“You search for life sitting in closed rooms and reading books, and I have seen life in the brothel. I have seen life in small huts and narrow, dark alleyways... Look at life with the naked eye, and see the extent to which it has become a victim.”
Shaukat Siddiqui wrote these words with a touch of irony, in my opinion, in his influential novel Khuda ki Basti (God’s Colony). After all, in 1957, this book was a vehicle that delivered insight into life’s tragedies to thousands of Pakistanis still reeling from the effects of the Partition.
So when one of the protagonists, Salman, a wayward university dropout, delivered this tirade to his former professor, I was struck.
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I am relatively new to the world of Urdu novels, having abandoned them after my O’ levels in favour of a more popular option – studying literature in English. Yet, when I began Khuda ki Basti, I was struck not only by its beauty, but its realism – it felt too close for comfort.
Khuda ki Basti is Siddiqui’s exercise in both irony and prophecy.
The author spent a long time talking to residents of Karachi’s shantytowns and observing their lives, so the novel can be taken as much as a study of the times as a work of fiction.
I read it as Pakistan’s past, present and future encompassed in 530 pages.
The book's 1974 television adaptation on PTV was telecast five times due to its popularity. Yet, even the television show; remarkable in its dialogue, characters, harsh realism and a marked contrast to our one-note shows today, could not do complete justice to the scope of the novel.
The novel takes the characters from their small, broken-down hamlet and idealistic social workers’ societies into the rough and tumble slums, as well as the upper crust clubs and bars of a post-Partition Karachi.
From land encroachment to male prostitution; children as products of rape to flawed inheritance laws; struggling social movements to powerful newly minted capitalists; religious fervour to debauched social climbing; the novel left no stone unturned.
A stone tossed into a pool of water creates a disturbance, a ripple effect that slowly fades away; but the stone settles to the bottom and stays there gathering mud and debris over time. The novel unites the major characters with such a disturbance.
Nosha, an impressionable boy has been employed by Niaz, a trader in stolen goods, to steal from the autoparts workshop where he works. After being paid a hefty sum of 10 rupees for a lucrative steal, he indulges in a night of drinking with his friends Raja and Shami. Returning home late, he collapses in the middle of the road, and is hit by a car.
Another wayward young man, Salman, a university student, finds and returns Nosha to his family, whereupon an instant attraction grows between Salman and Nosha’s sister Sultana. Salman also begins selling his personal effects to Niaz, in order to avoid destitution after being cut off from his middle class family.
|Qazi Wajid (left) and Behroz Sabzwari in the roles of Raja and Nosha in the 1974 TV adaptation of the novel.|
Thus, as the novel progresses, these characters and more, endure trials together and apart until the tragic conclusion that unites them all.
The novel sits like a stone at the bottom of the tumultuous river that makes up Pakistan’s history – it prophesied sentiments that today have become part and parcel of the country’s identity.
One story resonates in particular: Salman, inspired by his former professor, is recruited into a social workers’ collective and becomes a teacher and activist in the community.
The collective decides to build a hospital on a recently acquired plot of land. However, due to influence exerted by Khan Bahadur, a powerful businessman, someone erects a makeshift mosque on that land. A local, living in the mosque’s vicinity exclaims in surprise the next day:
“Overnight, I don’t know who could have built this mosque. Allah must have sent angels, nothing else makes sense to me”.
In response, the social workers – “Skylarks”, as they refer to themselves – suggest tearing it down as the land was theirs. One of their leaders, Fahimullah, points out, “But this might flare up the religious passions of people”.
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While the locals were at first supportive of the Skylarks’ efforts, Khan Bahadur – through a combination of bribes and exploitation of religious goodwill – eventually succeeded in preventing the hospital construction and winning the municipality elections.
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This mating of business and religion indicates the relevance of Siddiqui’s work to Pakistan, since the day of its inception.
The commercialisation of religion has now assumed such epic proportions in our society that it is hard to imagine a different make-up for it. Our national strategies and international leanings demonstrate how far we have gone in uniting mass consumption, wealth and religious identity.
We strived for and succeeded in becoming “God’s Colony”.
Come Ramazan, our TV will be inundated by shows 'selling' religion. Again, how ironic that it was a TV show once which forewarned us of exactly this state of affairs.
Progressive activists and thinkers often cite Saudi Arabia’s strategic and economic support and growing cultural influence as an example of Pakistan’s movement into conservatism.
However, successive Pakistani governments, as part of their attempts to hold on to power, also pandered to religious leadership.
Religious parties, as early as 1953, incited anti-Ahmadi riots in Lahore, in response to the then Prime Minister’s rejection of their ultimatum to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims. In order to appease these parties, Ahmadis were removed from top government positions.
Then in 1974, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a bid to save his position, passed a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim. Bhutto, interestingly enough, was a huge fan of the show Khuda ki Basti and ordered reruns.
Today, under the cover of law, persecutions of Ahmadis and other religious communities persist, thanks to the united interests of religious and political power players.
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For Urdu novel aficionados, the controversial topics touched upon by progressive writers like Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Shaukat Siddiqui among others, should come as no surprise. While these writers are products of their times, they also understood well human nature and sentiment as it was and what it could potentially become.
Siddiqui studied the areas he wrote about, examined the people and presented them as he saw them.
It is difficult to find similar work today, largely because literature has become the province of the elite.
Even when progressive writers in the past belonged to elite circles, they stepped out of their spaces to create work consumed on a large scale and in turn, they consumed local languages as part of their inspirations.
Now, divorced from Siddiqui’s times and transplanted into today’s Pakistan, Khuda ki Basti is no longer Siddiqui’s definitive work but an ongoing project; a draft that evolves with every interpretation, in every time period it is read and re-read.
It survives at the bottom of this river as waters roar around it because it is weighed down by the burden of carrying our story.