The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer
Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great is a collection of linked stories, the link being a bomb blast in Karachi’s Cantt Station. “The bomb was going to become the story of this city,” says one of the characters, but that’s the very notion that Tanweer attempts to subvert with this novel.
It’s easy to define a place by acts of terrorism that devastate it when all we see are headlines that number the dead. Tanweer, however, makes us privy to the issues that rage through the minds of individuals that make up the city. Through their stories, we see Karachi, a city that is “broken, beautiful, and born of tremendous violence.”
To understand a city, Tanweer implies, we need to listen to its people. The Scatter Here Is Too Great, with its many distinct narrative voices and interconnected characters, provides this opportunity. We take a seat beside the foul-mouthed Sadeq in a smoke filled car and watch him abuse his fellow lifters (one of whom he refers to as “mister chut”) as they search for the Honda Civic they’ve been tasked to steal. Another story is from the point-of-view of a child who observes with charming naiveté his sister’s secretive afternoon escapades. We have an unnamed “writer in the city”, the most eloquent of the various narrators, who roams the streets and ruminates on how Karachi deals with the incessant violence:
Living in this city, you developed a certain relationship with violence and news of violence: you expected it, dreaded it, and then when it happened, you worked hard to look away from it, because there was nothing you could do about it—not even grieve, because you knew that it would happen again and maybe in a way that was worse than before. Grieving is possible only when you know you have come to an end, when there is nothing more to follow. This city was full of bottled-up grief.
The unnamed writer is himself full of bottled-up grief; he hasn’t come to terms with the death of his father from many years earlier, and he has to now process the fact that his closest friend has been reduced to just another name in a hospital register of casualties.
The bomb blast is a catalyst for him and the other characters in this novel to confront the troubling questions buried in the back of their minds. Facing grave loss for the second time, the unnamed writer considers his late father’s tendency to make sense of the world through stories that have little basis in reality. In another narrative, we’re thrown into the consciousness of a video-game-parlor owner who debates forgiving a father who abandoned him in favor of the communist revolution. His father’s mistakes wind down the family tree, and we see three generations of men, damaged, confused and struggling to make amends.
A result of the novel’s atypical structure, however, is that—barring the unnamed writer and to a lesser degree, Sadeq—many of the characters don’t have sufficient space to be developed in depth. Excellent prose aside, these are more vignettes of character struggle than independent short stories. We’re told, through the characters’ voices, rather than shown, what they’ve learnt or understood.
What ultimately sticks is the image of Karachi built by Tanweer. There is a scene early on where we see the unnamed writer in his school days sitting in front of the sea:
The sea at eleven in the morning was one Karachi dream that came true each day. It was one part of the city that remained as it ever was: a vast desert of water meeting a uniform spread of grey sand that shimmered with litter in sunlight: plastic bags lolled their heads in the constant wind, half-buried glass bottles stuck their radiant necks out of the sand, varieties of seaweed lay wasted like old mop cloths, and the sea breeze was forever at work scrubbing sand on everything that interrupted its movement.
It is a well-drawn contrast, a rare moment of tranquility in a messy, chaotic world. And in a novel whose central event is a tragic bomb blast, it’s a moment we want to linger in.