The Return of Faraz Ali: A Novel

by Aamina Ahmad

Hardcover, 2022

Call number




Riverhead Books (2022), 349 pages


"Not since childhood has Faraz returned to the Mohalla, Lahore's infamous walled inner city, where women still pass down the profession of courtesan to their daughters. But he still remembers the day he was abducted from the home he shared with his mother and sister there, at the direction of his powerful father, who wanted to give him a chance at a respectable life. Now Wajid, once more dictating his fate from afar, has sent Faraz back to Lahore, installing him as head of the Mohalla police station and charging him with a mission: to cover up the violent death of a young kanjari. It should be a simple assignment to carry out in a marginalized community, but for the first time in his career, Faraz finds himself unable to follow orders. As the city assails him with a jumble of memories, he cannot stop asking questions or chasing down the walled city's labyrinthine alleyways for the secrets-his family's and his own-that risk shattering his precariously constructed existence. Profoundly intimate and propulsive, The Return of Faraz Ali is a spellbindingly assured first novel that poses a timeless question: Whom do we choose to protect, and at what price?"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member dianelouise100
[The Return of Faraz Ali] is set between 1968 to 1972, in Lahore and then in East Pakistan. These were years of political upheaval and finally war in Pakistan, after which Western and Eastern Pakistan were divided and East Pakistan became the country of Bangladesh. The novel’s main character,
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Faraz, is a policeman in Lahore; the story opens as he is leading a police attack on a group of students attempting to listen to a political speech by the liberal politician Bhutto. When Faraz returns to the police station after the fighting, his sleep is interrupted by a phone call from his father Wajid. With much pulling of strings, Wajid has arranged to send him to lead a very sensitive investigation in the Mohalla, the red-light district in Lahore’s walled old city. His task will be to cover up an accident that had resulted in the death of a prostitute, so that the presence at the time, in the vicinity of the crime, of some high ranking government officials need never be known.

The relationship between Faraz and Wajid is not known to anyone else, even Faraz’s wife, since Faraz is the child born from a liaison between his prostitute mother and Wajid that had occurred in the 1940’s, just before Wajid’s service in World War II. It would have been a crippling dishonor for the powerful Wajid, the “senior bureaucrat in the province,” a “general secretary,” to acknowledge a son from the Mohalla. The novel’s initial conflict is created when Faraz, on viewing the body, discovers that the death was in fact not an accident, but clearly murder, and that the victim was an 11-year old child. He reacts with horror and determines to bring justice to the child’s family and to the murderer (while also trying to preserve his own life in a society run by rich and powerful men, who could do whatever to whomever without fear of repercussion). Complicating this fairly standard police thriller material, however, is the urge Faraz also feels to use the opportunity of the assignment to find his mother and sister, whom he has had no contact with since a very young age when Wajid abducted him from the Mohalla in order to give him a better life. Then, to reveal more information about Wajid, the author chooses to move back in time to 1942, to North Africa and Wajid’s war experiences, introducing another plot thread. I found these sections disruptive and a bit tedious, though their relevance was shown at the end.

Ahmad’s writing style is straightforward, usually clear. My understanding, unfortunately, was hindered at times by my lack of background information about Pakistan’shistory. I enjoyed her characterization throughout in particular of the women and other inhabitants of the Mohalla. Firdous, Faraz’s mother, is beautifully developed and the setting itself comes across clearly, its extreme poverty, but also its exotic nature. It is here that the theme of sacrifice emerges. And of course, the novel conveys also the themes of justice/injustice and of the question what constitutes honor.

Overall this was an enjoyable novel, which I rate at 3 stars, meaning that it certainly kept me reading, but I don’t think I will be rereading it.
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LibraryThing member dmenon90
This here is a classic case of a strangely-written synopsis. I was led to believe that the eponymous event had to do with a mysterious death, that of a teenage girl in the red-light area of 1968 Lahore, Pakistan. Our cop hero Faraz is summoned by his powerful Pop, a politician, to go and cover up
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any inconvenient truths that might arise from said event.

Now the dad, Wajid, is the father in name only. Faraz's mother you see, is a worker from that very same area, that mohalla, that Faraz is now sent back to. When Faraz was a wee lad, dad arranged to have him removed from the mohalla and sent away somewhere (where? Who raised him, for that matter? I was never clear) to cleanse him of the stain of his ignoble birth. There's Faraz's sister Rozina who's a fading actress, their mother Firdous, and Rozina's own teenage girl Mina who either all live in the mohalla or are intimately connected with it.

