Title: Call Me Al
Author: Sheheryar B. Sheikh
Genre: Political Satire
Call Me Al is pronounced a political satire and that’s precisely why I picked this book to read. Manipulation, power games and above all violently idiosyncratic characters, all these come together in a narrative that is brilliant in its rebellion of linear storytelling.
“The smallest distance from powerlessness in London to sovereignty in Islamabad is a double- murder and a riot.”
This sums up the story neatly, filling the blanks of how, who and what. Altamaash, a rising political power in Pakistan is forced into exile through the machinations of his political opponents. For decades, he bids his time, wanting to come back to Pakistan to reclaim the lost days of glory and to lead his nation. Curiously, he tries a sleight of hand through an elaborately planned double-murder for which he is never indicted and sets off a series of violent events in his homeland to engineer his return to a tumultuous nation as a saviour.
The book seemed quite heavy in the first few chapters, obtuse even and I resigned myself to a slow paced book. However,
1/3 into the book, the narration flows. You realise that the book is not just a satire but with many layers of wit, some of which you may miss if you don’t pay attention.
There’s the case of names, of George Gary Gregory Jaffar, of Altamaash (a pun on ‘tamashaa’ and the song Call me Al) himself. Then there are the Angels, the Angel of Admittance and the Angel of Turning Away and the counterintuitive way the Divine One decides who gets hell and who gets heaven.
The book also has a number of monologues, all characters indulge in them to their hearts desire and more but they are perhaps needed to move the story further and to explain the going-ons which are usually too difficult to follow. But, it doesn’t get confusing. Rather the shift in narrative and through ‘seeing’ the past and future lives of Al, the story gets a new dimension and a distance from the protagonist which is a little relieving.
“When you look at the whole thing from the future, it will appear like a montage of images in stop-start slow-motion.”
The narration is interesting. The first 1/3rd of the book is through the voices of 2 characters and their PoV of one person, Al. After the two characters die, they are supposed to live out Al’s life right from that point in time to his past and his future.
The way the story moves forward is gripping in the sense that the author takes liberty with the narration, the narrative voice and pov, as also the omniscience through two dead people and the pace wherein the dead ones decide to view the past and future of Al. Through these narrative techniques, Al becomes the superhero that he is supposed to be all along in the book.
The song, call me Al by Paul Simons has inspired the title of the book. Is it because the protagonist Altamaash is undergoing a mid-life crisis, disillusioned and disheartened, making one last desperate jab to get back to the days of glory?
The characters are deeply flawed and oh-so-human. There are shades of grey all around, veering towards black and this is why the characters are so believable and memorable. Altamaash himself is larger-than-life and his twisted sense of logic and even ruthlessness is entertaining.
Sheheryar B. Sheikh mentions that he wanted to ‘create a narrative that enflamed the desire to devote life to literature’. In that respect, he has been successful. ‘Call Me Al’ has been one of the most satisfying reads for me this year. The storyline is familiar, set as it is in Pakistan but it is the narrative that is the redeeming and the inspiring factor.