Aftab Arif

‘24’ - the hit US TV series set new standards of storylines careening at breakneck speed, the main protagonist performing Houdini like extrications from impossible situations keeping its viewers around the globe glued to their seats. Omar Shahid Hamid’s debut novel, ‘The Prisoner’ matches ‘24’ both in its fast moving plot and in keeping readers on tenterhooks at the edge of their seats.

The novel is set in Karachi, a city of many tales. Omar mines the rich seam of its stranger than fiction stories to capture the city’s true character and the conflicts and compromises which Karachiites witness too regularly. The novel is firmly rooted in reality, though the rollicking pace and the author’s creative narrative style belies the truth behind the rapidly unfolding storyline.

Omar weaves a tapestry of world events and timelines into his characters’ complicated lives to build his tightly woven plot in a tone of voice well suited to sub-continental audiences. The dexterous use of Pakistan’s expressive street language lends a strong aura of authenticity with the caveat that international readers might appreciate some judicious editing and inclusion of a glossary of the slang Urdu used in the narrative to clarify plot lines and characters. His depth of knowledge and deep understanding of the operational issues of policing in Pakistan has yielded an eye opening account of how the war on terror (read The Taliban) and urban terrorism is being fought along this fractured country’s’ many fault lines.

Without giving too much away the story is a blend of high drama, petty politics and police adventures which hones in on the average Pakistani’s determination to make the best of the worst situations. The main characters of the novel are expertly scripted and many will be familiar to Pakistani readers; and to avid followers of Pakistani politics.

The novel prises open a rare window onto the paradox that is a mid-ranking Pakistani policeman’s life: mundane and adventurous by turns. The author enthrals his reader’s with unparalleled depth and detail while describing how rankers in Pakistan’s police department survive – operating solely on their uncanny ability to execute the ‘gora sahib’s’ bidding: those privileged gazetted police officers and their handlers aka ‘elected politicians’.

The main character, a Christian police officer ‘Constantine De Souza’, is an unlikely hero: a powerful man hailing from a minority Christian community in a city dominated by an ethnically diverse mix of violently squabbling Muslim sects. A peak into his mind; his view of the world, how he wields power, cajoles, manipulates and persuades thereby moulding the world around him just to survive – that is Omar Shahid’s masterpiece.

Omar’s perspective on the city’s security situation is well informed given his erstwhile position as head of CID Karachi, the constant threats to his life by the Taliban and a personal tragic history with a powerful political group. The author’s account of how a certain Taliban group established a foothold in the poorer districts of Karachi; successfully kidnapped an American journalist from the city’s most exclusive, highly secure neighbourhood is riveting. This single incident transformed the dynamics of politics and policing in Karachi.

While the author does not shy away from acknowledging the corrosive reality of the corruption and criminal patronage rife within Pakistan’s police force, he is also quick to remind his readers of the constant threat of death, torture and brutality the rankers of the force are subjected to by the Taliban as well as various urban terrorist organizations. In some ways, the novel argues that perfect policing is only possible in a perfect society and that as a country Pakistan has neither. Its police force is therefore merely a reflection of the society it serves- it is brave, brutal, honest and corrupt in equal measures.

The main characters of the book including Nawaz Chandio the mercurial politician, the city’s DON in exile, IG Dr. Death, Home Minister Pakora, SP Akbar Khan and the spooks from the agencies will all be familiar to the Pakistani readers. Once you finished the novel it may be impossible to avoid identifying each of the main characters as the people you read or hear about in daily news bulletins.

Due to its depth and comprehensive coverage of the operational issues this novel provides an eye opener account to the international policy makers and readers about how war on Taliban and urban terrorism is being fought in Pakistan. Omar’s piece of fiction is firmly rooted in reality and due to this feature it gives a real flavour of life at the frontline of countering terrorism. ‘The Prisoner’ is a strong addition to the international crime fiction genre and a must read for the layperson as well as international policy makers interested in understanding the machinations of Pakistani politics as viewed through the prism of its police force.

The author is an independent political analyst based in London and could be reached on