By Simon Demetriou
When something doesn’t quite fit into the genre you expected, it’s tempting to write something like, ‘This is more than just a crime novel’. The problem with that, is that it’s condescending. A good crime novel is fantastic. But that still leaves The Return of Faraz Ali very hard to accurately categorise. This probably means it’s best not to try. But I’m going to anyway.
So, is it a crime novel? Well, the plot is kicked into action by the murder of a young girl in the Mohallah – the pleasure-seeking neighbourhood of Lahore peopled by the Kanjari, a caste associated with prostitution. Faraz Ali, a police inspector in a remote rural district, is called to Lahore to take charge of the police station tasked with dealing with the girl’s death. In typical crime novel fashion, Ali must navigate a web of corrupt officials and policemen through a brilliantly evoked labyrinthine setting. His task takes in state officials, ex-movie-stars, pimps and courtesans.
However, the murderer is revealed less than two thirds of the way through the book. And the reader quickly becomes more interested in unravelling the mystery of Faraz Ali’s own past, the strands of which have brought him to this place at this time. In doing so, one might begin to think of Aamina Ahmad’s book as more properly a historical novel. After all, it takes in World War Two from the perspective of an Indian (since Pakistan did not exist) officer, who happens to be Faraz Ali’s father – the man who had him kidnapped from the Mohallah as a boy so that he could lead a better, non-Kanjari life. The novel explores the beginnings of democracy in Pakistan and the civil war between East and West Pakistan that led to the formation of modern Bangladesh. It also allows the reader to see the Kanjari way of life from the perspective of a woman who typifies it. Rozina, Faraz Ali’s sister, rose from dancing in the Mohallah to dancing on the big screen, and now finds herself on her way back to the Mohallah due to being discarded by the man who had been keeping her as his mistress.
Perhaps above all the novel is a family drama. It suggests that the mysteries that tie families together and break them apart are greater than any single mysterious moment. Ultimately, Aamina Ahmad’s ability to make every layer of her novel function on this powerfully human level is why this book is both so hard to define and so good at being just what it is.