word about lettersBy Kazy Javed
A worthy work of fiction
Mirza Athar Beg's maiden novel addresses the issues human beings have always faced
By Dr. Abrar Ahmad
By Mirza Athar Beg
Sanjh Publication, Lahore
Price: Rs 600 Pages: 878
Voluminous fictional works provide the authors an opportunity to deal with a totality of life. This kind of fiction is both a privilege and a handicap for the writer, and poses the stiffest test to his command and vision. That's perhaps why even our seasoned writers have not attempted writing novels. The older generation did add some voluminous novels to Urdu fiction but there are very few novelists among the younger lot.
'Ghulam Bagh' that hit the stands a few months back is a complex but well-knit narrative by an otherwise capable fiction writer Mirza Athar Beg. His maiden effort, the paradox inherent in the title 'Ghulam Bagh' prepares the reader of what he/she must expect from the text. The dedication of the book to the downtrodden extinct races of the subcontinent is a pronouncement of the author's ideological stance.
The story begins with three friends sitting in Cafe Ghulam Bagh exchanging witty remarks.over a cup of tea. There is Kabir, a freelance journalist with a longing to write a novel one day, Dr. Naseer, a simple loving soul and Hoffmen, a German research scholar assigned to conduct an archaeological study on Ghulam Bagh ruins, an ancient site with a promise of historical revelations.
One evening Dr. Naseer receives a patient Yawar Atai with strange symptoms of 'Brown Fever'. The patient is delirious and has lost spacio-temporal orientation. He feverishly repeats "The earth is falling" and to him everything around is turning brown. Identical cases are reported the same evening in other hospitals of the city. The doctor identifies it as a drug overdose, documented by the patient's recovery with gastric lavage. This incident initiates an intense inquisitiveness in him. He confronts the patient's daughter who remains hostile and unassuming. Thus the two strong characters enter the tale, the patient Yawar Atai (the Quack) and Zahra, his daughter. Zahra herself is after her father's mysterious drug business, the access to which was always refused by the latter. This common quest brings Nasser and Zahra together and she soon occupies the fourth chair in Cafe Ghulam Bagh.
Yawar belongs to a humiliating background of 'Mangar Jati', the natives of the land. His father Khadim was the first to flee from this eclipsed identity by getting a little education and becoming a postman. He got a book 'Gangina-e-Nishat' out of an undelivered parcel. While on death bed having fallen prey to 'brown fever', he handed over this book to his son Yawar. The book contains details of different herbal formulas to enhance man's sexual prowess. Yawar migrates to the mega-city with intentions of exploiting this new found knowledge to his full advantage.
The story keeps a continuous horizontal thread, with multiple layers within an apparently simple sequence of events. But it has some vertical off-shoots as well, relevant at most places but failing to relate with the main stream at others.
We, the mortals, have an inner life at least equally strong, if not more, as compared to the visible. In all serious works of fiction, we find a blend of the two as the author tries to maintain a balance between the two. In 'Ghulam Bagh' one sees characters getting more exteriorised than what one anticipated. The reader is perplexed at times and keeps guessing as to what is happening inside the throbbing souls he interacts with during an intent reading. This gap is perhaps deliberately created and filled by the author with frequent philosophical comments. At places he seems to be fictionalising philosophy. This element makes his narrative a bit self-reflexive, though not without impact.
His command over language is tremendous and unprecedented in current times. Through the mystery of Yawar Atai, the 'Brown Fever' and 'manger jati', we explore a haunting locale never visited before. The dynamics of Zahra-Nasser and Zahra-Kabir friendship, the demoniac nurse Mukhtar, the silenced Madad Ali, Mundri and Bhoora of Inam Garh are the elements so beautifully knitted into the fabric of the story turning the book into a unique aesthetic experience.
Mirza has effectively used the technique of repeating words of identical or opposed metaphorical meanings in a hammering rhythmic fashion -- almost like a hysterical note displaying his creative force and infusing an element of poetic stress on the issues he intends to highlight. The description of the details of what the patient of 'Brown Fever' suffers are reminiscent of the magical realism offering multiple narrative shades.
The only flaw in the logical sequence of events lies in Kabir's murder. A man of tremendous influence and a politician of national stature, Amber Jan, illogically follows Kabir and his friends to the remote hilly village of the salt range , while he could have easily done it without a direct personal involvement.
The protagonist Kabir Mehdi is a key to the novel. He is overwhelmingly present everywhere and is finally murdered to wind up the story. The construction of characters and the details involved render a feeling of the author's inclination towards Dosteovyskian methodology of creating fiction including murder.
The attempt to define Mirza's intention would fail as fiction is not a narration of facts. We can conveniently conclude that his narrative addresses the everlasting questions and conflicts between life and death, being and nothingness, meaningfulness and absurdity, involvement and alienation, love and hatred, freedom and slavery and allied issues human beings have always faced and addressed. His exploration of different strata of life around makes his work a worthy achievement. From such an outstanding craftsman, one must expect few more such offerings in times to come.
