Seamus Heaney in his Nobel lecture quoted Samuel Johnson while talking about “the stability of truth” and expressed his moments of most rejoicing “when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood in for or stood up for or stood its ground against”. Heaney further talked about the conflicting complexities of domestic and official idioms before announcing to the world in his native Northern accent: “Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself…We want what the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad, standing there blue with cold and whispering for fear, enduring the terror of Stalin’s regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she could describe it all, if her art could be equal to it.” Heaney is using poetry as a metaphor here, this act of crediting poetry is not for poetry alone, it’s for all forms of literature and arts. It’s about truth, each written word and every stroke of brush that counts.
Nainsukh (real name Khalid Mahmood) tried to achieve exactly that with his new collection of Punjabi fiction titled Shaheed? There are four stories and a novelette in this collection. ‘Shaheed?’ is also the title of the opening story of the book. It’s about Nainsukh’s younger brother, Shakeel Ahmad, who was a serving Lt. Colonel in Pakistan Army (EME) and at the time of his death was posted in the FC in Balochistan. This autobiographical narration overshadows other stories of the book so it will take much of the review space as well, since it demands important background details to be shared.
Let’s first read the newspaper report of November 27, 2014 that reads: “Official sources said that Lt Col Shakeel and Major Yasar Sultan were on their way to Loralai to finalise arrangements for a passing-out parade scheduled for Thursday. When they reached near Kuchlak area a truck rammed into their vehicle. Col Shakeel was killed and Major Sultan was injured and shifted to the CMH Quetta where he died.”
Col. Shakeel was declared a shaheed and bouquets of flowers were laid on his grave, one after the other, one even arrived on behalf of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS). Nainsukh had to receive his late brother’s medals, stick and cap in an organised Military burial event in Rawalpindi that was led by a serving Major General.
But this is not where tale ends. Another news story appeared in the local media dated April 22, 2016 that reads: “The story started on 26 November 2014 with an accident in Quetta of an expensive imported sports car owned by son of the then Inspector General FC Balochistan Major General Ejaz Shahid resulting in killing of two serving army officers Colonel Shakeel and Major Yasir…COAS General Raheel Sharif ordered an inquiry to ascertain the facts of the incident…The investigation led to finding that Major General Ejaz was involved in corruption and making money from different sources including easing out checks on activities relating to smuggling. Reportedly, in addition to other punishments awarded, Major General Ejaz Shahid was made to deposit Rs50 million looted money in GHQ. However, [he] had neither been court martialled nor dismissed from service and had been merely removed from service and would draw [his] pension as well as availing medical facilities.”
This led the media and the army to close the chapter of both deaths, but details that Nainsukh had directly learnt from conversations with his brother before his death, and information from other sources from within the institution, made him believe that this was no accident and in fact a planned murder.
Nainsukh wanted a criminal investigation of the incident but when authorities didn’t respond, he took the case to humshehrionline.com. The website published his interview about his brother’s death and possible reasons behind it on May 5,2016. However, this was not enough to heal him. Exactly two years after Shakeel’s death, the book under review was released and its lead story, which is an expose of the incident sends shivers down our spines. ‘Shaheed?’ reads like fiction but hurts like the truth. The story reads as a statement of facts by a devastated courageous older brother.
At one place Nainsukh quotes an army officer whose contradictory reports about the fateful night when Nainsukh’s younger brother’s died are found to be very puzzling. The same officer was in possession of Col. Shakeel’s mobile phone when Nainsukh called on Col. Shakeel’s number. The officer had firmly told Nainsukh: “Bhai Jaan, Fauji kabhi jhoot nahi bolta, khaas tor par jab kissi saathi ki maut ho ja’ay!”. This claim by one of the guardians of our frontiers is going to haunt many, especially those like me whose relations with the armed services go back to the times of his great grandfather. Col. Shakeel’s body is buried but his soul is still wandering around cantonments, searching for his killers.
Other stories of the collection are written in Nainsukh’s trademark diction. ‘Margalla’ (Herd of Snakes) is about the pre-origins of the land now called Islamabad, and the poisonous snakes of corruption and real estate that appeared there afterward. ‘Fort Munro Gang Rape’ is about social degradation, the politics of language, and the filth of regional nationalism. ‘Chanbbay di Booti’ is about the Saudi-Iran proxy war and Shia-Sunni sectarianism knitted around the city of Jhang as well as a brief comment on the pseudo world of NGOs.
His novelette ‘Japphi’ (The Bearhug) consist of 12 chapters and details the socio-religious history of today’s Pakistan and its ever-growing social darkness. In this darkness Majeed Japphi provides the only little hope. I wanted to spend more time with Majeed Japphi, but this character was dimmed before he could fully glow in the dark, synonymous to our unfulfilled hopes since the partition of the subcontinent.
Nainsukh’s command over language and other dialects of Punjabi is worth appreciating. He has narrated ‘Margalla’ in the Potohari dialiect, ‘Fort Munro Gang Rape’ in Multani, and ‘Chanbbay di Booti’ is composed in Jaangli. The content of the book makes it a treasure trove of information that is not publicly available and Nainsukh has penned it with supreme courage and conviction.
However, there are a few narrations in the book that do read like a research paper and something of an investigative journalistic transcription. Then at times, Nainsukh has used real names and true events in the book without adding any disclaimers. The only explanation of this direct inclusion can be that he is totally committing himself to telling the truth in the face of power and believes that portraying the events as fiction may dilute his message.
We, undoubtedly need a narration of our subaltern history, perhaps more than the usual classical form of storytelling but in the process of composing these socio-historic accounts without creative intelligibility, Nainsukh is compromising his own art. And this brings us to the question of choosing between art and the direct form of truth.
If a writer is willing to sacrifice his art in telling the unmasked and naked truth, then should we still ‘rejoice’ the way Heaney does without compromising his art? I still believe that if these characters and historic events are absorbed to a deeper level by the writer, that they would lose their identities and shades, and would have been reconstructed by the writer’s creative imagination and collective analytical conscience, and then a literary masterpiece can be born, the way Garcia Marquez did in his novel The General in his Labyrinth.
Nainsukh’s unshaken commitment to be the ‘voice of the voiceless’ makes him and his writings special. He doesn’t write for fame or name and his subject matters state what he believes in. Shaheed? is a must-read book, it has the power to bring us and our homeland face-to-face with our overgrown darkness and demons: Tairay kanddiaaN laah lai pagg meri / tainu saavyaa kikraa kee aakhaaN?
Publisher: New Line Publishers, Lahore
Distributor: Readings, 12 K, Main Boulevard, Gulberg 2. Lahore.