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Pakistani author's debut novel captures Karachi

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 5:20 p.m.

The blurb on the back of Saba Imtiaz's debut novel “Karachi, You're Killing Me!” compares the book to the single girl's Bible, “Bridget Jones's Diary.”

I take issue with this.

Bridget Jones would never be able to deal with half of the situations that Imtiaz's heroine, Ayesha, successfully navigates. Sure, Ayesha drinks too much, makes some atrociously bad decisions about men and complains relentlessly about her job just as Bridget did.

But Ayesha, a journalist in her 20s working in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi, has a toughness and professionalism that Bridget could never achieve.

“Karachi, You're Killing Me!” traces Ayesha's attempts to pursue her journalistic career and find love in Karachi, a massive metropolis on the country's Southern coast. It is a city she either loves intensely or desperately wants to leave. And it's not hard to see why. Her assignments include covering shootouts, the aftermath of bombings and riding rickshaws through the countryside while being pursued by bandits.

What Imtiaz is able to do with her novel is capture the absurdity of reporting and living in a city often billed as Pakistan's most dangerous. Her heroine flits easily from interviewing gangsters in the gang-ridden neighborhood of Lyari to party-hopping through the city's elite Clifton neighborhood, draining hosts of their bootlegged liquor.

In fact, readers who think of Pakistan as a dry country may be surprised to discover that, much like an American high school, the complexities of getting liquor and drinking it feature heavily in the novel.

That's perhaps what the novel excels at — upending stereotypes of Pakistan — but not in a preachy way.

In a world that often views Pakistani women one-dimensionally, Imtiaz shows the complexity of women trying to forge careers, find love and be a good friend. Imtiaz uses Pakistani references and Urdu-language words often throughout her novel but instead of being off-putting to non-Pakistanis, the technique lends an air of authenticity to the book.

The book is also a bit of a love letter to journalism and the sometimes-charming — sometimes-psycho — characters inhabiting the world of Karachi journalism. There's the crime reporter with assassins on speed dial and the newspaper owner who fails to pay his staff for months but still expects them to cover the fashion show where his wife is a model.

She writes with an acid tongue about foreign journalists who come to Karachi to write about fashion shows and one in particular who sleeps with her and then breaks her heart.

I don't think I'm giving any secrets away or robbing prospective readers of the fun of reading this book by saying that Ayesha comes out on top in work and love. According to Imtiaz's website, the author is working on a book about the conflict in her hometown of Karachi, which likely won't be as funny as “Karachi, You're Killing Me!” But, hopefully, we'll read more in the future about Ayesha's adventures.

Rebecca Santana is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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