It begins with a bunch of captives waiting for the fatal shot to come their way. There are repeated countdowns, but no fire. It’s dark. It’s raining. Tired of waiting, the captives fall asleep one by one and when they wake up the next morning, they recognise each other but don’t find any armed people around. Was it an illusion or was it a shared nightmare? Or, indeed, was it reality? It is up to the readers to decide. And it is in this very vein that the novelette runs its course over the rest of its short life. Interesting.
Writing abstract narratives is a tricky affair, akin to walking the clichéd tightrope. One false move is enough to convert the abstract into the absurd. Muhammad Amir Rana has walked the walk quite successfully in his debut novel Saa’ey [Shadows]. A security analyst by profession who contributes regularly to the national narrative through English-language media platforms, Rana has crafted a story that, in a certain way, can be taken as an extension of his professional endeavours: underlining the cancer eating away at the heart and soul of Pakistani society of today.
Set in Lahore, the story is led by a protagonist who has cancer — which is but a symbolic representation of the mass social cancer. The type of cancer the man has also carries a certain meaning — testicular cancer represents the barren state of a society that is not able to produce anything of substance in terms of intellect.
Using distorted construction as the medium of choice, this debut novel deals with the whole spectrum of social malaise
The clue to this symbolism lies in a dream the man has, in which he sees himself checking out various shelves in a departmental store selling “happiness, ailments, miseries”, and where people are busy buying ‘things’ of their choice. “I pick testicular cancer for myself. The salesgirl smiles and asks if I have any particular reason for my choice. I tell her that it is because ... living in a barren society, there can’t be a better disease to generate compatibility between my mind and body.”
Elsewhere, when a physician explains his condition to him, he realises that cancer is nothing but the final and inevitable manifestation of things that have not been quite right for long within. His wandering mind recalls what he had heard at a political rally during his student life, where the speaker stressed that the “result of dictatorship would surface 20 years later in the shape of a generation of intellectually handicapped sissies.”
Leaving everything behind, including his family, the man goes into hiding in his own city among a group of wretched souls living on the streets and around Data Darbar and other such locations. It is through these characters that Rana brings out the various social traits that he sees lying at the heart of this mass cancer.
Most of these street-dwellers happen to be of educated backgrounds, but who lost their bearings as they entered the practical world. With intoxication and inebriation being common practices, Rana gets the freedom to keep the narrative as abstract and random as he wants.
The characters of Naseer and his guru, for instance, represent one of the reasons why Pakistani society today is what it is. Having returned from Moscow after studies, the guru was taken away by “the self-styled reformists” who kept him in isolation for years at the infamous Shahi Qila. He became a fortune-teller when he was finally released without charge. Naseer, his disciple, has an obsession with animal rights and wants “a separate parliament for the zoo inhabitants.” With every change of government, he starts his efforts afresh. But one day when the “boots were trampling The Mall” he chants a slogan that lands him in prison facing treason charges. The slogan? “Now finally we have a government that will give freedom to dogs.”
It is not too difficult to make out what the story is trying to point out ever so subtly. Interestingly, it is the kind of narrative that becomes the last resort for creative souls during resistance movements that bring in their wake restraints on free speech and expression. It may be presumptuous, but disappearing bloggers and muzzled voices on social media may have contributed to Rana’s choice for such a nebulous approach. After all, expression is under threat today not just from state apparatuses. If anything, non-state actors have much more to do with such threats, leaving many to follow the path suggested to the main character of the story: run away from every cure and opt for therapy through memory loss. “Dream the dream that you want to dream and the pain would go away.” In simple words, escapism.
It is not too difficult to make out what the story is trying to point out ever so subtly. Interestingly, it is the kind of narrative that becomes the last resort for creative souls during resistance movements that bring in their wake restraints on free speech and expression.
Despite its abstract orientation, the novel is a single-session read with its hundred-odd pages neatly divided into as many as 28 short chapters. It is like a film reflective of sharp work on the editing table that links vignettes of life and characters through an apparently abrupt screenplay. Constructed distortion is not child’s play, but Rana has done it with lucidity and aplomb.
The reviewer is a member of staff
By Muhammad Amir Rana
Sanjh Publications, Lahore
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 9th, 2017