In this age of cynicism, amoral relativism, and postmodern apathy, the first feeling a reviewer has towards a book of literary fiction produced by a prominent political figure, who also happens to be the Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan, is of doubt and conflicting emotions. The reason is simple: General Musharraf and Imran Khan both claim to be authors but the people know better. But this book is not an autobiography. It is a volume of short stories. And Anglophone fiction produced in Pakistan is my domain. Therefore, as a reviewer, I must engage with this new offering.
Raza Rabbani is trying to deal with the aenormity of the wealth gap, the void that exists between those who can enjoy all the material luxuries of life and those who just scrape a living and those who fail at securing a living. At the surface level, the stories appear simple but the contents of the stories have challenged the cynic in me. The short stories are about the downtrodden. The wretched of the earth occupy the central place in these short stories. The poor and the hapless characters populating the stories try to deal with their fate by whatever means are available to them.
The style of telling the story is also the tried and tested one of telling tales, yarns, qisas, and fables. Yet, there is something that was unsettling and uncomfortable that remains unnameable initially. Those readers of literature who have studied Junot Diaz, Etgar Keret and Bret Easton Ellis and their dazzling experiments with what is possible within a short story can find the stories uncomfortably simple. But what if this was the strategy of Raza Rabbani?
He has taken a moral position and this is the unsettling aspect of the stories in Invisible People. The stories deliberately challenge the amoral apathy of contemporary postmodern fiction. This is what is unsettling about these stories. The stories are unabashedly moral and describe the condition of the poor and the downtrodden and the schism caused by the unequal distribution of wealth.
This is then a type of fiction that tries to recover what has been marginalised by apathy and indifference.
Politically, this is interesting. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said has accused the entire body of Western literature, from Aeschylus to the writings of Henry Kissinger, as being unfair to the Orient and therefore complicit with the dominance of the West over the East. If what happens in works of fiction can help the powers that exist in the political arena, then Raza Rabbani has written something that can make the literati examine the politics of amoral apathy in postmodern fiction.
In his fictional world, those who have no cars try to fall in love with those who have tens of cars and get run over by a passing car. A young girl of a gypsy family is married off to a rich man but does not let him enjoy any carnal pleasure all her life. A woman has gone crazy after her son does not return home after being picked up by the local police. She comes to the court daily and asks everybody present around the court if that person is a law or a magistrate. The sentences are written in Punjabi as “toon qanoon ain, toon Magistrate ain?” The story has this haunting quality and seems to be derived from personal experiences of the author who also has been a practicing lawyer and who completed his law education from within a jail where he was imprisoned because of his political views.
The author has also used his experience of being inside a prison to depict an almost photorealistic picture of a prison. The world inside the prison is as hierarchical as the world outside. There is a prisoner named Dawood who travels to the court in his own car while the police provides him protection to and from the court. This prisoner authorises what the jailer can or cannot do inside the prison including the fate of other prisoners. Raza Rabbani, especially in this story and the story about the mad woman roaming around the city courts, draws on his personal experiences to such an extent that the boundary between the real and the fictional is blurred.
It is the promise of social justice which seems to be fictional and not the fictional world inhabited by the people trying to make their life bearable. Sometimes, during the reading of a story, the reader wishes it were not true. For example, in a story titled ‘Pigeons’, a woman escapes the world of Heera Mandi to live a more respectable life. But the world outside Heera Mandi turns out to be more exploitative: “She floated from one office to another, from one encounter with a predator to the next, each incident more chilling than the last.”
This kind of writing comes out if someone has been keenly observing the darkest corners of our society.
The stories are thus a bare-knuckles punch and their effect is raw. They bring invisible life of the downtrodden to the surface without any pretension or gimmickry. And this is the first book of short stories by the author who is otherwise known for his drafting of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, an amendment that empowered the provinces as much as possible. It means that the author, whenever he gets the chance, tries to improve the world and what he cannot improve becomes the stuff of stories for him. From constitutionalism, federalism, and writing legislation to reducing structural violence to writing stories about injustice, Raza Rabbani is obsessed with inequality and that is something laudable in itself.
Author: Mian Raza Rabbani
Publisher: Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore
Price: Not mentioned