I have often wondered about Milan Kundera’s statement regarding the novel: it suffocates in an atmosphere rife with certainties. A binary system strangles it. Rather, it seeks to provide a hospitable space for opposites to coexist, without one trying to eliminate the other. The novelistic reality — just as novelistic temporality — is thus very different from what is observed generally in the quotidian world. Here, varying shades of grey predominate; stark white and solid black are kept relentlessly at bay, though they are welcome on the condition that they fuse together to create a more subtle, more textured, more complex reality, a false, a fabricated reality, if you will; for “truth” — as Albert Camus has put it in his novel The Fall — “like light, blinds,” while falsehood, like the soft evening twilight, makes objects clearer. A character walks the fictional space unabashedly flashing his contradictions.
The dangerous results that might ensue when novelistic reality is confused with empirical reality remind me of an episode from Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Cancer Ward. I recount it for the reader’s amusement. At some point during an inspection of the ward, Vera Kornilyevna discovers a small vial of brown liquid in Kostoglotov’s drawer. It turns out to be issyk-kul root extract. Apparently the despairing patient is treating his cancer on his own with folk medicine, which simply could not be tolerated inside the hospital. Lest the reader of the novel think of the root as a surefire way of treating cancer, Rebecca Frank warns him in her translator’s note: “[T]he lay reader must be warned against accepting this fictional story as in any way a scientific account of the disease and its treatment; and, of course, the patient’s dreams of folk nostrums, such as the birch-tree mushroom (or fungus) and the issyk-kul root, have no scientific basis.” So, readers, bewarned!
For years I taught a course on Urdu fiction in translation. I used to assign each student a short story to study critically for oral presentation in class. On the assigned date for the story, the student would have the first crack at it before it was opened up for general discussion. I spoke last. When we got to Premchand’s short story ‘Kafan’ (The Shroud), not a single student in God knows how many years ever resisted the urge to chastise the grubby pair of father and son, Ghisu and Madhav, up and down for their crass insensitivity to the son’s wife Budhia, who lay dying inside the hut. You would think the pair had gravely offended the students’ moral sense.
Not one student ever tried to look at the story dispassionately as a piece of fiction, which need not conform to any given notion of morality. Fiction demanded that if a character was bad, the writer should make him believably bad, marshalling all his imaginative resources and ingenuity to take him down to the very depths of human depravity, though not suppressing the character’s ability to experience some moments of genuine tenderness and warmth otherwise at odds with his overall moral makeup.
Somehow the students always had a hard time keeping the realms of fiction and reality apart. They could only think in terms of black and white, good or bad, moral or immoral. “You are either with us, or against us” all over again. Occasionally a student broke ranks and attributed a motive to the characters’ inhumanity — namely, society in the form of the local landlord who had reduced the duo to grinding poverty, a poverty that had numbed all moral sense. This interpretation, closer to Premchand’s notion and the purpose of fiction, though I doubt this is entirely the case in this story, again fell wide of the mark. Is this what fiction is supposed to do — present a programme of enfranchisement and social justice, or characters who never look at the seductions to the right and left of them in their mad dash along the straight path? After all, even President Carter, religious and a thorough gentleman, did not deny in his Playboy interview “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” And when have the arts ever brought any palpable change in society? We have seen a demonstration of their inherent inability in these very pages by Zulfikar Ghose (Books&Authors, January 20, 2013). It is, rather, the perpetual tension between the two, the dissatisfaction with the empirical, that often results in the creation of arts, of a virtual imaginative reality. Baudelaire’s ‘The Stranger’ is a case in point.
No doubt Premchand is the granddaddy of Urdu fiction, but I think we would do well to look for his chief contribution not so much in foisting a reformist purpose upon fiction as in helping the fledgling short story emerge as a discrete narrative genre. He was able to give it a wider range of subjects and, importantly, finalise as a dialectical necessity its impending break with the cloying romanticism of his time, best exemplified by writers such as Sajjad Haider Yildirim, Niaz Fatehpuri and Lam Ahmad. ‘The Shroud’ too has its warts. In spite of the author’s attempt to keep his reformist agenda under wraps, it still sneaks out in a few unguarded moments. Nevertheless, the story remains a fairly successful piece of wry humour and biting irony subsumed by a generally dispassionate narrative style. With all their moral apathy, the spastic father and son have something about them that forestalls any attempt to hate them. We would not wish their fate on anyone, but we also cannot run them down for it. The fact that it was written a year before the author’s death in 1936 is itself of no small consequence. Perhaps Premchand was moving decisively toward some notion of fictional autonomy at the tail-end of his life.