The book “The Return of Faraz Ali” by Aamina Ahmad is a spellbindingly assured first novel that poses a timeless question: Whom do we choose to protect and at what price?
Faraz Ali still remembers the day he was abducted from the home he shared with his mother and sister in Shahi Mohalla—Lahore’s notorious red-light district—at the direction of his powerful father. Now his father, once more dictating his fate from afar, has sent Faraz back, installing him as the head of the Mohalla police station and charging him with a mission: to cover up the violent death of a young girl.
It should be a simple assignment to carry out, but for the first time in his career, Faraz finds himself unable to follow orders. As the city assails him with a jumble of memories, he cannot stop asking questions or winding through the walled city’s labyrinthine alleyways chasing the secrets—his family’s and his own—that risk shattering his precariously constructed existence.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Lahore, February 1943
It was said, or so he had been told: Fatima, beloved daughter of the Prophet, had not felt the heat of the fire as she stirred a pot of simmering halva with her hand. She didn’t feel the burning sugar climbing her arm, darkening to the colour of her skin, such was her grief. He didn’t know the rest of the story. No one had remembered to tell him what sorrow had made Fatima more powerful than the fire, but he thought of her when his mother held up her hand to stop the men who came for him.
She pushed him through the doorway behind her and called up to his sister, who knew exactly what to do. Rozina pulled him up the steep staircase to the roof; then she let go of his hand to jump across the narrow gap between their roof and their neighbour’s. The terraces stretched behind her into the distance. She turned to him: Jump, jump, she said. How many times had he watched his sister and her friends hop from roof to roof, till they disappeared? He wasn’t sure he could do it, he was only five years old. Rozina made it look so easy but he struggled to keep up with her—she was stronger, faster, always faster than him. Don’t look down, just step across, she said. She held out her hand. Down below he heard his mother screeching. A crowd of women had gathered around her. Others leaned over their balconies, they yelled at the men to leave her alone, they called out to God because God sees everything and there had to come a time, his mother always said, that God would give you what you needed, if you just kept asking. Voices rose around him, others fell away: God hears you, sister. God hears you.
His mother looked up; she was searching for him. The strangers looked up too. He heard them push open the door below. Jump, jump! Rozina said. Go on, Baba, go on, a voice called from a terrace somewhere. The terraces, the balconies, were dotted with people now. The women had abandoned their washing, the boys their kites, the girls climbed onto their charpoys for a better view. Some stared, but mostly they shouted, their hands beckoning to him: Jump, jump, they’re coming. Their voices were sharp in the cold air. Rozina held out her hand: Faraz! Now, now! And he thought of the amulets that decorated the whole of the Mohalla, its walls and shops and doorways, delicate, silver hands; Fatima’s hand. A hand that feared nothing. Not even fire. Take it, Rozina said. And so he did. The boys whistled and the women praised God, their fingers pointing to the sky, as Rozina dragged him from roof to roof, and the men who had come for him could do nothing but watch because the whole of the Mohalla had come out to protect him, and nothing was bigger than the Mohalla. Six months later, they came back, the same men. And this time his mother invited them in and gave them tea, and then told him to sit with them. The men didn’t say much, but when they got up to leave, she told him he had to go with them, that he would be back soon. It didn’t seem possible that his amma would lie to him, that she would not want him back, so he let one of the men carry him downstairs to the tonga waiting around the corner.
This time, no one came out to watch. An old woman stared at them from a balcony but she said nothing. He smelled smoke and iron in the air, and the musky scent of the man who held him. He waited for his mother and his sister, who had followed them downstairs, to wave goodbye, but they didn’t. His mother went back inside the kotha and called for Rozina to follow her. She didn’t watch as he disappeared around the corner. He knew then they would not bring him back, just as he knew his amma’s sorrow had not made her powerful. It had not, he realised, made her remarkable in any way at all.
- August 18, 2023