A personal hell
James Frey's 'memoir' makes the reader travel with him during his journey from the depth of addiction to a state of resolution with his past
By Bushra Sultana
A million little pieces
By James Frey
Doubleday Books USA
Price: Rs 900 Pages: 386
'A Million Little Pieces' by James Frey is a gripping tale of one man's journey to recover from extreme alcohol and drug abuse. The memoir, or as it is claimed by the author, was published in 2003. Though it received critical acclaim for its brutally honest portrayal of recovering addicts, it wasn't until it was selected by Oprah's book club in 2005 that the book became number one on the New York Times non-fiction, paper-back best seller list for 15 straight weeks.
The book generated a huge controversy when, in January 2006, it was reported on a website that Frey fabricated a few incidences in his story while embellishing many others. The controversy blew up overnight with hordes of writers, critics and general readers condemning his acts forcing both the author and the publishing house to apologise. Subsequently, the new edition of the book now contains a note by the author explaining his stance in twisting the truth as he wrote his memories.
However, any sort of controversy does not alter the book's core quality of providing a candid glimpse in the psyche of an addict. This riveting four-sectioned tale opens with the author hitting rock bottom and carries a brisk momentum of his delirium. Frey, with a hole in his cheek, missing four front teeth and a broken nose is led to a rehabilitation centre by his concerned parents. As Frey moves from his delirium to sober consciousness, the reader starts to understand his life and the reasons behind his current state. At the centre, Frey refuses to abide by the long-established and proven Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) programme and its twelve-steps. With the help of advices he picks up from his friend Leonard and a book given by his brother, he starts his long journey back to being in control of his own life again.
While reading 'A Million Little Pieces', the reader travels with Frey in his journey from the depth of his personal hell to a state of resolution with his past. The first section that recounts his detoxification period is marked by misery and pain. It drains the soul as the reader witnesses the emotional, psychological and physical hells to which a man can subject himself. Frey's days of detoxification and the murderous rage that he feels leaves one shaky and emotional. For all those with an existentialist bent of mind, the first half of the book is like a punch that hits quick and hits hard.
Though the book is not consistent in gripping the reader's attention, Frey's brilliance shines in the answers he provides for his and countless other addicts' situation. There are none. He is straightforward and unapologetic in his account, laying bare the emotional and physical trauma that not only an addict but also those around him go through. He emphatically rejects the tested and proven processes for recovering alcoholics and addicts. He believes that by being emotionally dependent on AA meetings, support groups and literature, the addicts do not just avoid the chemical abuse but are just replacing one addiction with another. Frey places the highest emphasis on personal choice and corresponding personal responsibility.
Frey's characterisation of the people he met at the centre contains the Hollywood-like echo of his earlier stint as a screen writer: the hardened 23 year old with a wild past; his fragility that allows him to love intensely; the beautiful, vulnerable girl whose stability is dependent on the hero's love and strength; the mafia don whose dark side is overshadowed by his charitable, kind nature. Such characters and the almost super-human strength Frey's character displays at various points are the factors that lend this memoir a fictional touch.
The writing style is simple and allows an easy flow between dialogues and narration. His use of stream of consciousness is effective, flowing in and out like waves; its dramatic quality increases or decreases with the intensity of the character's emotions. Frey shies away from punctuation and the stream of consciousness is at its peak in the most disruptive and emotionally challenging situations. Whereas Frey's strength lies in the section where he self-reflects, one place where he falls short is his confessional conversations with his parents. The dialogues have a wooden quality, his speeches, and those of his parents, seem forced. Though powerful in its message and intense in its emotions, the book is a few dozen pages too long. After the initial whirlwind period of the detoxing, and once Frey finds a grip on the craving he terms as 'Fury', the narration slacks, bordering on, but never touching, the lines of boredom.
The critics and reviewers can argue to their heart's content about the genre in which this book falls. The journalists may dig in Frey's past to expose the liberties he has taken with this story. However, you should read the book for what is contained in its pages. Ignore the author's note until you are finished with his story. The book will help you to identify the addictions in your life-whether they are as life-threatening as drugs or as harmless and common as the Internet and television. What more, it will inspire you to make conscious decisions of taking charge of your life. For that alone, this book is a must read.
A word about letters
By Kazy Javed
Shahzad Ahmed turns seventy five
Shahzad Ahmad has turned 75. Many of his friends and admirers assembled past week at Alhamra in Lahore to celebrate the event over a cup of tea. The septuagenarian poet was in tune and gave the impression of having played a good innings.
