In his latest collection of short stories, Nain Sukh marshals the genre of historical fiction to explore pressing political questions confronting Pakistan today. His writing offers a fresh departure from the well-worn forms of contemporary Punjabi literature, combining myth and colonial history, folk song and newspaper report in a narrative spun using a variety of dialects from the region.
Nain Sukh is the pen name of Khalid Mehmood. Hailing from Sargodha and a lawyer by profession, Sukh made his mark on the Punjabi literary scene through his evocative short story collections, Theekaryaan and Uthal Puthal. In 2015, he published what many have termed his magnum opus, Madhu Lal Hussain, a novel dedicated to Lahore’s untold history, framed by a bold narrative choice — the relationship between the city’s iconic saint, Shah Hussain, and the Brahmin Madhu. Sukh’s open discussion ruffled quite a few feathers, yet he continues to tackle taboo subjects and subaltern histories of Pakistan. The short story ‘Margalla’ in his latest book provides a similar counter-history for the northern belt of Punjab, framed through the eyes of its elusive and somewhat dreamy protagonist, Irfan Raja.
The story begins with Irfan lost in a reverie, his pen poised in mid-air as he adds the final touches to his feature story about the history of the Margalla Hills. He remains haunted by his nomadic roots — the image of his Shaman-like grandfather shouting “Mahavira!” etched indelibly in his memory — even as he climbs the ladder of respectability after his adoption into an upper-class family. Irfan’s feature works as a story within a story to evoke parallels between the protagonist’s personal history and that of the region. His trajectory maps on to the development of Islamabad — Constantinos Doxiadis’s plan carved into hills that were situated at the crossroads of one of the world’s richest civilisations. The story juxtaposes precolonial jogi panths, syncretic Sufi shrines and the Gandharan Buddhist past with the development of Gen Ayub Khan’s militarised capital that later experienced a property boom and catapulted Bahria Town to the heights of success. Through a compelling narrative, Sukh traces the cultural dislocation wrought by state-led urban planning in cahoots with private capital.
Modern Punjabi storytelling that explores the loss of culture and the demise of the past
Like many contemporary Punjabi writers, Sukh is concerned with cultural loss and the demise of a pluralistic Punjabi past that spoke to a variety of religious sensibilities. While most contemporary Punjabi literature resonates with nostalgic reminiscence, Sukh tackles this theme using a refreshing juxtaposition of poetry, folklore, archival research and oral history. The historian in Sukh shines as the story reveals an eye-opening amount of detail regarding the ancient, colonial and contemporary developments that have shaped the region. His choice of the Potohari dialect for this tale gives it a rustic and organic texture, evoking the land itself: a land lost and ravaged by a postcolonial state that has chosen to whitewash its pre-Islamic past. In the story, Sukh plays with the etymology of the word ‘Margalla’ (den of snakes) to comment on the rich history that is bulldozed over (literally) to forge a “land of the pure”, an “Islam-abad.”
The theme of cultural politics continues in ‘Fort Munro Gang Rape Case’, this time relayed in the lilting notes of a Seraiki-inspired dialect. The protagonist is a journalist referred to simply as “Punjabi Girl” and the story revolves around the 2012 incident when three border police personnel were accused of gang-raping five girls in Dera Ghazi Khan. The accused were spirited away by armed tribesmen who refused to hand them over to the state and instead negotiated with the local police to allow a jirga to mete out punishment.
Punjabi Girl sets out from Lahore to investigate this harrowing incident. On the way she meets a spirited Seraiki poet, Majboor Taunsvi, and other characters whose names are just Baloch and Pakhtun. Sukh uses ethnic identity as personal names to lay bare the poverty of the discourse of regional nationalisms in Pakistan. Detailing the histories of colonial privilege and collusion with the state that taint the past of Baloch sardars, Seraiki nationalists and Pakhtunistan enthusiasts alike, Sukh pushes these separatist movements to interrogate the contradictions within their own society and culture. Towards the end, the atmosphere darkens considerably as we are taken through Punjabi Girl’s stormy personal history: she — passed around from one man to the other — stands in for the Punjabi motherland, a land ravaged over the centuries by invaders of all shades — Mongol, Afghan, Greek: “Hearing Pakhtun and Baloch deliver impassioned speeches about nationalism made her very angry. She felt like she was a battlefield ravaged by invading armies.”
It seems here, though, that the astute political insight demonstrated in ‘Margalla’ is clouded over by myopic Punjabi nationalism. While the story exposes ‘the greater game’ backing separatist uprisings, it lacks a critical reflection on Punjab’s role as the hegemonic ethnicity that continues to use the state apparatus to further its economic and political domination.
Sukh’s use of historical fiction is extremely significant given the paucity of historical writing in Punjabi, but the question does arise: how far can the boundaries of fiction stretch to accommodate the urge to document?
However, in the title story, ‘Shaheed?’ Sukh is fearless and undaunted, asking questions that many would not dare even think of. ‘Shaheed?’ is a chilling expose of the mysterious death of a young army officer in trouble-worn Balochistan. The narrator is Sukh himself, whose younger brother, Shakeel Ahmed, was one of two army officers killed in a car crash near Kuchlak, Balochistan, in 2014. The circumstances surrounding this tragic incident were peculiar to say the least — an expensive sports car from Kabul, a hair-raising recording on Shakeel’s phone and whispers of a lucrative smuggling business run by members of the security forces. While Gen Raheel Sharif was widely lauded for disciplining the officers allegedly involved in corruption following this incident, the details seem to have been hushed up completely in the mainstream media.
Through his story, Sukh attempts to kindle the immensely important discussion surrounding transparency in the armed forces. ‘Shaheed?’ is powerful because it combines the intensely personal with the political. The narrator’s fond recollections of his brother flesh out Shakeel’s character for us — his mischievous banter with his elder brother as a child, his carefree teenage years spent with friends, his love for his two young daughters, Samreen and Nashmia, to whom the book is dedicated. Sukh’s moving words save Shakeel from becoming just another statistic that fades from our memory.
Yet, the story is not merely a pained reminiscence. The author’s catharsis transforms productively into a broader comment on the military’s historical entrenchment in Pakistan’s economy and polity. The story ends with a few touching words addressed to the late Shakeel, and a poignant, loaded question: “My dear brother, I, a poor story writer condemned to the gallows. Tortured, I have endlessly contemplated how to write the story of your death... Every friend I turned to would warn me against it. What should I title my story then, ‘Shaheed?’”
Sukh’s use of historical fiction is extremely significant given the paucity of historical writing in Punjabi, but the question does arise: how far can the boundaries of fiction stretch to accommodate the urge to document? Sukh reproduces a tremendous volume of information for his readers, which does fracture the flow of the narrative in some instances. However, it also imparts a distinct character to his work. We see him struggling with the existing forms that Punjabi writing offers, pushing its genres towards experimental techniques that seek to combine history and historiography with creative expression.
The reviewer teaches Punjabi poetry at the Lahore University of Management Sciences
By Nain Sukh
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 11th, 2017