Book Review: Rivals by Dr Saad Shafqat

Rivals: Saad Shafqat: Bloomsbury India

A review I wrote for India Today a few months ago.

Rivals is the third book and second novel from the pen of Dr Saad Shafqat, professor of neurology at the Agha Khan Hospital and Medical School in Karachi. He started writing with pieces about cricket and is the proud author of Javed Miandad’s autobiography (“cutting edge”) as well as a previous medical thriller (“breath of death”). This book is set in the same “Avicenna University Hospital” (a thinly disguised version of the author’s actual place of work) as his first novel, but the main protagonist in this one is not terrorists or terrorist hunters but doctors competing for a prestigious department chairmanship.
The book opens with Dr Tanya Shah at her morning constitutional and the author is clearly familiar with the world of Karachi’s rich and famous. As she puts on her Maria B lawn suit and grabs her Luis Vuitton bucket bag and heads out to work, every detail is lovingly described; Unfortunately, another character is also at his morning constitutional at exactly the same time, shaving his pubes and underarms so that he can be in a state of ritual purity when he meets his 72 virgins. Yes, there is a suicide bombing in chapter 2, but while it will play a bit of a role in the drama that unfolds later, this is not really a book about Islamist terrorists or their victims. It is a book about Dr Tanya Shah and her colleague Dr Hammad Khan, professor of ophthalmology and her rival in the race to become Avicenna’s next chief of surgery. Dr Hammad plots sexual escapades with medical reps and underhand maneuvers to undermine Dr Shah’s candidacy with his hangers on while sipping cocktails at an elite club, while a “white tiger” type ambulance driver and a bomb victim’s poor mother add some working-class spice to the mix. There is also a lot of medical excitement (operating room, trauma surgery, that sort of thing) that is well written and interesting.

The book is generally well written and is a fun and easy read, but the characters are not fully developed and promising detours frequently fade out without getting anywhere genuinely exciting. Still, it is set in Karachi and anyone with any connection to the medical world will find many familiar sights and sounds and depictions to keep him interested. And while there is a suicide bombing and some run ins with poor people, the book cannot be accused of relying on either poverty porn or Jihad-mongering for cheap thrills. Instead, Dr Shafqat stays mostly with the world he knows well and avoids any temptation to crudely take notice of how westernized and “un-Islamic” it is. These doctors are worrying about publications, presentations, trainees, committee meetings, departmental politics and sexual scandals and their stories hold no grand political lessons and attempt to correct no terrible historical crimes. That at least is refreshing. Overall, a fun read, but one is left with the feeling that it could have been better.


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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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