And this was all finely written. If unrelentingly grim and slow-ish, it was still engaging and captured the sense of place. However, and this is where I was taken unawares, the majority of the novel doesn't concern the summarized plotline. No, we travel back all the way to WWII to when Wajid was a young Indian soldier in Libya. We come back to Lahore. Then we go to 1971 when Bangladesh was being born in the violent conflict in and around Dhaka. In the middle of this warfare and POW-ery, the teenage victim who was found shot in that dismal room in the mohalla fades into the background even as we know that Faraz tried in some small way to get to the truth of her end.

So in the end what we get is a family story: societal pressures, class, privilege, the hypocricy of the sex trade, the specter of fading beauty for women. AND a LOT of war and back-and-forth between eras. Why was this not mentioned? Instead why did they make it seem like this was a police procedural or at least something close to it with a touch of family background.

In the end I began to skim, for I don't enjoy being so far misled for no discernible reason. Also I wondered how foreign readers would adjust to not having the faintest clue what words like tawaif, tamash been, shalwar kameez, etc. mean. Not that there is a glossary to smooth their worries. No non-South Asian will have an easy time of it, another easily avoidable fate.

But here's the kicker. I came across this book via the New York Times. And that review too mentioned nothing about the era-spanning, instead focussing on the police-y bits. Neither was there any tooth-gnashing about mysterious Urdu words appearing liberally throughout. Fine then, I think, let them read. I will not be surprised if this quite fine novel gets undercut due to a puzzlingly incoherent marketing and presentation strategy. I'm not unhappy I read it, but I would have been much more satisfied with some straight talk about what I was about to read.
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LibraryThing member reader1009
fiction - family secrets, government corruption, and a murder to solve in 1968 Lahore, Pakistan (toward the end of Ayub's "presidency")

This is an interesting, complex, slower-paced read, with multiple threads weaving in and out. A larger story arch begins to appear, tying the different characters
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together, but the reader has to wait, and wait some more, for the characters to act and find out these things for themselves.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
This book’s description makes it sound like a police procedural. It is not. It is a complex story set mostly in Pakistan with multiple threads that span many decades. The search for what happened to the victim is only one of storylines. We learn about protagonist Faraz Ali’s complicated family
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history, his father’s actions as a soldier during WWII, the hostilities in Dhaka during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971, and the backstories of Faraz’s sister, an actress, and mother, sex worker.

It is nicely written, but very ambitious and slow in developing. It is not for anyone looking for lots of action, so billing it as a detective story was probably a mistake. Overall, I would call it a family saga that explores themes of class, opportunities (or lack thereof), the difficulties faced by aging women, the plight of sex workers, and conflicts/wars through the decades. It jumps around quite a bit, back and forth through different timelines. I had to look up a number of terms, and it could have used a glossary. I liked it enough to read another book by this author. I think it would make a good mini-series.
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
This novel is stunning, wholly original (in my experience), fascinating, wonderfully drawn, beautifully written, with rich characters; it left me tearful as I am each time I finish reading an extraordinary book. Aamina Ahmad has given us a treasure of depth & courage covering the life of several
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very unusual, interconnected people over 40 years in Lahore, Pakistan.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
Ugh, the three star reading slump continues. A promising opening, suggesting a dark detective story in the red light district of Lahore, Pakistan, and exemplary research from the author, but not a single sympathetic or engaging character, and there are many. A young boy is taken from his prostitute
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mother in the Heera Mandi and returns twenty years later to cover up the murder of a young girl at the bequest of his politician father. Faraz's sister, a former actress, is also drawn back to her old life to rescue her young daughter from the dangerous neighbourhood.

More of a drawn out history lesson on the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, plus a great deal of Western tut-tutting over the caste system and mistreatment of women - there's a ridiculous scene where Faraz's sister throws her dupatta into the sea and declares 'I buy my own diamonds!' to an audience of American women - while the pacing is slack and repetitive. I was drawn in by the opening chapters in the Shahi Mohallah, with young Mena jumping from terrace to terrace, but the wartime backstories were drawn out and quite frankly unnecessary - I could gather from dialogue why Faraz's father was in debt to the young girl's killer, and certainly wasn't interested in what made him the way he was.

Historically interesting, dramatically dull.
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