In British writer Aamina Ahmad's debut novel The Return of Faraz Ali, set between the 1930s and '70s, the titular character is a police officer posted to Tibbi Station in Lahore's Walled City, to cover up the brutal murder of a girl named Sonia.

Pulling Faraz's strings is Wajid, a high-level bureaucrat who is also his father, but both men keep this relationship a secret. We are told that Wajid 'rescued [Faraz], a Kanjar from Shahi Mohalla, from the curse of a grim ancestry and an even grimmer future.'

Although having rarely met his son - Faraz was sent away to be raised by distant relatives - Wajid has told him not to contact his mother. This is something Faraz himself understands, because he's ashamed of his origins in the red-light area.

From early on, the novel situates Faraz's identity as a 'Kanjar man' in a fatalistic manner: 'Kanjari women were born to entertain men, and Kanjar men, if they did anything at all, did the selling. It had always been that way. And it would have been the same for Faraz were it not for Wajid.'

A debut novel frames its narrative as a detective story to explore power structures in Pakistan and the plight of sex workers amidst the narrow alleyways of Lahore's Old City

Faraz, his mother Firdous and his sister Rozina seem trapped by this identity-linked fatalism and unable to imagine and summon new futures for themselves. It is only toward the end, when Faraz returns from India as a freed prisoner of war, that a shift happens in the characters' trajectories.

Firdous dies, Rozina marries a doctor and moves to the United Kingdom and Faraz and his wife Musarrat finally have a moment of mutual recognition, signalling a positive shift in their relationship, perhaps. And we learn that Mina, Rozina's daughter, has moved out of the Mohalla.

Faraz's lack of agency as a police inspector is both frustrating and insightful to witness. He can walk into the homes of politicians, but the uniform guarantees little more than entry. However, he appears to be someone accustomed to brutality, to suppressing instincts of kindness towards others; for instance, in an early scene when he and his constables are assigned to take down protestors marching against Gen Ayub Khan's rule, he hesitates only momentarily before performing his duty, which is to beat up the young protesters.

At first glance, framing the narrative as a detective story feels suitable for exploring the power structures in Pakistan and the plight of sex workers amidst...

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