A SLIM and seemingly simple volume, Zahid Aur Do Kahaniyan defies easy descriptions and simple categorisation. Two tales in addition to the title story make up the bulk of this collection which remains limited in the number of pages but packs a strange kind of kinetic energy which seems to flow through the pages. So how does one approach it?
The simplest approach would be to view this book and its author as a phenomenon unique in itself. The author is Julien Columeau, a native of France whose first language is French but who has spent several years in India and Pakistan and writes Urdu as if it was the language of his natural expression. On first contact, his work reminds me of the several Englishmen and Europeans who wrote Urdu poetry in the previous centuries and constitute an interesting but a minor chapter in the history of Urdu literature. Figures such as Alexander Hadley, who took up the takhallus Azad, are an interesting field of study and an entire book has been written about the lives and works of such poets.
Julien could easily be seen as a modern-day extension of this phenomenon. An occasional phrase, which sounds more awkward than neat, is the only thing which might reveal the author’s origin. Even more than the language, it is his approach which makes him distinguished. Julien has utilised his European sensibility and blends this successfully with his extraordinary command over the Urdu language. This by itself would have been enough to stamp him with distinction but his remarkable subject matter and the handling of the themes he chooses to write on make him stand out more than anything else.
Julien has also written three novellas which have been published in a single volume. Biographical in nature, one draws its subject matter from Saghir Siddiqui (Saghar), the poet who spent his life among the malangs and outcasts at the shrines of Lahore, leading a life of poverty and poetry. The second novella draws upon the even greater and more enigmatic figure of Miraji (Miraji Kay Liye), regarded as a major voice of modern Urdu poetry as well as a social outcast. The third (Muneer Jafri Shaheed) displays a remarkable wealth of knowledge about the world of zakiri and recitation, based upon another real-life figure.
Remarkable as these short novels are, Julien has outdone himself in the three short stories in Zahid Aur Do Kahaniyan. The contradictions, the horrifying pain and anguish which people are subjected to and the misery which is linked with the hypocrisy prevalent in society forms the basis of these stories, with each in its own way describing a zone of experience never depicted before.
The protagonist of the title story moves from a position of extremism, nourished by an obtuse kind of faith, and ends up in a position where he is the exploiter of vulnerable women. Leading a sordid life, he reaches a violent end. In another story (‘Mengal’) a Baloch youth with a deadly mission on his mind is wandering across Paris while the story ‘Adeel Ka Safar’ reaches the Amazonian rainforest where religious zealots lead a missionary expedition aimed at showing the light of belief to the native inhabitants living in primitive conditions. The question of who is showing the light to whom and who is civilised is raised. Each of the stories is disturbing in its own way and makes you ponder over the human conditions which have emerged in the world.
Julien’s unique position provides him with a great advantage. A keen observer of people, their manners and their conversations, he is not inhibited by fears or hesitations some others may have. He is open in tackling themes which relate to violence, sex, substance abuse and the miserable living conditions of disadvantaged people living on the edges of society. His grim realism leads him towards a bleak view of not only society but of the people who are trapped in these conditions.
In addition to this point of view, Julien’s approach to language is also unique. Going beyond the basic fact that he not only writes in Urdu but writes well, he employs narrative strategies which are more characteristic of French fiction. His use of the present tense in the first story gives a strange urgency to the narrative and it feels almost as if one is experiencing at first hand the burning heat of the container in which the narrator is trapped. Is this a metaphor for the existential condition? Is there a way out of the tunnel or do we start making ourselves at home in the dark tunnel? One wonders where Julien’s fiction will take us next.
The reviewer is a fiction writer and critic
Zahid Aur Do Kahaniyan
By Julien Columeau
Saanjh Publications, Lahore