Title: The Warehouse; Author: S.S. Mausoof; Publisher: Hachette India; Pages: 256; Price: Rs 399
Pakistan’s border badlands, where a merciless conflict rages between militants, both homegrown and foreign, and the army (and the US and Afghans) under the relentless eye of the drones, are the last place where an insurance investigator would be of any good.
And is what is happening in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) solely a war against terrorism or are there other undercurrents involved?
Mausoof skillfully combines these two strands into an engrossing tale about how even in one of the world’s most violent and lawless regions, some human tendencies can never be suppressed or remain absent.
On a hot evening in September 2011, our protagonist, Syed Qais Ali Qureshi, a certified insurance surveyor in Karachi, is contacted by ex-lover Sonia, who has a job for him on behalf of her insurance company, despite bad blood between him and her boss.
It appears simple – an insured warehouse has burnt down and he just has “do a survey, take photographs, write a report, and get the claim accepted”. But the site is in Jandola, capital of Frontier Region Tank, next to South Waziristan, and the owner, a prominent Pukhtoon transporter, does not want to file a claim.
Adding to the complication is that Sonia’s company have already claimed reinsurance, without paying the insurance claim – which means severe legal problems for them at least if found out.
Qais has misgivings as “the last surveyor sent to Waziristan was beheaded by the Taliban. His body was left by the roadside. The head was never found”, is persuaded by Sonia’s wiles and dares, which he is aware of but unable to resist. Also the size of his payout is also a lure, as his own business has not being doing very well, and he has to secure the future of his teenaged daughter.
But as expected, his mission turns out but simple. Despite being accompanied by his friend, a trigger-happy Superintendent of Police in Karachi CID, and the local army commander in Mianwali, in nearby, relatively-safer Punjab where Qais bases himself, a friend, there is trouble galore.
Qais doesn’t endear himself to the local ISI operatives, the transporter, who lost his fire-breathing son in a US drone strike, is not moved by his arguments, his moves to reach an arrangement with the daughter-in-law cause animosity while when he inspects the spot, he finds something more lethal than cigarettes were stored there.
And from there, events spiral out of control – Qais ends up owing a large amount of ‘blood’ money to a local army officer, and then abducted by the Taliban (his local associate is beheaded as a spy) and taken into the interior. Freed by a drone attack but caught by a US cross-border raiding party, he is taken to Afghanistan, where their convoy is ambushed – and he, a widow twice over he has befriended and a young terrorist are the only survivors.
The trio manage to reach a town but as they try to leave for Kabul, there is a bomb blast at the bus stop, and Qais, separated from his companion, is arrested. Owning to be a “Punjabi suicide bomber” to avoid remaining in an Afghan jail, he is shipped to US custody in Bagram.
Will he manage to clear himself, and get back home? At what price? And even then, will his troubles be over?
Mausoof, also an filmmaker with an award-winning noir thriller shot in Karachi, and several screenplays and short stories to his credit, crafts a captivating genre-hopping story with crisp dialogue and cynical asides at Pakistani realities. Beginning as classical noir with an amoral hero, a sexy but wily heroine, and a crooked deal, it effortlessly segues into a terrorist thriller.
This is not the first novel to be set in FATA with the likes of David Ignatius and Fatima Bhutto already having been there, but it stands out for the vivid sense of how even visitors may get trapped in its simple but lethal dynamics, the “dislocation” of being wrenched from normal life and how here, there are no ways to determine “good” or “bad” guys – or any certainty that this distinction exists.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])