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FICTION: CHRONICLES OF DEATHS FORETOLD

September 17, 2017

A few weeks ago Julien Columeau, whom I happened to meet at a café in Lahore, gave me his new book of short stories, Chowrangi Kahaniyan. It was my second meeting with him and gave me a chance to sit with a Frenchman who knew Pakistan and its literary and cultural landscapes more profoundly than I did. His grasp of Urdu as a language and literary culture that he has spent a better part of his life with, comes as a pleasant surprise. He also has a very grounded understanding of Punjabi and its nuances that a native speaker can very well relate to and enjoy. However, my surprise was not because of a prevalent perception about a European speaking my language with such fluency; it was because of the sense of camaraderie that I felt about his understanding of this language and its literary and historical presence.

To my knowledge, Columeau has written three books so far that include three novellas in one edition, a book of short stories titled Zahid Aur Do Kahaniyan and now another collection of short stories titled Chowrangi Kahaniyan. In almost all of his books, one can see an emotional investment in his subject matter that comes as no surprise to those already familiar with his writing. However, in Chowrangi Kahaniyan, Columeau’s characters are presented with a certain irreverent humour that seems to flow towards lightness as opposed to the heaviness one can feel in his previous works. This play between lightness and heaviness as essential denominators of an artform presents an important observation of the writer’s evolving concerns as an outsider to the language, while giving expression to his innermost feelings as he moves closer to or becomes estranged from his subjects.

Given that his Chowrangi Kahaniyan seems to move in a mood of lightness, I asked him if he was using a different perspective to explore the various characters in his new work.

Short stories from the Frenchman writing in Urdu explore literary truths about famous Pakistanis

“As in Freudian tradition, you have to kill your father, symbolically,” he said, “so I have killed my babas, my asataza [teachers], and favourite artists in this work. Otherwise, their ghosts would keep following me: one was a painter, another a qawwal I was madly in love with, the third a teacher in the traditional mode whose personality grew on me, and the fourth an old time likhari [writer] who is no more with us. So, in a way, I killed four of my fathers in this book.”

His answer not only seemed steeped in devotion to the entire era that he captures in Chowrangi Kahaniyan, it also presented a possibility of reading the book through a different angle — what Italian writer Italo Calvino calls the mobility of intelligence — where one experiences the same realities of the human condition through the contrasting virtues of lightness and heaviness. In Columeau’s case, he chooses lightness.

A rather slim volume with a sketch of a man looking out of the window for its cover, Columeau’s new book fictionalises various well-known Pakistani personalities: the aforementioned famous Urdu writer, internationally known qawwal, controversial yet popular painter, and teacher who affected the writer deeply. The four stories reflect the four different colours these persons represent, giving the volume its foursome title.

The first story, Zain Mussawir [Zain the Painter] explores the posthumous life of a once-famous painter, Zain, who was either loved or hated by his peers. A genius who never cared for anybody’s opinion and made his own choices, Zain’s story finds a voice through a journalist who is supposed to do a profile on the painter after his death. In order to know more about Zain’s creative life, the narrator strikes a friendship with Zain’s lifelong friend Faqeer, only to discover jealousy and betrayal casting a shadow on the artist’s story: an incident of arson followed by a mysterious disappearance of Zain’s paintings turns out to be orchestrated by someone close to him.

In terms of narrative dynamics, the journalist is supposedly telling Zain’s tale. However, as he researches the painter’s life, his narrative seems subsumed by Faqeer’s account about Zain, a technique that makes the story confessional and alive.

[“How did Zain’s house catch fire? Nobody knew. All that people know is that the house caught fire around 2am and Zain was inside the house at the time. He couldn’t escape and perished along with his house. The fire brigade reached around 3am and ... by the time they extinguished the fire, nothing was left either of the house or Zain himself ... It is also believed that several invaluable paintings of Zain that were inside the house were burned that night. The police investigated the matter, but couldn’t find out anything about the arsonist.”]

Kamran Ali Qawwal is a fascinating story that dwells on the rise and fall of two qawwals from the same family: they are not ordinary singers, but well-known historic personalities ruling the hearts of music lovers all over the world. How does the old qawwal die, and how does it pave the way for the younger one to come into the limelight? In this story, too, we see an obsession with fame entwined with jealousy and betrayal working through the characters’ development. In other words, it is hard to ignore that at some level, these stories are doing more than just entertaining the reader; they seem to explore a literary truth about the lives of some famous personalities, a truth that can find expression only through the realm of fiction, however irreverent it may be.

In one of his recent interviews, Columeau said, “I read editorials that are fictional. I read scholarly books that are fictional from beginning to end. They build a narrative, very artistically, so that readers can’t even understand that what they’re reading is falsehood. The danger in fiction is that people tend to take fiction lightly. My duty as a writer is to make sure they don’t take it lightly. A writer has some responsibility and so does a reader. If you are only reading for pleasure, then sorry, I’m not addressing you. I don’t want to entertain people. I am not sure what I want to do, but certainly not entertain them.”

Columeau’s insistence on fiction’s attempt at disclosure relates to the writer’s quest of attaining a certain foothold in the realm of literary possibility through which he comes to an understanding of any event. In Chowrangi Kahaniyan, he attempts to understand the deaths of personalities who, at some point in time, influenced his mind and heart. The other two stories in the volume are Urdu Ka Aakhri Likhari [Urdu’s last writer] and Piyare Ustaad [Dear Teacher] — each, again, exploring the last days in the lives of the two titular men.

While it could be argued that compared to Columeau’s previous works Chowrangi Kahaniyan is not an extraordinary book, it reflects a new development in his approach towards fiction that deserves an attentive reading.

The reviewer is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Canada

Chowrangi Kahaniyan
By Julien Columeau
Sanjh Publications, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9695932
128pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 17th, 2017