Like many of you reading this, I think and read and write in English, even as I often speak in everyday, colloquial Urdu. The last time I attempted to write literary (or indeed any other type of) Urdu was over a decade and a half ago. I was fond of the language back then, but was rather indifferent to its abrupt disappearance from my life once I entered college. Till a few weeks ago, my Urdu deficit would not have been of greater concern to me than a vegetable to a carnivore. But then came “Failure”, and I knew instinctively that something about my linguistic comfort zone would have to give.
Failure is the title of the first of the seven short stories in Bilal Hassan Minto’s Model Town. I must confess I acquired the book because I fancied the lively, verdant cover depicting a bird’s eye map of Model Town and also because there is a certain heightened pleasure in buying books that one intends only to hoard or display.
Except that once I took the pain of turning over a few pages, I was shocked. Shocked in a way I could not decide was good or bad at first blush. Failure spoke bluntly of adolescent sexuality, indecent exposure, and some such forbidden things in the lives of young boys growing up in the Zia era. To my anglicised mind, these kinds of quotidian obscenities were perfectly acceptable in movies and literature in English, but there was something oddly mortifying about encountering them in a contemporary Urdu book — and that too, one set in the Pakistan of the late 1970s and 1980s.
My knee-jerk reaction was to put the book down, as if to will away what I had just read. What was the point of suffering private embarrassment on behalf of someone else’s writing? And then, a moment later, came the real shock. The realisation that my thoughts and intuitive responses were so sanitised that I had instinctively shunned the Pakistani-ness of adolescent experimentation — of ordinary immoralities and indecencies that are part of the human experience everywhere.
In a state of part revelation and part confusion, and with a resolve to no more be shocked, I went back to the book, and emerged a few days later having read it end to end. Well, not literally, of course. But that conveys my sentiments about Model Town. I have no regrets about reading it, except that I’ve spent all this time de-Urdufying my view and experience of the world.
Model Town, even for someone like me, is incredibly accessible. The language is simple and unimbellished, yet crisp and rich with cultural nuance and innuendo. It flits seamlessly, in the first person, between internalised speech, everyday conversation at the dinner table, banter among siblings and school friends, and emotional outbursts at home. Frequent digressions intersperse the narrative, through which the narrator draws the reader into a mental dialogue, playfully and ironically eliciting introspection. I cannot venture into examples any more than I can write a short story in Urdu myself. But I can say that this is not a book for passive, uninvolved reading.
As the title suggests, the stories are situated in and around the locus of Model Town. Except for the last one which is based on a more recent backdrop, they revolve around the life and times of a sixth grader who is witness to the social, political and religious flux of the late 1970s. A single narrative voice runs through the first six stories and artfully threads together characters, events, pets and relationships to create a very novel-like feel of unfolding plots and evolving personalities while preserving the stand-alone quality of each story.
The boldness of the themes and their openly satirical, yet sensitive, treatment are the anchors of the book. Social ostracisation of neglected underachievers at school (don’t talk to him, he is a failure), forced segregation and sexualisation of women professionals in male-dominated environments (ultimately, she was a woman, and all women are whores), religion and class-based bigotry (to think that our Christian servant drank from the same glass as ours), oppression and othering of religious minorities (they are Christian, not from among our community) — all find uninhibited expression in story after story.
Not to mention the scorching witticisms highlighting the deepening of social prejudice, self-righteousness, and an especially pernicious kind of social-religious hypocrisy arising from Zia’s great transformation of Pakistan to the Arabicised Kingdom of Al-Bakistan.
Then there is the very inventive first-person pre-adolescent protagonist voice that teases out the absurdities and incongruities of a world constructed around adult rationalities. This was a plucky choice, using a young boy and his interaction with and observations of family, neighbors, teachers and a cohort of school friends to poke holes in social mores and turn accepted norms on their head. It could have easily fallen flat. But what makes it so real, absorbing and rollicking at the same time is the pliancy of the pre-adolescent protagonist’s voice.
Just as his innocence and gullibility constantly moderate his ideas, observations and responses, his curiosity is not yet shackled and deadened by all the demands of ingrained and conformist thinking. These qualities — of innocence and simplicity, and of imagination and curiosity — merge together most naturally in a mind at the cusp of childhood and boyhood. Minto uses both in equal measure to create satire and irony. How perfectly natural it must be for a young boy to insist on funeral rites and a respectable burial for a beloved dead pet. How perfectly unfathomable, even heretic, for respectable Muslim adults.
At other times, Minto plays with the narrative voice for no other reason but to amuse and entertain, which makes it hard to narrowly label Model Town as social or political or religious satire. There is something refreshingly unconfined and spontaneous about the stories, so that at the very core, they are tales told for the sake and pleasure of story-telling, of spinning the ordinary and the mundane into extraordinary moments of literary aestheticism and enjoyment.