Nameless, faceless existence
The writer tackles issues of destiny and identity in his new novel
By Sarwat Ali
Khaso Khashakhe Zamana
By Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Publisher: Sange Meel Publications, 2010
Mustansar Hussain Tarar has been our bestselling writer for many decades. Both as a travel writer, and now in the recent years as a novelist, he has been very well received by the readers within the country.
Among the literary prudes there has always been this inherent prejudice that an author who sells well is not the greatest of writers in purely literary sense. There is a lack of trust between popularity and quality for popularity does not necessarily mean assurance of quality. The standards of popularity can by gauged from numbers. But the question of quality being more elusive defies a ready answer.
Tarrar has been a very popular writer and the millions of words that he has written in Urdu have been lapped up by a willing Urdu readership. His ability to make the readers wait for his next work has placed him beyond this either/or debate of popularity versus quality. His years of writing and the large number of works sold rather than gathering dust in bookshops or decaying in storerooms is proof itself of his staying power as a writer.
Tarar was not into writing very long novels. However, since the last decade and a half (his writing life spans over four decades) he has ventured into fiction that has a much broader sweep and takes into account a vaster territory and an even greater expanse of time. The novel, Raakh, on the break-up of Pakistan, the era that preceded and succeeded it was also a spiralling effort that included a large area and a larger number of characters, placed against the tragic destiny of a nation.
The latest novel of Tarrar, 'Khaso Khashaake Zamana' too has a wider canvass and a vast array of characters that are grappling with the issues of destiny and identity but within a very different context. What he finds himself tackling is a phenomenon which is entirely new. It is mostly about the Pakistani diaspora, the one principally on the American continent, either in the United States or Canada, (some on the margins in Europe) while quizzing the question of their identity.
The question of identity has been a subject of much interest among the Muslim community in the subcontinent. The Arab origin of religion heavily imbued in Persian and Turkic traditions finding a home in the Indian subcontinent makes a fascinating study.
Qurratulnain Haider for example was more interested in the assimilation of cultures and people within the cauldron of the subcontinent. A large number of people and civilisations interacted with each other during the steady inflow of people into the subcontinent mostly from the North and the West. And except for the very last, the Europeans who came via the sea, the rest took the land route and settled to impress the overlay of their culture on local culture. It resulted in the blossoming of a synergetic culture, known as the Indian Muslim culture that formatted the bedrock of this community's sensibility.
Abdullah Hussain was probably the first writer who looked into this new phenomenon of the people from the former colonies settling and living in England for the purposes of a better living. His stories -- mostly harrowingly realistic tales of people living in hovels, inbreeding in ghettos , scrambling and scrounging to save each and every penny for the folks back home, so as to lift them out of the vicious circle of poverty and station -- were existential. In those characters it was not so much the question of identity as surviving but wanting to save their culture and humanity for the day they returned to their own land whenever that might be. To return was the ultimate dream as they hung by its thin thread, no longer struggling or in want -- but as successful sons of the soil.
But the characters of Tarar are in no mood to go back. They have left their homeland and have settled abroad in search of a new identity. If there has to be an identity it needn't or necessarily be part of their status and station back home -- it is actually the search for a new identity within the context of the society that they have adopted or have chosen for themselves or determined for them by an earlier generation.
Most of the characters have gone to the States or Canada and the author is very clear and straightforward in tracing their origins and pinpointing to the backgrounds of all those characters -- they come from varied backgrounds, perhaps from within a certain area but from different social and religious backgrounds with their distinct cultural moorings, but in their migration to the land of opportunity, they have gradually shunned their individual identities. Those identities or prejudices which were ingrained and seemed inviolable or totally sacrosanct are being set aside by the reality of their situation. Perhaps the desire is still there to forge a larger identity but that larger identity has to be within the diaspora and not in the community at large.
It is the relief at escaping the spectre of caste and class back home in the district of Gujrat and the assurance of a nameless and faceless existence that has been the equation that they had not been striving to arrive at but destiny has shaped itself so. These characters in a state of flux are too baffled by the changes, the topsy-turvy nature of their cultural and social lives, and are probably on the cusp of recreating a new identity different from the one they have abandoned but not quite so.
It has often happened that the identity once abandoned or discarded reasserts itself in different forms in foreign climes. One insult or a slur can scratch the wound but these characters have gone beyond that stage leaving it behind as mere nostalgia. And this is what makes the novel significant. The amalgamation of a new identity is a challenging and complex phenomena and the process works introspectively to unravel backwards the given identity of a people or a nation.
Khadija Khan launches her debut novel to great applause
By Osman Khalid Butt
Questa: "A promise is a promise, and my role is to cure him, till the day he learns to trust again, and regard me as a woman on the inside, and not the contrary. No force holds the potential to paralyze me into a weakened abandoner."
Abraham: "On one hand, she embraces my circumstances open-heartedly, giving herself out to me, like a selfless mother to her child. On the other, her stony silence pierces into my mind to this day, I have not witnessed her shed a single tear. This is a disturbing imbalance, if a man like me can cry." -- excerpts from 'The Mind of Q', read by Shayan 'Poppy' Afzal Khan.
