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A glimpse of thigh: Some of the serendipitous finds in Islamabad's Book Corner, including the author's own novel, "Invitation" (S. Fazli)

For the last few years, the manager of the Book Corner, a secondhand bookstore in Islamabad's Jinnah market, has been asking me when he would finally see my first novel on his shelves. My response was always the same: soon. But late last year, as the South Asian edition was being finalised, my answer was slightly different: the book would be out soon, but I wasn't sure he'd be able to display it in his shop because of its cover.

The novel takes place in 1970s Karachi, in a freer country than the one today, and one of the main venues is a cabaret from the pre-Prohibition era, when the city's nightclubs drew visitors from across the region. When my Indian publisher asked me what I wanted for the cover, I suggested something that evoked the cabaret. The photograph we finally decided on is a close-up of a dancer in an opulent white corset; her legs are crossed, revealing a significant shot of her thighs, as well as the corset's crotch. The title, Invitation, runs across the belly. More than a few people predicted it would never make it past customs officials or booksellers in a country that seems more and more to be trapped in a puritanical straitjacket.

When I showed the manager of the bookstore the image on my phone, he had a co-worker dig up an old copy of Khushwant Singh's 1956 novel, Train to Pakistan, about Partition. The campy illustrated cover has a villain (whether Hindu or Muslim is not clear) standing over a woman who has probably either been or is about to be raped, whose clothes are partially torn, revealing a big bust and a lot of leg. The image was a scandal for some time, he said, and the book would have only been available in stores like his rather than mainstream outlets.

So, would his store carry my book if its cover, too, shocked local sensibilities? If worse came to worst, he replied, I could bring him copies from India and he could keep them under the counter where, for example, he kept copies of Salman Rushdie's novels, among others. Not the worst company.

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