Poet Khalid Sharif hosted the event where Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi, Amjad Islam Amjad, A.G. Josh, Khalid Ahmad, Najeeb Ahmad, Neelma Nahid Durrani, Sofia Bedar, Saima Kamran and Irfan Sadiq payed glowing tributes to Shahzad Ahmad.
Khalid Sharif has also included a special section on Shahzad Ahmad in the April issue of his monthly literary magazine 'Mavra International'. This 21-page section carries articles written by literary dukes like Dr Wazir Agha, Ashfaq Ahmad, Intizar Hussain and Dr Khurshid Rizvi.
Shahzad Ahmad is presently serving as the director of the Board for the Advancement of Literature, Lahore. This post was held by Ahmad Nadim Qasmi for more then two decades and fell vacant with his death last year. Qasmi Saheb was our most senior poet and fiction writer. Shahzad Ahmad is not that senior but he is certainly a widely admired and respected litterateur. No less than 15 collections of his poetry have been published. 'Sadaf' was the title of his maiden book of poetry published in 1958. It carries ghazals composed between 1946 and 1957. It brought some fame to the poet. His last collection appeared in 2004 under the title 'Aik Chiragh aur bhi'.
Known for his quick wit and humour, Shahzad Ahmad was educated as a psychologist. He did his masters in this discipline from the University of the Punjab in 1952. In those days psychology, in our part of the world, was considered to be a part of philosophy. His interest in these two subjects has not faded away and poetry has not been able to supplant them. He, in fact, has published about a dozen books on various topics related to philosophy and psychology. His first book on philosophy came in 1962 under the title 'Mazhab, Teehzeeb aur Maut'.
Recently, he published a book on existentialist psychology, which is probably the first book on this topic in Urdu. Many of Shahzad Ahmad's books have been brought out by the Sang-e-Meel Publications of Lahore.
Progressive Writer's Association
I spent three days of the past fortnight in Multan where the Urdu department of the Bahauddin Zikriya University, in collaboration with the Higher Education Commission organised Urdu Conference. The conference was meant to highlight the impact of three literary and intellectual movements: Sir Syed Movement, Progressive Movement and Modernism.
The conference attracted a sizeable number of progressive writers, intellectuals and social scientists from various parts of the country. Dr Muhammad Ali Siddiqui, Zahida Hina, Asif Farukhi, Sehar Ansari, Rahat Saeed and Wahid Bashir came from Sindh while Balochistan was represented by Dr Shah Mahammad Murri. Kishwar Nahid, Ishfaq Salim Mirza, Dr Rashid Amjad and Yousaf Hasan came from Islamabad. Several others had also come from Lahore to participate in the conference.
Dr Anwar Ahmad, a former dean and senior teacher of the Urdu Department and Dr Rubina Tareen who heads the department hosted the event. The conference was opened by Dr Mahammad Zafarullah, vice-chancellor of the Multan University who expressed the hope that his university would be able to play a notable role in promoting social consciousness. He advised the writers' community to keep itself abreast of the developments taking place in global politics and economy.
Taking advantage of the presence of so many progressive writers, Rahat Saeed and Wahid Bashir of the Karachi's 'Irtaqa Group' convened a special meeting to discuss the revival of the Progressive Writers Association. The association was disbanded in 1954 after it was banned by the government. Considerable efforts were made in the past to reactivate it but to no end. However, the Lahore chapter of the association has been active for the last few years, thanks to Rashid Misbah and Abid Hussain Abid.
Writers present at the occassion unanimously resolved to revive the Progressive Writers Association. They also elected Sobo Giyan Chandani of Larkana and Hamid Akhtar of Lahore as president and secretary general respectively, of the revived association. These two octogenarian writers were eminent members of the association in its old days. Rashid Misbah and Rahat Saeed were given the posts of additional and deputy secretaries.
It was also decided to establish the central secretariat of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore while its benches will be opened in other cities of the country.
Remembering Mohammad Hussain Panhwar
Mohammad Hussain Panhwar, who died in the last week of April in Hyderabad at the age of 82, will be remembered for a long time as a progressive farmer and man of letters.
I came across him three years ago at the auditorium of the Sindh Language Authority, Hyderabad where I had gone to attend a conference on the history and culture of Sindh. I found him to be an amiable old man who loved talking about books and new ideas. He invited me to see his personal library which, he said, comprised of some 50,000 books including a number of rare manuscripts and volumes on the history, culture and literature of Sindh. I also noticed that Mr Panwahar was greatly respected by writers, scholars and political leaders of his province.
This respect is well deserved: Mohammad Hussain Panhwar did important work on various aspects of the history and culture of Sindh. Three of his books - 'Social History of Sindh', 'Chronological History of Sindh' as well as 'Source Material on Sindh' - are classed as the basic volumes on 'Sindhology'.
He also drew hundreds of maps of various places and periods of the Sindh's history. His interest in cartography won him the enviable fellowship of the London's Royal Geographical Society.