A Murder in the Red Light District Sparks a Reckoning of Power and Injustice in Lahore
Aamina Ahmad's novel "The Return of Faraz Ali" uses noir to examine class, caste, and gender in Pakistani history
Aamina Ahmad’s debut novel The Return of Faraz Ali begins with a moment of no return. Born and raised in Lahore’s old city, the young Faraz is forced to leave behind his mother and his sister Rozina. It isn’t until Faraz is an adult in 1968 working as a policeman, that he goes back to the old city to investigate the murder of a young girl who worked as a mujra, a courtesan, last seen with one of Lahore’s most powerful politicians. But the Faraz who returns is a stranger to his childhood home: estranged from his father Wajid, a Lahori bureaucrat who refuses to acknowledge his illegitimate son, his mother, a courtesan herself, and his sister Rozina, a Lollywood star whose career has seen better days.
Ahmad takes up the noir genre in order to explore the scope of Pakistani history from World War II to the 1970s. Faraz’s investigation takes him from Lahori protests against Ayub Khan in 1968, to Dhaka in 1971 at the beginning of Bangladesh’s Revolutionary War. Rozina grapples with her relationship with her daughter and the lies she had to live for her career as an actress. And as a soldier in the Indian Army, Wajid spends his days as a prisoner of war, fighting for freedom as a colonial subject. It’s through the disparate members of this one family, and Faraz’s fraught search for justice and for home, that Ahmad asks: When you’re telling the history of a nation, who is remembered, and who is purposefully forgotten?
I spoke with Ahmad over email about what drew her to Lahore’s Old City, writing a noir, and the legacy of Pakistani literature that suffuses the novel.
Yasmin Adele Majeed: The Return of Faraz Ali takes place across different periods and locations in the subcontinent, but at the core of the story is the Walled City of Lahore. What inspired you to write about the Old City, and about the women who work as mujra dancers who live there?
Aamina Ahmad: I visited Lahore a great deal as a child and my father’s family lived fairly close to the Old City, which has long been home to many of the nation’s famous artists and artisans, its best food, and of course the red-light district. But whenever I visited, I was intrigued by the way people talked about androon sheher, the old inner city, with the sense that there was something singular about this city within the city, a place that felt like a bit of a mystery to outsiders, even to other Lahoris.
The fact that the red-light area housed a community of women whose lives were so removed from the middle-class world I knew also drew me in. There’s a long tradition of romanticizing the courtesan in South Asian film and literature, but I guessed that was pretty far from the everyday reality of the women working there. I wondered how they lived, worked, and survived in such a socially conservative society. The complicated way the rest of society saw them too—sometimes as artists possessed of a certain level of glamor and skill but also, more often, as scandalous and disreputable, felt potentially like a means to explore the harder realities of class, caste, and gender, something those romanticized stories didn’t always investigate.
So, I started to imagine a family of three generations of women, Firdous, a traditional courtesan, her daughter, Rozina who moves into the world of film, and then her daughter who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere in this community. And, of course, Faraz, a boy in this world, who is “saved” by his respectable father and removed from this neighborhood, but ends up being returned there as an adult by his father, a police inspector now and tasked with covering up a murder.
YAM: The novel’s geographic and historical scope is expansive—you take the reader from Lahore during the protests against Ayub Khan, to Dhaka in 1971, to Waziristan in the ’40s during World War II. It is as much a story of Faraz and his family as it is a history of Pakistan as a country. What interested you in telling these interwoven stories?
AA: In some ways, I felt that writing this story was a part of my effort to understand Pakistan as a place, and my place in it as a diaspora Pakistani. But when I started writing, the story ended up stretching through these different time periods, presenting me with all these different pictures of Pakistan. It felt as if whenever I looked at any one moment in time in the story, it became impossible to separate it from a moment before that—a kind of story thread seemed to run from one time period to another, from World War II to the 1971 War of Independence, for example. The soldiers in one war became the generals in the ones that followed.
Of course, this didn’t make it easy to come to conclusions about Pakistan, to pin it down, as I had hoped. Instead, it underlined how difficult it is to construct a narrative of a place and a people. Places, nations are constantly changing and evolving and there is never one single, clear narrative; there are instead multiple histories and dozens of story fragments loosely tied together by these threads.
For example, I found myself bringing in the history of Faraz’s father, a powerful bureaucrat, but also a man who’s been traumatized by his experience as POW in Libya during World War II, those experiences impacting his choices and subsequent events in the present. So ultimately the novel started to take this kind of a shape where stories leaned into each other and characters who never met one another in the novel were connected by these threads just as one moment in time was connected to a previous moment in time.
YAM: In telling the history of Pakistan, you are writing also about the violent history of colonialism and war in South Asia. The novel is set during many of these periods, including World War II, when the Indian Army fought for the Allied Powers, and the 1971 genocide by Pakistan in Bangladesh. How did you approach researching this history, and were there ethical and moral questions that you considered in rendering them in fiction?
AA: Yes, the story moves around. Faraz, because of his actions, his defiance, is banished and sent to Bangladesh which is in the midst of a fight for freedom that is being brutally suppressed by Pakistan. And his father decades before endured a brutal experience as an Italian POW when he was a soldier in the British Indian Army. In both instances I was interested in how erasure and a kind of collective amnesia operate as nations construct their identities via the stories they chose to tell and the ones they chose not to tell.
