There are three stories of different lengths in Of Necessity and Wanting, each one a vignette of life in urban Pakistan, particularly in the cosmopolitan city of Karachi. Each story has its characters and themes but the connecting thread between them all is the city itself. One might also consider Karachi to be a character – a paradoxical, ‘not-so-beautiful’, dominating character – it would be hard to find another setting where these tales of ‘need’ and ‘want’ could unfold as they do in this ‘hell-hole’ of a city with its frenzy of traffic, canals clogged with raw sewage, its sicknesses and smells of rotting fish and smog, its beggar-lined streets of colour and glitter and flowers.
Then there is the heat, the exhausting, all-pervading heat which, as Zainab in the third story describes:
(The sun) beat down with more ferocity as it got nearer to mid-afternoon … the dust filled your nostrils and coated your throat. Externally, it stuck to the rivulets of sweat that dripped down your face.’
The nearness of the sea offered a promise of some relief – until one got nearer and smelled ‘the pungent aroma of dead fish.’
Here is a description of a beach:
Clifton Beach was no beauty. The sands were verging on the black side of grey, with muck piled up everywhere. Slimy hills of seaweed, old shoes, dog excrement, human excrement, oil slicks and pieces of glass adorned the shore – this was no encouragement to walk barefoot and yet people did. Tonight, Javid walked right onto the beach craving the cool sands under his feet – the all-encompassing sound of the waves raging in his ears.
Karachi – a paradoxical city of grime and beauty. ‘May the seven saints continue to protect her,’ says Sascha Akhtar in a dedication.
The three stories are fascinating and very readable with strong, independent men and women fighting against the existences in which they find themselves and striving to discover ways of improving their lives. But the plots are there to carry the themes and it is those which stay in the memory.
One example is the section called ‘Paani: Water’ which focuses on the issue of hydro-politics. Akram obtains employment as a manservant in a palatial house where he receives so much money he is able to send large amounts home to help support his family. He is responsible for overseeing many duties but what puzzles him is the fact that:
: Every four or five days, a white van pulled up at the house between 12 pm and 2 pm. Three men in blue shirts and trousers with name badges would wheel in a retinue of heavy, thick plastic barrels full of ‘purified’ water. They would make three trips, each one of them wheeling in three at a time.
This purified water is for the wealthy family only and there are barrels in every single room. When Akram persuades his employer to have all the servants tested, the results are shocking:
When the blood tests came back every single member of the domestic staff had some form of water-borne stomach illness from mild gastroenteritis to amoebic dysentery.
After this the servants are allowed and encouraged to drink as much boiled water as they wish – boiled water, not purified. It would cost too much, the employer says, to have filtered water for everyone.
Of Necessity and Wanting is a profound and thought-provoking book, rich with colour and compassion. I have long been an admirer of Sascha Akhtar’s poetry and it’s good to enjoy her journey into fiction. I’m looking forward to whatever she will write about next.
Mandy Pannett 22nd March 2023