Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi
A rose is a rose is a rose, wrote Gertrude Stein and became famous for having done so. If this circular sentence completes its sense with a rose being declared a rose thrice, then the carrot comes only two times in the title of Zia Mohyeddin’s delightful collection of essays, subtitled “Memories and Reflections.” The carrot comes from Chekhov and not Stein. In the essay after which the book is named, Mohyeddin says that “Life today is a carrot,” and then explains this as a reference, if not a tribute, to the Russian master:
“‘You ask me what life is?’ Chekhov wrote to his wife just before his death. ‘It’s like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot and nothing more is known.’” End quote. Does anything more need be known? Suffice it to say that carrots are carrots and life is no different. However, it could have easily been a cucumber. In a Chekhov play, a governess takes out a cucumber from her pocket and starts munching it in the midst of an intense situation. So whether you prefer carrots or cucumbers, life is like “this” and Zia Mohyeddin gently reminds you that life and such situations are Chekhovian.
It is easy to see that Mohyeddin has a great regard for Chekhov and this probably stems from his interest in theatre. He brings a sense of his larger than life presence to the readers. His photograph adorns the cover of the book and will not let you forget that it is written by an internationally acclaimed actor and director who, as the director of the National Academy of Performing Arts, is the force behind the revival of quality theatre in Karachi. He is no less known for his brilliant rendering of choice extracts from classical Urdu prose and poetry. While some readers are likely to approach the book because of these distinctions others will add his distinct prose style to Mohyeddin’s many distinctions. He likes to tell amazing stories of people from an era long gone and he has mastered the craft of making his sentences elegant without being cumbersome.
The brief introduction to he book catches the spirit of the pieces that follow. In a matter of fact manner entirely devoid of sentimentality, Mohyeddin starts reflecting on old photographs, wryly observing that “the face is less lined than it is now” but gives no indication of “what was going on inside me”. In the same manner he mentions having written a novel several years ago and then dumping it with old and discarded cricket gear in London. The only thing about the novel he saves is the Eliotesque title, UnrealCity. He says that the material in this collection appeared as newspaper articles over the last ten years. Perhaps some of his previous work will reappear so that he can be considered one of the predecessors of the current wave of English fiction from Pakistan.
The very first piece in the book is titled “Kasur,” and if the title is not inviting, the opening sentence is: “It is uncanny: the swirl of dead leaves pulled along by the wind in the heat of the day reminds me of Kasur, a small provincial town that I have not visited since I was a school boy.” What follows is very much like fiction as it is evocative and made of the stuff of memories. There is an unforgettable encounter with a “dain”, the mad woman in the neighborhood who shrieks and utters unintelligible phrases. It is with affection and horror that the small town is recaptured, the affection outweighing the horror that comes from the sickness and death of dear ones. This is followed by a vivid portrait of Mohyeddin’s father.
As Mohyeddin moves to London, there is tantalisingly brief encounter with the poet Dylan Thomas but the piece which stands out is about Leela Lean, the great Indian beauty who married David Lean. The young actor trying to establish his career stands in awe of the beautiful woman but also watches her slow decline. This collection would have been worth its price only for this article but I hesitate to pronounce such a verdict as there are no less important pieces on dance and music, and not forgetting Ludhyana. It is the dazzling delight of such writing which leaves me wishing for more and also wondering if Mohyeddin will consider some extended writing in the vein of autobiography.
A Carrot is a Carrot: Memories and Reflections
By Zia Mohyeddin
Ushba Publishing, Karachi