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A sophisticated endeavour

With its humour, intimate language and complex characters, Syed Kashif Raza’s debut novel could be a turning point in Urdu fiction

A sophisticated endeavour

There’s nothing more delightful for a reviewer than to lay her hands on a novel that is alive, crooked, unpredictable. It is also akin to sitting down for a long, engaging conversation with an inspired stranger. Perhaps it was a friend who said that postmodernity had preceded modernity. That is why the book under review evokes literature from earlier times where the claim to authorship is murky — Qissa Chahar Dervaish often attributed to Amir Khusro, and Hindu religious mythology concerning the turtle and its back upon which the world balances itself. There has also been a tradition of humility where the author of a classical, medieval tale in Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu among other languages would begin in the name of Allah and a disclaimer that the work under his pen’s stress is in essence not his, and that other, unnamed authors, too, had contributed to that narrative.

Syed Kashif Raza flirts with that technique and thus ends up creating more than five voices, one belonging to the turtle, which, he suggests, should be seen both as symbolic and real, and the four voices of the dervaishes are what our modern era has thrown in the reader’s face. The text reveals to the uninitiated reader that despite Pakistani military and religious establishment’s vehement drive to create a false monolithic image, the country’s current problems, both national and personal, can only be contextualised by engaging with its ganga-jamuni (Indo-Islamicate) culture.Moazzam

The fact that all the four human narrators are men, not including the author, and share the name Iqbal, is not lost on the reader. Where the text acquires additional strength is that the father and his three sons can further be seen as referencing the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Towering above a collective tragedy, the patriarch Iqbal, evoking the Poet of the Nation Allama Iqbal, a modern-day version of Kalidasa, has fathered three versions of the Pakistani male epitome: Javed Iqbal, Aftab Iqbal, and Bala. The various narrators attest that the patriarch loved the female company, had a romantic streak, to the point where it became a self-inflicting wound, betraying and hurting those he craved and loved. That’s the quintessential quality of feudalism or feudal romanticism which holds the feeble modernity of Pakistan in its iron-clad grip.

The most daring section of the novel is the one dedicated to one of the sons, Aftab Iqbal, that the patriarch had from his Ahmadi wife, a non-Muslim as per the Pakistani law. He teaches philosophy and reluctantly reciprocates romantic advances from Salma, one of his hijab-wearing students, though she comes from a somewhat modern family. Before he could reveal his Ahmadi background, Salma’s father finds out and pushes Salma to break up, accusing Aftab of withholding that information intentionally. He suffers gravely, economically and emotionally, though is reunited years later and allowed a sanctuary in interior Sindh.

The novelist, in this particular text as he tries to hide behind several voices, obfuscates his intention and identity. The novel is mostly self-referential, a slick metatext, and alludes to other works of fiction.

In a bizarre reversal of racism, Bala, short for Iqbal, is born out of wedlock and suffers humiliation and punishment due to his fair skin, ending up as a murderer and eventually a suicide bomber taking Benazir Bhutto’s life. Two suicide bombing attempts actually encapsulate the novel, the first one as Benazir returns to Pakistan. The novel opens with Javed Iqbal hearing of the blasts as he sits admiring a vein in his colleague Mashaal’s neck while sitting in his news media workspace. Javed symbolises the sexuality of the modern male of Pakistani society, a rebel of sorts, perhaps a bit immature compared to Aftab, who, being an outsider, is more sensitive to what it means to be the other. But Aftab is a misunderstood character, a misfit in a society that refuses to modernise and embrace sexual freedom or gradual openness.

Patriarchy and sexual freedom are natural antagonists. The author intervenes, killing the patriarch Iqbal at the end of the novel as he hallucinates, conjuring up images of his mistress and second wife, a ‘real’ Muslim, allowing the reader a bleak hope for the demise of patriarchal tyranny.

The last scene in this novel might have been in a dialogue with another epic ending dealing with the feudal dilemma. Whereas the dramatist Amjad Islam Amjad, in the classic TV play Waris, accorded an amazing amount of dignity to the feudal lord Chaudhry Hashmat — holding his turban high above his head waiting for the floods to vanquish him but not his honour in the basement of his fiefdom — Kashif Raza metes out a less than dignified ending to tehsildar Iqbal Mohammad Khan; who’s barely able to cover his body before breathing his last.

Chaar Dervaish aur Aik Katchwa, in my opinion, could be a turning point in Urdu fiction, especially novel. It is the most sophisticated work I have read so far which successfully employs a postmodern structure creating a comprehensive yet complex picture of the state of things in Pakistan convincingly. If the turtle offers a counterpoint to the author’s voice, its ability to slink back its head draws dissonance with Benazir’s failure to draw her head back into the car before the explosion. Are the turtle and the author two sides of the same coin?

There is a section in the novel that contemplates the turtle becoming an invisible, imaginary non-entity, developing an ability to cease to be, just as the Pakistani society has rendered Aftab — and by extension the Ahmadi community — a persona non grata. So the novelist, in this particular text as he tries to hide behind several voices, obfuscates his intention and identity. The novel throughout, excepting one section, is self-referential, a slick metatext, and alludes to other works of fiction such as Uday Prakash’s Peeli Chhatri Wali Ladki, whose Madhuri Dixit can be traded for Javed’s Kareena Kapoor. The most refreshing aspect of the novel is its uninhibited language dealing with sexual issues and just the general register of intimacy that language creates.

It is hard to find much fault with this novel. However, two things do make one wonder. Why keep the narrative so male-centric despite an attempt to create strong women, with agency and self-respect? Aftab also has sisters but they all have been quieted down. How come Javed never reached out to them? Also, as the story enters Bala’s world and his narrative, Syed Kashif Raza drops all pretence of postmodernity, which otherwise lifts the text higher to an international standard. Could it be the author’s unconscious bias, or inability, to tell Bala’s story, with its Islamic fundamentalist thrust, with more complexity? The novel opens with reference to the sexual prowess of Kareena Kapoor, but there are rarely any references or images of other figures (except Medhi Hassan in one instance) from South Asian popular culture. Evoking Hindu mythology and Sufi classical text runs the risk of slipping into native orientalism, which Kashif Raza barely dodges.

Also, throughout the novel, there’s no consciousness on the part of any character who could understand the events unfolding in Pakistan its connection to the ‘de-colonised’ world, and the invisible hand of western imperialism, which helped create political (even radical) Islam. Perhaps he is making a point and it’s up to the reader to figure that out. Doing this, Raza does us a favour by turning the reader into a writer as well.

I cannot recommend this novel enough. This book, with its humour, intimate language, both sophisticated and pedestrian, complex characters, will connect with the reader and usher an era of novel-reading like in most literary cultures.

Chaar Dervaish aur Aik Katchwa
Author: Syed Kashif Raza
Publisher: Maktaba e Daniyal, 2018
Pages: 330
Price: Rs595

Moazzam Sheikh

Moazzam Sheikh
The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com

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