In a hospital a man lies in bed, not quite alive, not really dead, surviving on life-support-systems. The electroencephalograph shows that he is not brain dead. Flickers of awareness, like flashes of lightning on some distant horizon, reveal some sort of activity, maybe incoherent thoughts or memories or dreams — nothing can be said with certainty. Days stretch into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. A surfeit of monotonous introspection.
The man is Ariel Sharon (actual name Ariel Scheinemann), the first defence minister and the eleventh prime minister of Israel. He suffered a massive stroke in 2006 and went into a coma. He was kept alive with life support system for the next eight years, in the hope that someday medical research may be able to restore him back to life.
No such succour was in the offing. He was lucky to be alive indeed. In 1948, during the battle of Latrun against the Jordanian Arab Legion, in which his brigade lost 139 men, he was wounded in the groin and the stomach, ended up as a POW, to be traded back six weeks later. Sharon afterwards denied that he was ever a prisoner of war.
The novel Habs (Muggy weather) by Hasan Manzar, one of the finest writers of fiction in Urdu now, has little to do with Ariel’s metastised feats and achievements as a soldier, defence minister or prime minister of Israel. The novel begins with Sharon in coma, his brain still in a ferment. Manzar is a noted psychiatrist himself. Therefore, arguably, he would have a better idea of what may possibly go on in a person’s mind who has been comatose for a long time. To be honest, no one has even a remotely fair idea. But it is a fertile ground for the novelist’s imagination to make outrageous moves. So what we come across in the novel are smeared dreams, catapulting through a wildly porous dementia, filtered by strange agencies at work somewhere in the mind, the controllers we never see or know.
We see and hear whatever there is to be seen or heard from Sharon’s perspective. It is the novelist’s prerogative. The prime minister is not having a pleasant time at all. Everything seems to bruise, directly or indirectly, the machismo in him. Most of the time he wonders that if he is in an Israel’s hospital why there is no security. Anyone who wants to, wanders in. They mention things he doesn’t want to hear. They talk only to belittle or annoy him, a liberty which grates on his nerves.
There are Arab men and women, there are Jews who are not Zionists and believe that justice is not only desirable but also attainable, there are people who think that their conscience is at stake, there is the staff, doctors and nurses, who look upon Sharon as an interesting vegetable. This unstoppable and unwelcome influx of visitors is nuisance enough. To add to it, he is also assailed by swarms of locusts. Hardly surprising, as his mind wanders through past and present history, from Pharaoh’s Egypt and Moses to the recent tribulations experienced by the luckless Palestinians, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
For a man who seems, to all intents and purposes, cast forever in a limbo, the itch to get up again, gun in hand, and spread havoc among the ranks of forces lined up against Israel, seems ultimately an indication of immaturity, like not wanting to grow up. Reasonable talk by his phantom visitors falls on deaf ears. Sharon says he doesn’t care for religion, he doesn’t believe in god. Why didn’t God save the Jews when they were up against the pogroms and the holocaust? Sharon only wants to triumph, to rule, to make Israel a nuclear power, terrifyingly invincible. He is another Kurtz out of the Heart of Darkness in a dubious reincarnation.
It makes no sense at all. Muslims did not kill Jews in large numbers at any time. They were not guilty of pogroms. They were not responsible for the ‘so called’ holocaust. There is something fishy about it. It is a crime in certain countries to deny it. You can say that God doesn’t exist, you can insult the prophets, in fact you can insult anyone. But you can’t say that the holocaust didn’t take place. If it is a fact, rock msolid so to say, it cannot be refuted. Anyway, it was the Christian powers that had been slaughtering the Jews for centuries. Poor Palestinians had nothing to do with it. They are now being punished for something they never did. What justice indeed!
It is said that those who don’t learn from history go on repeating their errors. It would be more appropriate to say that those who don’t want to learn from history remain hell-bent on repeating their mischiefs. What is more, they do it with great gusto, as if the world at large will call for an encore.
The denunciation is powerful enough. The remarkable thing about Habs is that although the narrative seems diffuse, the overall design hangs together. The pace never flags. The only shortcoming which makes the novel slightly less objective is the opprobrium heaped on Sharon. It turns him into a travesty, as if he was less than human. How come that in a state, over which he has no control, as we have no control over our dreams; he cannot recall, or is not allowed to recall, a single cheerful, serene moment in his life. It could not have been so outrightly dismal. No life is. Hasan Manzar may have missed a trick here. As someone once said: it is easy to sympathise with someone who has been unjustly condemned but extremely difficult to show some compassion for somebody who is being justly punished.
But this takes nothing away from Manzar who is a deep-dyed realist. His new book, a collection of short stories, which has just been published, is a searing indictment of the evildom which Pakistan has become. Will it be a clean country again? So far, the odds are not in favour.
Habs has been published by Scheherzade, Karachi.