Telling of a story is a way to assure its ending. Some stories lose their ends in oblivion and keep recurring. Here we have a story that is weaved smartly, proceeds logically and ends sharply. Even then it has the inclination to recur. Recurrence is a curse. Some stories are cursed, as the story of Naatamaam by the promising novelist Muhammad Asim Butt.
In the opening lines of the newly published novel Naatamaam, the author Muhammad Asim Butt writes, “one of the reasons of telling this story is a hope that in this way, perhaps, it will end.”
The story revolves around a couple of female characters — sisters, mother, friends and some women from the neighbourhood — in a particular locale of the old city of Lahore which also seems to be very dear to the author.
“I was brought up there, and all of my memories till the age of sixteen, when we had to shift to a nearby area, belong to that quarter,” says Asim Butt. Trained in philosophy from Government College University Lahore, Butt published his first novel Daira which has been highly commended by both the readers and critics. Daira’s locale, set within the walled city of Lahore, is made multihued and dreamlike with a tinge of mystery and fantasy.
The protagonist of Naatamam Saima, a girl from a lower middle class family, also hails from the walled city of Lahore. She lost her father at an early age when no concept of death is developed in the mind of the child.
Stories are usually about either dreams coming true or fading away: the latter is the fate of the protagonist. For a charge of her daring to live a life of her own choice, she has to pay a price higher than her dignity as a woman. Society never forgives the ones who threaten its existence and status quo: Saima too was accused of the charge and got punished.
In the end of the novel the protagonist loses her unborn child and overwhelmed with grief takes her own life. But the story does not end here. In the last scene, like Saima, an abused girl is shown in a shabby appearance in some unknown clinic in some unknown city, with an unwanted pregnancy. The unauthorised abortionist consoles her, the same way a nurse some years back had solaced Saima and encouraged her to come back the next day, just to carry on her sexual abuse further by her male clients.
The end is the beginning too. The apparent conclusion of the story provides a seed to a new beginning of it to go on endlessly, in a circular way. The only effective way to break the concurring scheme of the story is to keep retelling it.
Parallel to the main story runs an account of Seeta one of the leading characters of the Sanskrit sacred elegy, Ramayana. The account is of Seeta being asked by her husband Rama to prove her chastity. He had battled to release her from the captivity of the mischievous king Rawana. Seeta, as per the elegy, agrees to go through a test and succeeds to establish her innocence. Here the author turns the myth around with the supposition “what would have happened if her answer had been in the negative” and then goes on recreating it.
In another piece which appears in the beginning of the novel, we read the plight of the great Gautam Buddha’s deserted wife Yashodhra who had been abandoned by her husband along with her newborn child, in her quest to find a way to resolve the miseries of life. Neither literature nor history ever cared to pay heed to the cries and sufferings of the forsaken Yashodhra. That cry, the author asserts, is recorded here for the first time to make it explicit enough to be felt by the readers.
The stories of three female protagonists, from different time zones of history, highlight the common predicament and plight of women in our part of the world which has been the same for centuries.
“Urdu literature has not yet sought to explore the woman of the East with all of her potentials. Ruswa and Manto strived, though very impressively, but in a very limited manner to paint the character of a full bloomed woman. But for this purpose they too had to confine themselves to a particular area of society, verboten and prohibited. We are still at ease with a traditional image of a tender, sensational, lovable, sexpot, and meek woman,” says Asim Butt.