Although my grandfather had served in Burma in World War II, even I had no idea about the sheer numbers of Indian soldiers who’d served until I began my research. They’d been absent from all the World War II stories I’d grown up watching in the West, but there seemed to be a similar silence on the subject in Pakistan, and South Asia more generally. Where does a story of your loyalty to empire fit after you’ve freed yourselves from your imperial oppressor? The tension between erasing and owning the past is one the novel plays with again and again, Faraz’s confrontation with his origins a kind of detonation that ripples across time and space.
Of course, writing about the War of Independence, in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh—and the atrocities that took place there—felt really fraught. Many Bangladeshi writers have explored, and continue to explore, the trauma of the war with an understanding of the history, culture and language that I don’t have. But in the end, I decided that writing about it was a means of resisting the silence around it. There are now generations of young people in Pakistan who have little idea of Pakistan’s conduct in the war, or the scale of the violence unleashed on the people of Bangladesh. This very deliberate erasure feels like a very dangerous kind of forgetting. So I set out to write those sections as accurately as possible, weaving the fictional elements around actual events, using a mix of primary sources, documentation, and the work of numerous, excellent scholars to do so.
YAM: Lahore is famous as a literary city, and the novel is very much in conversation with the literary history of Lahore and Pakistan as a whole. You reference Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the mujra is a form steeped in the Urdu poetic tradition. What was it like to engage with this literary tradition as a Pakistani writer?
AA: Lahore has such a rich literary tradition, as you say; Pak Tea House, for example, where Rozina meets her filmmaker friend Bobby, was where the Progressive Writers’ Association came into being and became this incredible meeting point for writers and thinkers, and so it felt impossible to write the story of a city like Lahore without making room for that aspect of Lahori life. And it gave me a chance to explore Pakistan’s incredible poetic tradition more deeply, its enormous range and radical bent which you see in the work of Faiz and Habib Jalib but also in the poetry of later poets like Sara Shagufta and Fahmida Riyaz.
Pakistanis from all backgrounds have such a passion for their poets, such an enormous respect for the tradition, and so many of them create, recite and revere poetry—politicians use poetry as a means to reach ordinary people for a reason—that I really wanted in a small way to honor that very local passion in the book.
YAM: The novel is, in part, a neo-noir that takes on a classic plot of the genre: a conflicted detective investigating the murder of a young girl last seen with a powerful politician. But you open up this classic mystery narrative to explore larger questions about inheritance, exploitation, and class oppression in Pakistan. What drew you to the mystery genre as the form for telling this particular story?
AA: I love noir for its attitude and atmosphere as well as the tight plotting and tension that you see in the work of great noir writers like [Raymond] Chandler and [Patricia] Highsmith. In particular I love the focus on setting, and I thought the Old City, with its narrow alleyways and dark corners, would make as great a backdrop for a noir as Chandler’s LA mean streets did. Given that I also wanted to tell a story that explored Pakistani society, the detective is a really useful figure to do that—they occupy this unusual position which allows them to travel across class and through various spaces, moving from the world of down and outs to fancy houses with relative ease which is why the crime novel has traditionally been such an effective way to explore aspects of larger society.
But I was also interested in playing with the tropes of the genre—I could use the mystery as a means of drawing in the reader in to tell not so much a crime story, but rather a story about a crime, not so much a procedural but rather an anti-procedural, both of which felt closer to the story I really wanted to investigate about power and injustice.
YAM: Although the novel is named for Faraz, the characters I loved most were the many charming, wayward, and headstrong women, especially Rozina, Faraz’s sister, a former Lollywood star who is past the glory days of her career. What brought you to Rozina as a character?
AA: I was very interested in the way the red-light area became a kind of pipeline for the film industry, generating stars, but while it represented a kind of upward mobility in terms of recognition and success, life was still pretty precarious for many of them, as it is for most artists everywhere. And I wanted to write about a woman who really understands what it is to exist in that very uncertain space, how she manages all the roles she must play while striving to protect and support those she loves, that too in a context where she has very few options because of her gender, caste, and class. Rozina’s story is one of “making it out” of the neighborhood on the basis of her beauty, her talents, but they can only take her so far and for so long. But I came to really love her for the way she keeps trying, for her sense of responsibility for those she loves, for her very human moments of anxiety and frustration, and her occasional flashes of defiance.
YAM: Throughout the novel, Faraz wrestles with his disenfranchisement as an illegitimate son and his complicity as an agent of state violence. He’s a complicated and flawed man, one who is both a liar and someone seeking the truth. He is also a careful observer of the contradictions and failures of Pakistan in the early years of its nationhood. What is your own relationship to Faraz? And how did your understanding of his character develop as you were writing the novel?
AA: I think my view of Faraz at the start of the novel is reflected in the way he enters the story: He’s beating a protester in an anti-government demonstration. I saw him very much as an embodiment of state power, a tool of oppression, and I wanted the reader to feel that in those first moments. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong—like most people do—but is so bound to the institutions he serves that he never acts on his feelings of unease. He moves through the world with the confidence that comes with knowing that he and the men he serves will never be held to account.
But he is also a man who is profoundly trapped by his history, his class, and the burdens of the secrets he carries. Allying himself with the power of the state is also an act of self-preservation, a measure that protects him from its violence, and also allows him a rare chance at social mobility. It’s also fair to say that it’s very difficult for most of us to rebel against the institutions that protect us. Faraz does evolve over time and though you might say he is not held to account as he should be, and that he also fails in his attempts to hold power to account, he does achieve a degree of transformation which manifests in his marriage, his relationships, and his way of being in the world. I came to feel a compassion for the ways in which he is constrained and limited, as most people are, and for the ways in which, despite that, he still tries to do better.