WHILE reading ‘Kawwa Bhonkta Kiyon Hai,’ in Mumtaz Hussain’s Lafzon Main Tasweerain, and before reaching the end of this first short story, ‘absurd’ was the word which crossed my mind.
‘Kawwa Bhonkta Kiyon Hai’ is a narrative of a crow’s odyssey through heavens to quench his thirst, symbolising man’s quest for truth and faith. Afterwards, I could not put the book down. For one, the smooth language and brisk plots kept me glued and did not leave room for distraction, similar to the experience of watching a thriller. Secondly, the themes of the stories are far from being those of conventional thrillers and are more like surreal Kafkaesque experiences uncommon in Urdu literature.
There is something that bluntly hits you in the face in Hussain’s stories. It took some time, but eventually the directness of the expression, deeply rooted in human, social, cultural and historical realities, started making deeper sense. Hussain has a fresh and novel style of depicting life which brings together and transcends geographic, religious, mythical and modern-scientific realms into crisp and lucid Urdu. Staying true to the title of the book, he has, indeed, drawn visual imagery in words.
In ‘Galay Main Girah, Kaan Main Tael,’ a Sikh who had lost his hearing after listening to his parents’ screams as their house in Sialkot was set on fire with the occupants inside by rioters during Partition, bumps into a mute Bangladeshi in New York who lost his faculty of speech when he witnessed his family’s murder during the 1971 uprising in Bangladesh. Both become close friends and later business partners, selling fruits out of a cart under the shadow of the World Trade Centre. A Pakistani woman, whose son works in one of the towers, becomes their regular customer and a friend. As all three start their day on September 11, 2001, a commotion startles them. A passenger aircraft crashes into one of the buildings over their heads. Then another airplane hits the building in which the woman’s son is working.
With a masterly stroke, in another story ‘Chay, Chamak, Chehra’ Hussain blends the acquisition of a Van Gogh painting by the wife of a wealthy Pakistani feudal lord with the philandering husband slashing his ear for his mistress. These kinds of complex and divergent scenarios converge in shocking conclusions in Hussain’s tales. Almost no taboo has been spared in the expertly crafted 16 short stories in this collection.
Many of the themes allude to different religions (Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism) and their respective mythologies, highlighting the common human destiny and bonds, despite the differences in faith.
Each story is preceded by a drawing. The images are outlined with black zigzag pen strokes and filled with splashes of watercolour, creating an eerie effect. A close look at the face — apparently a self-portrait — on the cover of the book reveals that it is drawn with calligraphic renditions of the titles of the stories in the collection. The same sort of shrewdness and disguised meanings are embedded in his narratives.
After reading this book I was not surprised at the international recognition Hussain’s work has received, mostly in film-making, but also in painting, sculpture and script-writing. Born in Jhang in 1954, Mumtaz Hussain is Pakistani-American. A graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore, he studied graphic design and film-making in New York. His other works include Gol Ainak kay Peechhay (his first collection of short stories), films Soul of Civilisation, Ye Mera Pakistan Hai and Inside You (on Jalaluddin Rumi’s poetry).
Lafzon Main Tasweerain
By Mumtaz Hussain
Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore