Osman Haneef's debut novel, The Verdict, is an unsettling look into a Pakistani courtroom where justice isn't always guaranteed and power and position are valued more greatly than the truth.
The novel, which was recently republished for Pakistan, is about a Christian boy accused of blasphemy ― a crime punishable by death. Though the novel is a complete work of fiction, according to Haneef, it hits close to home because the trial is inspired by an actual one from the 1990s.
In the trial, the late human rights champion, Asma Jahangir, defended a young boy, Salamat Masih, accused of writing something unspeakable on a mosque wall in a village in Punjab, the author told Images. There was no physical evidence, some of the prosecution’s witnesses were even illiterate, and the judge was never told what was written because to repeat the statement would have been a crime, he said.
“Eventually, the conviction was overturned, and Masih fled to Germany. However, the injustice of an obviously innocent young boy wrongfully convicted in this Kafkaesque court proceeding in Pakistan stayed with me.”
In The Verdict, we’re introduced to Sikandar Ghaznavi, a lawyer who has recently returned to Quetta after years in the US. He is faced with the case of his life — defending a young boy wrongfully accused of defiling a mosque.
It’s a weighty topic and Haneef is a first-time writer.
“I write because it brings me joy to create and share stories," he said, delving into how he switched from a tech background to writing about a legal case. His love for storytelling comes from his father’s obsession with books and their frequent trips to the old book stores that littered Islamabad.
A long time coming
Writing a novel can take a very long time, especially if it isn’t your day job. Haneef isn’t a writer by profession and says it took him an embarrassingly long time to write The Verdict. “But the truth is that it’s difficult to say, exactly. Some of the earliest bits of writing that found their way into The Verdict, I wrote over a decade ago. However, I have had periods of months and even years where I haven’t written much,” he said.
“My writing journey has been plagued by many periods of self-doubt, interspersed with some periods of focused writing. Most recently, I completed the novel while leading a tech firm in Lahore."
Writing a book can be difficult, but even more so if the subject matter is new to you. Haneef researched everything outside his own experience. “For example, what happens when your jaw breaks? How does it feel? How long does it take to heal? I looked it up. I read academic literature and reports and statements from people who mirrored characters in the novel.”
"When I could, I met with people from different professional backgrounds and classes to understand their life, he added. “I visited locations that featured in the novel and took notes. When I wrote these characters, I imagined how people with these backgrounds would react in different circumstances. After I wrote any character or scene with the help of research, I kept editing it until it felt true.”
An unsettling look into a courtroom
The Verdict is set in Quetta, with several scenes in the courtroom. Haneef visited a court in Quetta and sat through proceedings to get a feel of a Pakistani courtroom. "
He told Images he spoke with human rights lawyers about their experiences in Pakistan, and read the records for cases similar to the trial at the heart of his novel. “I then had experienced lawyers review certain facts, proceedings, and passages in my novel to make sure they worked.”
When I did break with legal procedures, I did it for the sake of the story, he clarified. “One leading human rights lawyer in Pakistan actually commented that he had seen everything in a Pakistani courtroom so I shouldn't worry too much about credibility. Anything is possible in a Pakistani courtroom.”
The book may have been published in 2020 (the e-book version) but it is set in 2007 to 2008, partly because the characters had to be a certain age and also be present at earlier moments in Pakistan’s history and partly because the time period indicates the amount of time it took Haneef to finish the novel.
“I had to set it in the near past when I started, and it is around this time that I visited many of the key locations (such as the courthouse) in the novel. So the second reason is really about trying to keep it authentic by writing what I knew.”
The third reason for setting the book in 2008 is that the situation in Balochistan has continued to deteriorate. “A novel set in Quetta now would have to address many more issues and themes, which have always been a problem, but are more-so now. I did not want to overrun the book with the challenges of the region but rather focus on a single story that reflects broader issues in Pakistan.”