If the characters of the book echo shades of 23-year-old novelist Khadija Khan's own journey (as she so professed in the book launch), then she has the soul of Van Gogh -- if for the emotional resonance of her characters.
Saturday, July 3, 2010 was a momentous occasion at Kuch Khaas (and one for aspiring writers, this scribe included, to burn a vivid shade of scarlet with envy), as Khadija Khan launched her debut novel 'The Mind of Q'. I must profess, when I heard a young female writer had published a novel, my mind screamed chick-lit! ala Bridget Jones or the tongue-in-cheek satire 'Diary of a Social Butterfly' by Moni Mohsin. But I was in for quite a surprise as the first words I heard guest speaker Shama Nawaz Khan (Khadija's former English professor) speak drew parallels between Khadija and Virginia Woolf. Claiming her to be a "loquacious writer, who writes exquisitely", she went on to call the book a startling journey of self-discovery.
'The Mind of Q' charts the strange tale of Questa, an extremist who abandons her surroundings and seeks refuge in the wilderness of an island -- just when the beauty of the island begins to solace her unsettled mind, trouble comes her way. She encounters a man who is mentally unstable, and finds herself strangely drawn to him. She decides to help him overcome his illness, but what Questa is unaware of is that it is he who will end up teaching her the lesson of a lifetime.
Khadija was 19 when she began writing this complex novel, and finished when she was just 21.
Poppy Afzal Khan, Islamabad's superhero for gifting the city with Kuch Khaas -- a community space for discourse, learning, meaningful entertainment and participation in Islamabad -- took to Facebook to describe what she felt post-reading: "In 'The Mind of Q', Khadija has taken on the daunting task of writing a psychological thriller, and has managed to effectively create the requisite sense of foreboding and danger, and the multi-layers needed to make this sort of a novel gripping. The reader will find themselves drawn into the mind of Questa, the protagonist, to the extent that the line between real and imagined becomes blurred -- just what the author wishes it to be.
Khadija must be lauded for her efforts to break out of the mould of the typical debut novel from a South Asian author writing in the English Language."
Guest speaker and poet Kishwar Naheed loved the book and found it a riveting case study on psychopathology.
Khadija then spoke of how she was accused of not being very communicative and expressive, and thus decided to use writing as catharsis, expressing her pain onto paper. An exceptional student (she secured fourth position at the University of London), she seemed grounded and mature when she spoke to the audience.
The evening ended with Poppy reading excerpts from the novel, which left audiences rapt with attention; such was Khadija's command over the language and her characters.
TNS got in touch with Khadija Khan after the event for an exclusive tête-à-tête
The News on Sunday: What is the essence of 'The Mind of Q'? what journey do you wish to take your readers on?
Khadija Khan: A very simple comment made by Kishwar Naheed will answer this question: "Khadija, you're testing your readers in each and every chapter. You like playing mind games, don't you?" She was right. When I heard her say this, I realised that this was something which I'm quite likely to do with humans, in general.
TNS: What inspired such a morbid and dark theme?
KK: Such was my state of mind when I was 19. However, by the time I finished writing the novel, I had completely transformed. I'd say the shades of black got lighter and lighter for me -- now my eyes search only for the lightest and fairest of all shades. And this is something the readers shall experience in the novel as well; in the first part of the book, not just Questa, but all the characters are dark, mysterious, attracted to each others' negativities, enjoy passing rhetoric remarks, are the owners of a smouldering conscience, and their mannerisms are caustic. It's as though they are all afraid of something.
However in the second part, things start falling into place -- you witness the characters transform, you see them grow, you see them solving each others' mysteries. You will feel their pain when they are hurting, you will recover when their wounds heal.
TNS: You have no formal training in creative writing. What is the method to your madness -- the writer's process, if you will?
KK: Yes, I never opted for any form of formal training, and that was a deliberate move on my part. I would never want anyone to tame the beast within me; it must remain wild. I'm strictly against formal training (this applies only to me), because if I were to go for it, I'd be using my mind to write, and not my heart. A writer must not let the moment of madness pass. Write it when you're feeling it.
TNS: How does it feel to be one of the youngest published writers and that too from Pakistan?
KK: Honestly, everyday when I wake up, I feel as though I'm running short of time, and there's something out there I've got to achieve. I'm rather relieved that my journey of contributing something to Pakistan has finally begun.
TNS: Your professor, Shama Nawaz Khan, likened your writing style to that of Virginia Woolf. Do you see shades of her work in yours?
KK: Miss Shama likened my work to that of Virginia Woolf. Another lady at the book launch posted a comment on the Facebook page of Kuch Khaas, saying that my writing reminded her of Thomas Hardy. And I don't think Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy have anything in common. This means, everyone's got a point of view, but it doesn't have to be true or false for that matter.
When I was writing, I strictly stopped reading. Believe it or not, I did not read a single novel from 19 to 21. I did not want any other author's writing style to reflect upon mine.
