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FICTION: ANGELS AND DEMONS

Updated December 03, 2017
By accepting the importance of a single gem, I have refused to acknowledge the worth of so many gems. —Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
By accepting the importance of a single gem, I have refused to acknowledge the worth of so many gems. —Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

Literary critics have been trying for a long time to locate Urdu fiction’s place in the canon of world literature. It is an arduous task. Urdu fiction, in terms of age, is relatively younger than the fiction produced in the West. Still, in a span of a century or so, it has produced writers who have made their presence felt on a global scale. Nasir Abbas Nayyar’s latest collection of short stories, Farishta Nahin Aya, should put an end to the endeavour as far as the Urdu short story’s position in the haloed canon is concerned. Make no mistake: the Urdu short story has arrived, albeit without the bang it deserves.

Nayyar is an established literary critic. His books on the colonial and post-colonial aspects of Urdu literature and the effects of globalisation on literary trends have already caused quite a stir in academic circles. Last year, he surprised his admirers when he published his first collection of short stories, Khaak Ki Mahak. It is an astounding book. Sadly, for inexplicable reasons, it wasn’t received with the kind of éclat he may have expected. Farishta Nahin Aya is his second stab at writing fiction and thank heavens for that, because the extraordinary narrative weaving of the stories will compel readers to renavigate the writer’s creative trajectory.

First things first, though. Nayyar’s stories don’t unfold on the page. They unfurl in his soul, and from there they reach the reader who, in the process of comprehending the drift of his message, becomes a creative individual himself/herself. This is where the complexity of narrative becomes all the more fascinating. Here, fascination does not mean ‘to rejoice’. Nayyar writes stories of the society he comes from and has known all along like the back of his hand. These are no hunky-dory accounts of people and their towns. They are unsavoury nuggets of truth, perhaps like all true things in life. Take note: when Nayyar tells a story, realism and surrealism merge without losing their distinct identities, and in Milan Kundera’s words, to agree is to merge. In Nayyar’s creative domain, the imagined and the real swap places seamlessly.

A new collection announces in no uncertain terms that the Urdu short story has arrived

The titular story of the book, ‘Farishta Nahin Aya’, is a solid example of this. The protagonist is a young girl. What happens to her physically has such an overwhelming effect on her that her entire body turns into a tormented being. It is a moving delineation of a harrowing experience. Nayyar doesn’t narrate that experience; rather, he creates a hair-raising world around it where the story and the narration join to construct one disturbing visual after another. He crams the reader’s mind with images, with frames that involve blood, gashes and dust, and what happens is that the images projected on to the reader’s mind give credence to the words that Nayyar uses.

Farishta Nahin Aya is a book in two parts. The first part is made up of afsaane; six short stories and all of them have a deep link with our culture and the shortcomings that have taken root in it. In ‘Ho Sakta Hai Yeh Khat Aap Ke Naam Likha Gaya Ho’, Nayyar employs a technique where the first-person account sounds like the third-person account. This happens because of the unexpected use of the Hamlet-like “the play’s the thing” method that is introduced in the latter half of the tale. There is almost a grotesque ending to it, involving a transgender, and yet it flows from beginning to end as if grotesqueness was the logical way with which the kahaani [story] was supposed to end.

This first half is powerful and self-contained enough to merit a book by itself. But Nayyar’s creativity is multifarious, so the second part transports the reader into an entirely different and equally — if not more — startling world. It is called Hikayaat-i-Jadeed-o-Mabaad-i-Jadeed. Now, the hikayat is a moral fable or apologue. It is one of the oldest genres of storytelling in Muslim cultures, whereas jadeed and mabaad-i-jadeed mean modernism and post-modernism. This is an interesting contrast that the writer has come up with. Is it a contrast? When does a fable become modernist or post-modernist? Aren’t fables for all times? Isn’t morality a fixed idea?

Nayyar wants the reader to understand that the fable is not time-specific. ‘Kis Ka Naam’ illustrates this well; this three-and-a-half page story is fraught with issues such as avarice, lust and death. At the same time, a dash of outlandishness with the concept of the jadu’i shart [magical condition] typifies it as a hikayat — technique leading the way for content.

‘Dilfigar Ne Khamoshi Torh Di’ is a piece that elucidates how the writer feels about words and their users. Throughout the book he uses potent metaphors for books, language and animals, and ‘Dilfigar…’ makes his drift clearer. The character of a queen and the male protagonist’s search for the anmol ratan [rarest gem] keep it in the realm of the apologue, but the line “Main ne ek ratan ko tasleem ker ke kitnay hi ratanon ko mitti mein rol dia hai [By accepting the importance of a single gem, I have refused to acknowledge the worth of so many gems]” bares the story’s underbelly, which laments the post-modernist dilemma of rigidness.

Rest assured, though, there is no lack of flexibility in Farishta Nahin Aya.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Farishta Nahin Aya
By Nasir Abbas Nayyar
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693530919
167pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2017