The Verdict is filled with interesting and complex characters, from the spiteful Zeeshan to the stern Fazeel, but Haneef doesn’t play favourites. “I enjoy writing characters who are very different from me because it’s more challenging and rewarding when done right. My favourite character to write is probably Ahbey, the woman who helps raise the protagonist,” he explained when asked to choose his favourite.
“Her perspective is far removed from my own but, her voice lets me enter a childlike place of wonder and excitement. It let me play with what the reader knows versus what the character knows to deliver ironic moments. And it allowed me to explore issues of class in a way that I would never have been able to do so without entering the character’s point of view.”
If you're hoping to see elements of Haneef in his characters, you're out of luck. "I have always viewed my characters as separate people with very different motivations and feelings. If, as an author, I viewed characters as an extension of myself, I would have difficulty making them think awful thoughts or face real obstacles. I would run the risk of creating characters who are both saccharine sweet and exceptionally dull." But while the characters and events are fictionalised, The Verdict is a deeply personal novel. "Much of my lived experience informed the novel. My parents are from Balochistan so many of my summers and holidays were spent in Quetta. I captured the sense of the city through those trips, the places I visited, and the people I met."
The biggest similarity between my own life and that of my characters is how we are outsider-insiders, the writer, who splits his time between UK and Pakistan, explained. "People who are from a community but, for a variety of reasons, view it differently. I had one of the protagonists return to Pakistan after many years abroad. And this makes him from Pakistan but also an outsider."
And he gave him this characteristic for a very particular purpose. "From a storytelling perspective, it's a useful device because if someone returns to their home, things have changed and they can comment on the world as an outsider. It is not strange for them to describe their surroundings to the reader," he said.
"And you can drop the reader in the middle of the action. What has happened since they left? Why did they leave? What are the stakes? A homecoming naturally creates questions, which can propel the narrative forward."
A publishing dilemma
The Pakistani version of The Verdict was published by Reverie Publishers. "A few years ago, Pakistani authors could find a publisher in India who would edit the work, design book covers, print the books, market the novels, and negotiate with distributors to make the books available in bookstores in Pakistan. This worked out well for everyone," said Haneef. But a book ban in India saw the end of that arrangement and Pakistani authors have now had to find local publishers.
"In Pakistan, there aren't many established publishers. Even the ones that do exist don’t offer the kind of support and systems that publishers in India offer their authors. But for me, the bigger challenge was overcoming a publisher’s concerns with printing a novel that tackled such sensitive topics in Pakistan," said Haneef.
This was made even more difficult when the Punjab government introduced stricter censorship laws. "In fact, one publisher whose internal reviewers had unanimously approved the novel, cited the new laws and a concern with the response as the primary reason that they would not publish the novel." Safinah, an author and entrepreneur, reached out to me about a new publishing house she was setting up, Reverie Publishers, he said. "Safinah had been frustrated by the lack of support for authors, and she reached out to me because her friend had recommended my book. I shared it with her, she made me an offer, and the rest, as they say, is history."
Many publishers in Pakistan, while acknowledging the strength of the novel, shared concerns about the title and themes covered in the novel. "I want to make it clear that neither the foreign edition nor the local edition says anything against a particular faith nor country. However, the history of our industry and the response to creators who take on sensitive topics, has made publishers extremely cautious."
There is a difference in the local and foreign editions of The Verdict but Haneef believes this edition is better for Pakistani readers since it excludes much of the exposition that foreign readers needed to understand the local context. The Pakistan edition’s ending is the original one he wrote for the novel and excludes an epilogue found in the foreign edition.
"It’s much more open-ended and relies on the reader to construct a future for the characters in the novel."
Haneef said he hopes to continue writing for as long as he can. "It may not just be fiction. I hope to write works of nonfiction, graphic novels, and more. I know that life and its obligations won’t make it easy but I certainly will try."
The book is available on the Reverie Publishers website and at Liberty Books.