TNS: Have you begun thinking about your next novel? Will it be a similar theme or will we see a stark contrast to 'The Mind of Q'?
KK: Oh no, never something like 'The Mind of Q' again. It was excruciatingly painful and torturous to write this one. The next is supernatural.
The magic of Marquez
Like you and many others throughout the world, I am an intense admirer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have read his novels and marvelled at the force of his imagination. Love in the time of Cholera is my favourite novel although The General in Labyrinth, The Autumn of the Patriarch and, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude are stupendous works of literature. It was only by chance that while rummaging through the wares of a junk shop in Cuff Parade in Mumbai I came across a second-hand copy of his short stories titled Strange Pilgrims. This exquisite collection has bowled me over.
There have been some excellent short story writers the world over: Maupassant , Stendhal, Bates, Chekhov, O'Henry, Par Lagerquist, Maugham, Updike, Salinger etc., but none of them has moved me with the kind of magic that Marquez weaves. I confess I have only read him translated in English but I remember Ivy Compton-Burnett saying in a radio interview that Marquez's translations into English are sometimes even better than the original.
Marquez has an astounding knack of gripping your attention with the opening lines. This is how he begins a story called "Maria dos Prazares":
"The man from the undertaking establishment was so punctual that Maria dos Prazares was still in her bathrobe, with her hair in curlers, and she just had time to put a red rose behind her ear to keep from looking as unattractive as she felt."
In each of his stories the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination. For an illustration I pick The Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane.
It is a superbly woven story about a beautiful woman (with soft skin the colour of blood and eyes like green almonds) who checks in at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for a plane to New York. The narrator has never seen a more beautiful woman in his life. When he boards the plane his heart stops as he finds that he is sitting next to Beauty. He manages to stammer an indecisive greeting which she does not hear. She settles in her seat as if she was going to live there for many years, putting each thing in its proper place, tells the steward not to wake her for any reason during that flight, pulls down the shade on the window, lowers the back of her seat as far as it would go, covers herself to the waist with a blanket, puts on a sleeping mask, turns her back to the narrator and sleeps without a pause, for the eight hours and twelve minutes of the flight to New York. The narrator finds it impossible to escape even for a moment from the spell of that storybook creature that sleeps at his side.
All night long he keeps telling himself in silence everything he would have told her if she had been awake. With each drink he raises his glass and toasts her. He keeps repeating to himself a sonnet by Gerado Diego: "To know you are sleeping, certain, secure, faithful channel of communication, pure line so close to my manacled arms."
He lowers the back of his seat to the level of hers and "We lay together closer than if we had been in a marriage bed." But she does not stir. Her sleep is invincible. He recalls a Japanese novel he had read a year ago about the ancient bourgeois of Kyoto who paid enormous sums of money to spend the night watching the most beautiful girls in the city, naked and drugged, while they agonised with love. But they could not wake them, or touch them, and they did not even try, because the essence of their pleasure was to see them sleeping. "Who would have thought," he says to himself, "that I'd become an ancient Japanese at this late date"
It is only when the plane has landed and the landing lights go on, that she wakes up, as beautiful and refreshed as if she had slept in a rose garden. It is then that the narrator realises that old married couples, people who sit next to each other on airplanes do not say good morning to each other when they wake up. Nor does she. She takes off her mask, moves the blanket aside, straightens the back of her seat, puts her toiletry case back on her knees, applies rapid unnecessary makeup, puts on her Lynx jacket and almost steps over the narrator with a conventional excuse in a warm serious voice, tinged with Oriental sadness, and leaves "without thanking me for all I had done to make our night together a happy one."
The story is entirely inconsequential. It does not have a conflict of interests, a clash of ideas, a jolting point or a counterpoint; it doesn't even have a startling plot, and yet it is the manner in which Marquez encapsulates a lonely, elderly man's longing for a relationship with a sylph-like creature that turns it into a memorable experience for the reader. The magic lies in Marquez's tone of voice, in his extraordinary ability and precision in conveying wistfulness and a strange relish at life's oddities.
There is a delightful prologue to the book in which Marquez tells us that over a period of two years he accumulated sixty four ideas on story subjects with many detailed notes in one of his children's composition books. After four years when he decided to begin writing he could not find the composition book. He searched his house from attic to basement but there was no trace of it. It now became a question of honour and he set to work on the forgotten subjects. He eliminated without pity the ones that seemed beyond salvation and was left with twelve story subjects, all of which chronicle the haunting journeys of Latin Americans in Europe.
A story according to Marquez "has no beginning, no end: Either it works or it doesn't." His experience is that if it doesn't it is better for one's health to start again in another direction or toss the story in the wastebasket. He says he heard someone say that good writers are appreciated more for what they tear up than for what they publish.
One remarkable observation Marquez makes is, "I have always thought that each version of a story is better than the one before. How does one know then which is the better version? The cook knows when the soup is ready; this is a trade secret that does not obey the laws of reason but the magic of instinct. However, just in case, I won't re-read them, just as I have never re-read any of my books for fear I would repent."