The debate about whether criminals are born or made can be extended to terrorists too, and assumes greater significance given the indiscriminate death and destruction they deal in. For it is important to understand what can make certain humans turn into unconscionably brutal killers of defenceless people, and in finding so, avoid dehumanising them as they do their targets – even if we don’t like what we find.
This is the core of Pakistani police officer-turned-author Omar Shahid Hamid’s second book of fiction – a dark, noir-like and ultimately chilling account of how a youth from a normal lower-middle class background becomes a near-psychopathic killer, who can destroy everyone he comes in contact with – family, friends, and finally, a hapless police officer who gets close to figuring him out.
This is the dreaded Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi, whose depredations include the (video-recorded) gruesome killing of a pregnant British journalist and assassination attempts on an unnamed Pakistani president, but gave no indication of his future when only the simple Ahmed Sufi, he and his two best friends (one a girl) passed out in the mid-1990s from a prestigious Karachi school.
His friends, who are from higher social classes, go abroad for higher studies but he stays in touch with them even as his own life goes through lethal and abrupt changes and he embarks on a dark, dangerous path – first as a political worker and then as a militant.
The journey from a student to a jihadi takes him to Kosovo to a training camp in Afghanistan (where he encounters Osama Bin Laden but is most unimpressed!) to Kashmir (where he is captured and tortured) and finally back to his own country, where he carries on his campaign of violence before being trapped by a dogged officer. Found to suborn the staff in the jail where he is lodged, he is shifted to a remote makeshift jail in the desert of Sindh, in the charge of newly-promoted Superintendent of Police Omar Abbasi.
Abbasi, of humble background and most anxious to prove himself, attempts to find out what transformed his prisoner and what his future plans are, but, too late, finds he has been outwitted.
Hamid, who served in police for over a decade including in Karachi as a superintendent of police as well as had personal experience of terrorism with the gunning down of his father – a principled head of Karachi power utility, seems to have drawn on his own experiences as well as a several recent real-life events, including the hijacking of IC-814, the Daniel Pearl killing and the assassination attempts on President Musharraf among others in his book.
But unlike his debut “The Prisoner” (2013) about two disinterested middle-aged policemen (one who shifted himself sideways to become a jailor and the other one jailed for a staged killing) who are asked to help trace and rescue a kidnapped American journalist ahead of his impending execution on Christmas Day, “The Spinner’s Tale” is considerably darker and grittier, and positively noirish in its treatment of love, friendship, duty and loyalty.
It also raises some uncomfortable and not-easily answered questions about power and privilege and what the thwarted aspirations of millions of youth in lower stratas of society – in not only Pakistan but across South Asia – may lead to.
That is a question that will keep you up like this book’s grim ending.