Saad Shafqat is a leading neurologist at the prestigious Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi and a cricket columnist at Cricinfo. He talks to Eos about his latest novel Rivals and what he’s working on next

For a neurologist, choosing to write fiction is unusual. What motivated you to take this path?

I’ve always loved storytelling, so the motivation for producing fiction was really to just weave a good thread that would engage and entertain the reader. While you are correct that being a neurologist does not intuitively equate to writing fiction, it should be noted that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a neurologist and even wrote a masterful thesis on the tabes. dorsalis, a late form of neurosyphilis. Other doctors have also been acclaimed fiction writers – Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Khaled Hosseini, Robin Cook and Michael Crichton among them. In fact, I grew up reading Robin Cook a lot and it was definitely part of my inspiration.

There were some striking similarities between the location and operation of Avicenna Hospital and where you work in real life. How much does Rivals draw from your own experiences?

Well, actually quite a bit. I guess you write down what you know. What I mean is that if writing fiction is a creative exercise, the raw material for it has to come from somewhere, and perhaps it is only natural that it comes from its own experiences of science. real life. English novelist PD James once remarked that “all literature is largely autobiographical.” I must point out, however, that despite the similarities and parallels to my workplace, the story of Rivals is still fictional. I made it all up.

Since the news cycle is so fast these days, it was almost nostalgic to read about Karachi 10 years ago, where suicide and terrorist attacks were rife. Was it a conscious decision to base the story on this turbulent chapter in the city’s past, or was the book written then?

I started writing this book in 2012 or 2013, when the horror of terrorism was still a relatively fresh memory for the Karachiites. It certainly dominated my thoughts, as I’m sure most of us in this city have. But this book is not about terrorism. The suicide bombing comes early, in the second chapter, but I used it primarily as a fulcrum to aid in the development of the plot. Fortunately, the terrorist incidents are now well behind us, hopefully permanently. But we can’t deny that they left a scar and, to that extent, it’s still something we can all relate to.

Rivals is billed as a medical thriller, a label which I have found misleading. Was it a decision on your part, or the editors, since the book reads more like a drama set in a medical hospital?

You are quite right. While Rivals is a quick tale of the feuds and scuffles that take place in a teaching teaching hospital, its tension comes from an interpersonal conflict with gender overtones between prominent medical figures, not the process of providing care. medical. So in that sense it’s more of a professional intrigue drama set in a hospital, as you so aptly put it. And yes, the decision to launch it as a medical thriller came from my publisher, Bloomsbury.

Do you plan to write any other books in the Avicenna Hospital series?

It’s a very tempting idea. Hospitals, especially university hospitals, are complex, multi-layered human ecosystems, where the pathos is endless and the stakes are no less than life and death itself. It’s very fertile ground for storytelling. Although I have played with a few non-medical plots in my head, I keep coming back to the hospital setting. In addition, the Aga Khan University Hospital [on which Avicenna is loosely based] has not only been my place of work for two decades, but also my alma mater, so my connection to the institution is deep and textured. Channeling that into fiction has proven to be oddly rewarding. So, yes, I would say there is more to come.

What facets of Karachi do you think lend themselves to thrillers?

In my opinion, pretty much everything in town is a potential thriller waiting to be written. Crime, social inequality, ethnic politics, gang wars, water mafia, beggar mafia, people with aspirations and dreams, people who do things, people who get chewed and spit out, people playing by the rules, people making the rules – you name it and it’s integrated here as a gripping storyline ready to come to life. I guess this is quite inevitable, given the reality of Karachi as a megalopolis of the developing world populated by a turbulent society and located in a geopolitically turbulent neighborhood.

What kind of books do you like to read in your free time?

My reading habits are irregular, but cover a wide range – fiction, both literary and commercial – non-fiction, mainly popular science, American history and politics, sports, mainly cricket biographies and some literature in Urdu. I’m currently reading a novel by American writer Tommy Orange called Over there. It’s a searing tale of the anxieties of contemporary Native American society, a decaying population that is barely noticed even in the United States.

In commercial fiction, you can’t go wrong with John Grisham, the undisputed great master of thriller writing. The last book I finished was Burnt Sugar by Indian writer Avni Doshi. It revolves around a complicated mother-daughter relationship and was on the list of finalists for last year’s Booker Prize. I also recently picked up Raja Gidh from Bano Qudsia, but got distracted and hope to come back. My bedside table is filled with many partially read books that I hope to finish.

What are you going to work on next?

I’m about half done with a book tentatively titled Twelfth Man. It is a fictional tale of a group of teenagers who grow up in Karachi and fall in love with cricket and girls.

Since you’ve written extensively on medicine and cricket, do you plan to combine the two in your next job?

It’s a fantastic suggestion. You instantly made me think of a conspiracy. Let’s say a star international cricketer is injured in a high-profile tournament and is hospitalized. There’s a lot of storytelling potential from that starting premise.

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 12, 2021


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