Local flavour

Published January 1, 2017

MUZAFFAR A. Isani’s debut novel somewhat reflects his background as a university professor, based as it is on a classic of English literature. The author is straightforward in his preface, saying that his novel follows the “broad contours” of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which will be familiar to any number of English literature students in Pakistan. Isani is at pains to point out that adaptation of a theme or a plot is not an unusual device in literary circles. Indeed, there are many examples of this, from — as the preface to this book details — the eventual emergence of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet from an Italian novella, to Aldous Huxley’s use of themes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in his own novel Brave New World. Great literature is supposed to evoke insights that should be explored further. A change in setting, cultural context, and era should not necessarily be a disadvantage either — good writing speaks to the human condition and the universality of the human situation.

A Man of Honour: The Life and Death of Yuba Kasai, however, is not so much an adaptation as an attempt to transplant The Mayor of Casterbridge into a subcontinental, contemporary setting. This is not entirely far-fetched: 19th century small-town England has obvious parallels in modern-day Pakistan with the emphasis on public morality being a key feature.

The basic premise of both novels is that a poor man commits an obnoxious act while in a drunken stupor, and then spends a lifetime covering up his past actions only to have his secrets catch up with him. His essential flaws of character do not allow him to rectify his mistakes and although he initially achieves financial success and a respectable place in society, he is eventually brought down by his pettiness and unscrupulous behaviour.


A classic from English literature is given a Pakistani treatment


While the original novel meanders through, focusing more on characters than on advancing the plot, A Man of Honour keeps an uneven pace. The titular Yuba Kasai’s experience in the tavern where he auctions off his wife and daughter is unnecessarily dragged out, not least as the author tries to make the existence of a rural tavern in a South Asian setting somewhat convincing (this is not to deny that some people in rural Pakistan consume alcohol, but their experience is unlikely to occur in a public space). On the other hand, Yuba’s rise from rags to riches is described rather perfunctorily in three and a half pages, as is his wife’s experience post-auction. This pattern continues through large parts of the book with short chapters describing key plot developments. One reason for this could be that the author already knows where the story is going, given that he faithfully follows the template of the source book.

Where character is discussed, the author is sometimes curiously judgemental and his biases as a social scientist pepper the novel. When relating how Yuba assuages his guilt, for instance, an entire paragraph is devoted to how “Those who are untutored embrace religious belief only superficially,” and “Uneducated village folks put greater faith in the divine powers of dead saints”. There are several examples of such pontification where the narrative voice suddenly becomes condemnatory. A novelist always writes with opinions about characters and situations, but those are supposed to become apparent from the way the story progresses, rather than feature as analysis which would be more in place in a research paper, if at all. In key places, the author does not allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions — for instance, when describing how Yuba re-hires an old manager, the author states that this was a “monumental indiscretion”. Such a technique, where the readers are explicitly told what to make of a character’s actions, is somewhat out of place in novels.

The story begins to pick up about halfway through the book, as Yuba’s relationship with his purported daughter and his manager/protégé develops. A key revelation, and a deviation from the source novel, also takes place here and A Man of Honour then assumes more tragic proportions, leading to a shocking denouement which Hardy could not have dreamt up for the England of his age.

A Man of Honour should really be read as a tribute to Hardy’s famous novel, and the author is quite clear that this is how it is meant to be approached. However, Hardy’s novel was characterised by artful character development, which is lacking here, with all the characters being a little too black and white. The author’s somewhat choppy style of writing, with short chapters and a prescriptive tone, can also be a bit jarring. While the book may help bring the themes of the source novel, i.e., a man brought down by his depravity, to a larger audience in Pakistan, it does not make for easy reading. It is, however, commendable for an academic to try his hand at writing fiction and Isani obviously has some facility with the pen. Perhaps a more original piece of work would have more of an impact.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst.

A Man of Honour: The Life and Death of Yuba Kasai
(NOVEL)
By Muzaffar A. Isani
Partridge, India
ISBN: 978-1482851465
364pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1st, 2017

Opinion

Editorial

UNGA speech
25 Sep, 2022

UNGA speech

CRISES test a nation’s resilience but also provide opportunities to rise and move forward. Prime Minister Shehbaz...
Dar’s return
Updated 25 Sep, 2022

Dar’s return

Dar will now be expected by his party to conjure up fiscal space for the govt to start spending ahead of the next elections.
Iran hijab protests
25 Sep, 2022

Iran hijab protests

FOR over a week now, Iran has been witnessing considerable tumult after a young woman died earlier this month in the...
Post-flood economy
Updated 24 Sep, 2022

Post-flood economy

WITH a third of the country — especially Sindh and Balochistan — under water, over 33m people displaced, and...
Panadol shortage
24 Sep, 2022

Panadol shortage

FROM headaches to fever to bodily pain — paracetamol is used ubiquitously in Pakistan as the go-to remedy for most...
Star-struck cops
24 Sep, 2022

Star-struck cops

IN this age of selfies and social media, it is easy to get carried away in the presence of famous people, even if ...