The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon opens with Nadia, an office worker married to unemployed and intoxicated Mubashir. Her menial office job just about pays the rent for a small shack in Gulberg, Lahore. During the day, she is at the mercy of her lecherous boss.
I try to keep my eyes levelled on Shadab sahab’s desk while I brief him about the electricity bills. I never want to look at his face. I am repulsed by that sleazy, unnecessary grin and those prying eyes, raking every inch of my body with their laser-sharp intensity.
Sadly, such unwelcome advances do not end there. From walking past the security guard to hailing a rickshaw, she describes the precariousness of being a poor working-class woman in the male-dominated spaces of Pakistan.
Safinah Danish Elahi’s previous novel Eye on the Prize 2020 has been commissioned for a television series in Pakistan. Her new novel The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon is set in the UK and Pakistan and is centered on childhood friends, Nadia, Zohair and Misha and the lingering on of grief and emotional trauma, following a tragedy that occurred in Karachi.
Nadia continually questions Mubashir’s purpose in her life as she narrates her early life in a poverty-stricken village and later her memories as a maid’s daughter and friend to the children of the Hashim’s.
The Hashims came from Punjab but had lived in Karachi all their lives. They looked like those English-speaking, upper-class types, and spoke even to their two-year-old daughter in English. They had a huge garden, with mulberry trees lined up near the alley that led to the servant quarters. The mynah birds sang all morning, the chowkidaar (gatekeeper) wore a uniform, and, for some time, it felt like I was in a movie.
As a young child in Karachi, Nadia befriends Zohaib and Misha, who live comfortably with their doting parents within the four walls of their gated house and garden. Nadia, while loved dearly by Zohaib and Misha, struggles with being the servant “friend” to these wealthy, pampered Hashim children. She often contrasts her own life, born into poverty and early escape from domestic violence with that of Misha’s with her “laughter, naivety and swimming pools”.
Emotional trauma is a central theme and props up vividly in the chapters about Zohaib and his father. Zohaib is an international student in London—his first appearance in the novel is in a Therapists’ room in London’s prestigious Harley Street (of course)—dependent on his father for financial sustenance and befriended by Talha, a British Pakistani. Talha and his loving family become a surrogate family to Zohaib, no doubt homesick and in need of emotional support be it in the form of Talha’s mothers’ ghee laden parathas bread. Trauma even resurfaces when he is miles away on a hiking expedition organized by Talha in Peru:
Dark clouds are now gathering in the sky and their shadows will envelope me soon. It’s getting windy and cold. I’m moving without thinking. I wish there was a pause button on my memories so I could collect my scattered pieces.
The reasons for Zohaib’s fragility become apparent later; he is in the process of healing and is still carrying ghosts from his past. Elahi does well to give voice to the male perspective on grief and trauma, in a society where such emotions are often sidelined.
I equally valued the portrayal of the character of Nadia. Everyday “working class” women from humble origins — those nervously walking through a male dominated bazaar, on her way to work for a pitiful, precarious wage — sadly lack visibility in Pakistan.
Despite zipping (on occasion somewhat confusingly) through space and time, with transitory scenes in London and Peru, this is very much a “Karachi novel” in which the city’s norms and idiosyncrasies play a central role.
Elahi treads ground that may be familiar. Readers who have read Daniyal Mueenudin’s 2009 collection of stories In Other Rooms Other Wonders that examines life through the lenses of individuals, ranging from penniless maids, to powerful landowners will be familiar with the extremities of wealth and power that characterize contemporary Pakistan. The society and power dynamics that Mueenudin wrote eloquently about in his early work are similar to those written about in A Sportsman’s Notebook, an important work written by Ivan Turgenev, in 19th century Russia—a classic that Mueenudin is familiar with and has commented about in his essays.
While class differentials and poverty characterize Elahi’s novel, her work is really about the struggles of a working-class woman, childhood friendships and a family’s experience with grief. The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon is a novel geared towards younger audiences and may deepen their perspectives on the curse of poverty and the lingering on of trauma and loss over time.