Book Review | A sex worker’s son navigates his dilemmas in this compelling debut

The Asian Age.  | Rupa Gulab

It effortlessly covers a substantial part of history, and the lives of many people.

Cover photo of 'The Return of Faraz Ali' by Aamina Ahmad. (Photo by arrangement)

The title reminds you of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, and Faraz Ali is indeed a native who briefly returns (albeit reluctantly) to his mohalla and tries to help his people, against all odds.

Born in pre-Partition India, Faraz Ali is the son of a Kanjari courtesan from Lahore’s notorious Shahi Mohalla, and Wajid, the powerful chief secretary of Punjab. His parentage is kept a deep, dark secret, of course — Wajid spirits Faraz away from his mother when he is a child, and sends him to live with his poor but respectable relatives. They treat Faraz with love and kindness, but Faraz still longs to meet his real blood and flesh family again. Wajid, however, repeatedly reminds Faraz that he has saved him from a grim life and that he must never go back. It’s common knowledge that all the Kanjari girls grow up to be sex workers, and all the boys become pimps. 

Even after Wajid gets his own legitimate family, he continues to keep an eye on Faraz — not often enough, but still. Faraz rises in the police force mainly because his own skills, and possibly partly because of his father.

Till one day his father calls him and wants him posted in Tibbi police station in Shahi Mohalla. There’s been an “accident” there — a euphemism for the brutal murder of a young Kanjari girl by very powerful people.  Wajid explains, “‘I wouldn’t ever send you there if I had a choice…and I wouldn’t ask, but…’ A silence that said, but given everything I’ve done for you, it’s the least you could do. ‘Well? Can you take care of it?’ But it wasn’t even a request.’”

Faraz’s father wants the “accident” cleaned up by someone he can trust completely, and who better than his own secret son? The procedure is clear as always: “No records, no paperwork. Official channels are not open on this.”

Faraz is conflicted. The “accident” victim was one of his own people. While he is used to executing clean ups for his masters (refuse to file an FIR/ Claim it was suicide/ Find a scapegoat to pin it on/ Blame the family/ Any other), he’s not exactly sure if he wants to sweep this under the carpet. He wants to investigate it thoroughly for himself at least, because he suspects that his father may be involved in the murder. A horrifying thought, but one he really, truly wants the answer to. Also, he’s filled with the desire to find his mother Firdous and sister Rozina. He can’t ask too many questions about their whereabouts though for fear that it may reveal his Kanjari roots. Why, even his wife is unaware of his shady family history.

Faraz uses all manner of excuses to not close this case immediately. As he fights his personal demons, the history of Pakistan plays out. President Ayub Khan has a new and formidable challenger in Bhutto, and wily Faraz warns his father that Bhutto’s party will create an uproar if it appears that the case is not investigated thoroughly.

Time shifts frequently in the book. We go back and forth, as far back as World War II, when young Wajid was a POW along with his regiment, with a crumpled photograph of Firdous in his pocket, and the secret knowledge that he has a son now. The weakest parts of the book are on Wajid’s POW experiences — they are more like ramblings, and seem to interfere with the flow of the main plot, till you stumble upon an important link: Why Wajid owes a big favour to a ghoulish Pakistani general. 

Wajid’s POW days also draw further parallels between him and his son. Faraz spends a few years as a POW in his later years as well. All through the novel you are reminded that while Faraz’s background may have been poor and shabby, he’s a far better human being and morally superior to the entitled Eton-educated Wajid. 

The canvas of the novel is very wide. It effortlessly covers a substantial part of history, and the lives of many people. While Faraz is at the centre of it all, there are stories within stories, and while the stories may be bleak in themselves, together they create a rich tapestry. Faraz’s experiences in East Pakistan just before war breaks out are touching. It’s particularly fascinating reading about the rise of Bhutto, and the cattiness that goes with it: “But what’s the difference between Bhutto and the generals? Bhutto was working for Ayub five minutes ago…They’re not thinking about the people; they just want Ayub out so they can have their turn.”  

The Return of Faraz Ali is a compelling and extremely satisfying read. It stays with you long after you finish reading it.

The Return of Faraz Ali

By Aamina Ahmad


pp. 367, Rs.799