns to Quetta after escaping the childhood traumas associated with his barrister father’s final years. He is also haunted by his deceased nanny’s unalloyed loyalty towards him and Sanah’s mysterious disappearances from his life. The author skilfully combines these conflicting strands and examines their impact on the court proceedings in Danesh’s case. As the novel gallops towards its climax, the protagonist finds the courage to smooth away his residue of traumatic memories.

Sanah, Ghaznavi’s partner-in-crime, is spared the unfortunate fate of being a mere love interest who is relegated to a supporting role in the story. In a novel where testosterone-fuelled men are embroiled in courtroom battles, Sanah appears as a much-needed counterpoint – a poignant reminder of the everyday struggles that women lawyers have to grapple with when they don their black robes. In addition, Sanah’s choices are driven by an aura of mystery that makes her come across as a powerful, confident and truthful character.

From the outset, Danesh Masih embodies a guileless charm that makes the reader question how an entire country’s conscience can be pricked by someone so mild-mannered and unassuming. His blind devotion to Pir Paya – the proverbial villain of the story – and infinite respect for Ghaznavi makes the novel’s inevitable tragedy seem even more heartbreaking.

Danesh Masih’s case is painfully similar to that of Salamat Masih, who was accused of scribbling ‘blasphemous’ content on the walls of a mosque in a village in the Punjab in the 1990s. Salamat’s plight serves as a useful starting point that helped the author create an authentic character. Danesh, however, has to face greater obstacles in his quest for justice and redemption.

At times, the linear arc of the narrative is momentarily reined in to make room for flashbacks into Ghaznavi’s tumultuous childhood memories or his years in the US. But these structural choices do little to impede the flow of the story and ought to be perceived as opportunities to understand the protagonist’s sensibilities.

It is tempting to compare Blasphemy with Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti – its thematic counterpart – since both novels explore the plight of the marginalised elements in Pakistan. However, both works of fiction appear to inhabit separate domains, even if their themes overlap.

Hanif’s second novel can be construed as a wickedly irreverent commentary on state brutality that is set against the backdrop of Karachi’s riot-riddled streets. Haneef’s debut, which has a more specific focus, offers a searing glimpse at the devastating possibilities of a false charge of blasphemy in a city that is detached from the cosmopolitan environs of Karachi.

A well-paced, gut-wrenching novel about a draconian law that is often exploited, Blasphemy is an audacious and haunting addition to Pakistani fiction.

Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih

Author: Osman Haneef

Publisher: Readomania

Pages: 181 pages

Price: $4.99 (on Kindle)

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

Humanity on trial