13 May 2018


Lenin for Sale is the English version of Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s 2013 Urdu novel Ghazaal-i-Shab [Gazelle of the Night] translated by Durdana Soomro. ‘Ghazaal-i-Shab’ — which is also the title of a poem by Noon Meem Rashid — may be described as symbolising a human being’s lifelong search without knowing what the precise goal is, if there is one at all. It is essentially the pursuit of a mirage.

The novel unfolds with four young protagonists: Zaheeruddin, son of labour leader Shamsuddin Inqilabi from Burewala in Punjab; Arif Naqvi, a writer and young communist volunteer from Karachi who was earlier a stage actor in Lucknow; Mustafa Islam Sheikh, a student of philosophy and son of a shoe-seller, who hails from the inner city of Lahore; and Sardar Qalib, son of a drunkard revolutionary poet from Baghbanpura, whose nine children often went to sleep on empty stomachs.

Not known to each other, the four men separately leave Pakistan during the glorious era of communism half a century ago. They marry, father children and settle down with their European wives in Moscow, Budapest and East Berlin. Most of them fervently pursue and live their dream of equality for all the downtrodden people of the world via communism, an ideology that had gripped the entire world during their youth and defined the 20th century. The global phenomenon of socialism spreads and climaxes over the years before its downfall ensues. Eventually, the revolution is replaced by the very ‘monster’ it was born to defeat — capitalism; a synonym for greed and corruption that engulfs the former Soviet Union.

An English translation does justice to Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s deeply insightful novel

In the backdrop of this rise and fall of a world-shaking ideology, Tarar assembles a brilliant cast of characters, takes them through compelling tales of struggle and fate and explores eternal issues such as personal relationships, the human condition, ambition, growing old and religious faith — not to mention the role of a person’s inherent ties with his native soil and heritage.

For the most part, the novel is a surreal journey into the dark, freezing, grimy and narrow streets of Eastern European cities, a landscape that epitomised the staple of innumerable novels and films set against the backdrop of the Cold War and earlier. The only element that prevents one from getting lost in this fantasyland and keeps one grounded is the array of vividly developed Pakistani characters who are unable to sever ties with their native country, nor reconcile with the dismantling of their revolutionary dream to change the world through socialist ideology.

Tarar weaves a gripping plot around these characters who eventually become disillusioned and find themselves in limbo. In Mustafa Islam’s words: “If that dream on which I built my life — the victory of socialism, of a unique order based on justice and equality, of the rule of labourers and peasants — has crumbled around me, then why stay here? What is the reason for my existence? I sense that a suicidal change is about to take place. One evening I’ll have to get up from this balcony, tiptoe past a snoring Rosza, and go down, not by lift because that had broken down during the communist era and even capitalism could not make it work again, but the stairs, to Shafiqur Rahman’s blue Danube. I will sit by its banks mourning over my lost dreams — and then drown myself.”

The four protagonists, longing for their ancestors’ land, separately return to Pakistan after a gap of 40 to 50 years. The return of the prodigals brings its own challenges and disillusions and a lurking question arises: will they meet each other?

Just as the skilfully portrayed interaction between these protagonists from Pakistan and their ‘European’ children is close to what other overseas Pakistanis might have experienced in real life, their return to their country of origin after a long gap and reunion with siblings in Pakistan is also depicted very sensitively and realistically.

The only element that prevents one from getting lost in this fantasyland is the array of vividly developed Pakistani characters who are unable to sever ties with their native country, nor reconcile with the dismantling of their revolutionary dream.

The author’s deep insight into both societies and their cultures, and human psychology in general, is evident throughout the novel. Whether the setting is a dirty gypsy tent pitched on the dry bed of the river Ravi, or a glamorous party taking place at a splendid dacha in a Russian forest, their respective occupants come across as vibrant and overpowering living beings. The forays of the lively desi characters in Europe, their inner turmoil and the nostalgia that pulls them back to their native roots, are intricately detailed and offer insight into human nature on spiritual, social, familial and base levels. As it turns out, destination does not offer solace; neither Europe nor Pakistan is a bed of roses and neither brings the characters even close to fulfilment, as was hoped.

Lenin for Sale proceeds with complex rising conflicts and an absorbing storyline. It is narrated seamlessly in the first, second and third person by various characters with dexterity. Towards the later chapters, however, the seemingly effortless spontaneity and flow of the tale begins to feel a bit less so after the author interjects, “I am a weaver of tales — a novelist, as they say these days — rather than a storyteller. Sometimes the stories I create on the basis of my limited ability flow smoothly without any hindrance and sometimes sandy island pops up in the middle and the story gets blocked...” Nevertheless, the dramatic (literally) ending keeps up with the overwhelming quality of the whole theme of quest for meaningful life and readers certainly come out all the more richer for having been involved in the lives of these multi-hued human beings.

The English translation by Durdana Soomro is very good and highly readable with occasional traces of Urdu syntax, for example, she translates “shaam dhal rahi thi” as “dusk was falling” instead of “dusk was settling”. Both translations are correct, of course.

If the conversation between the characters of the novel can fill a reader’s eye with a tear or two on several occasions, it is not only because of the dramatic stage sense of the author, but also because of the powerful characters he created with deep insight into human nature, an insight that transcends translation.

The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator

Lenin for Sale (Ay Ghazaal-i-Shab)
By Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Translated by Durdana Soomro
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693530933

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 13th, 2018