Can the people who are the closest to us be complete strangers, be they your friends or even your spouse? Can those strangers who belong to total different strata become friends? And how far are we willing to allow strangers to have an impact in our lives that we completely alter our beliefs?
It is around this concept which Awais Khan explores in his debut novel In The Company of Strangers. To make things more exciting, the novel is based in the cultural capital of Pakistan- Lahore.
The opening prologue of the book draws the reader rather quickly, with a ghastly suicide attack in Lahore. While the aftermath of the suicide attack affects everyone, we follow the lives of two protagonists: Mona and Ali.
Mona, a 40-something who is bored with her high-society life. She has everything going for her- a rich house in a posh locality, a group of posh friends who keep her entertained, her husband Bilal who is often protective of his wife and a very happening social life. Yet despite all this, there is something missing in Mona’s life. In her casual conversation with her friends, they discuss the suicide attack and merely dismiss it as just yet another attack primarily because they affected directly.
On the flip side, we meet Ali, who is from a not so affluent background and is struggling to maintain a working life to support his mother and younger brother, Hussain. Hussain is caught up in the suicide attack and loses his leg. This prompts Ali to seek out a better paying job to aid Hussain’s treatment.
The plot is set in motion when Mona reconnects with her friend Meera after a 20-year hiatus. Things are awkward between them first but things cool down. Meera is a flamboyant event planner and a socialite. At a party where alcohol and drugs are rampant, Meera invites Mona and her husband Bilal to the most happening event in town, a fashion show.
It is at this fashion that Mona first glances at Ali, a model show stopper. Ali is touted to be the next super male model, thanks to Meera’s strong intuition. However, as Mona and Ali connect over a series of rich people’s parties, they embark on a secret relationship, without realising the havoc and devastation it will create on everyone’s lives.
The major highlight for me in the book was how Lahore was shown. We don’t have that many fiction books based in Lahore (Mohsin Hamid’s The Moth Smoke is the other famous book based in Lahore) and to be able to read In the Company of Strangers took me back to my hometown, complete with it’s smells, sounds and sights. Thankfully, Awais stays away from stereotyping or generalizations and captures the essence of Lahore in his own unique ways, which makes it for a refreshing read.
Awais Khan does a beautiful job of recreating the scenes of life in Lahore and encapsulates the sensory experiences quite well. The opening prologue will alone give you a great idea as he talks about the setting of the scene where the suicide bomber is contemplating whether to blow himself up or not in a crowded market. It’s almost as if the reader is standing right there in the market place.
In addition, Awais does a great job of showing in nitty-gritty details of what happens behind the scenes at a fashion show event, at late-night parties fuelled with alcohol and drugs, and what really goes behind the curtains in the homes of the rich and famous. In contrast, Awais also does a brilliant job of showing life at the other end of the economic spectrum, with the middle-class living conditions, the bleak situation at the hospitals and humdrum life and struggles of an average family like Ali’s. This juxtaposition is shown in a rather unique way which I have not seen in any other books.
The chapters jump back and forth between Mona’s and Ali’s viewpoints, which makes it for an interesting read and keeps the readers engaged. The writing is thankfully not heavy-handed and makes for a breezy read and in all honesty, felt the book was too short (even though its 274 pages long). The novel is fast-paced and doesn’t drag, and the ending was actually quite perfect for me and quite unpredictable. I didn’t see the novel ending in the way it did, and I was quite surprised by it.
A lot of times I found myself wondering whether I would do the same thing as the characters do in the book. In one instance, Mona’s husband Bilal does something that completely took me off guard and made me see him as a “stranger.” In another instance, Ali’s seeks out a religious leader, Mir Rabiullah, who asks Ali to carry out a task for him, and it was at this juncture that I actually thought to myself whether I would do what Ali is going to do, given all what I knew about Ali so far. Here is a stranger who Ali follows blindly. This marks the success of the writer to be able to give the readers a moral dilemma to engage in and provoke some intelligent points for discussion.
In all, I would highly recommend In The Company of Strangers for its depiction of life in Lahore and what goes on behind the outer facade and allow yourself to immerse in all the secrecy and glamour and excitement through the eyes of Mona and Ali.
On a side note, I was super privileged to have got this book personally signed by the amazing Awais Khan himself.