The increasing trend among Pakistani writers expressing themselves through English-language fiction has led to the development of a unique vernacular. It has also exposed readers to the dilemma of differentiating between stories that are rooted in our culture but expressed in a foreign language, and stories that are inspired from the literature of a foreign land. Saints and Charlatans definitely belongs to the former category. Written by Sarim Baig, it is a collection of interconnected short stories. However, the connections are subtle and do not affect the status of each tale as a stand-alone piece of literature.
Baig, a computer science teacher by profession, chose the medium of short stories to reflect upon the world that our middle-class urban youth inhabits, and the author appears to be a keen surveyor of his surroundings. Reading his book reminded me of the experience of reading Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s afsanay [short stories] as a teenager, even though Qasmi’s tales were set in the rural Punjab of the mid-20th century while Baig sets his in the urban Lahore of today, and the feel of both writers is as different as the spacio-temporal realities they depict in their writings.
Baig draws his inspiration from studying the living people around him and creates complex characters based on those observations. He comes across as a prolific writer whose mind is haunted by a vast number of jumbled stories that are sieved through the conscious craft of the writer to make them meaningful and sensible for the reader and, as a result, he incorporates several layers into each tale that help him explore his characters in greater detail.
Short stories that offer brilliant commentaries on the individual and communal psychology of our people, always in search of miracles
The stories are set in the fictional suburb of Rampura in Lahore and, as they try to unveil the collective consciousness of Rampura’s society, they serve as brilliant commentaries on the individual and communal psychology of our people — primarily that we are always in search of miracles. We crave quick fixes and have no patience for long-term solutions. We have become so gullible that all it takes to fool us is someone making a tall claim of having the ability to solve all of our problems.
The title of the book, Saints and Charlatans, is a clever and appropriate choice given that we, as a society, are fascinated by people who can promise instant deliverance from our problems, whether those problem-solvers be saints or charlatans. The difference between them is the effectiveness of the ‘miracle’ they swear to deliver, but when problems are too complex, there remains no distinction between the two. In the words of one character from the book, “I am a quack but when the disease is incurable what is the difference? I am giving people something, I am selling people hope.” It has a kind of Foucaultian flavour of exploring the thin line between normality and abnormality (madness). Society does not address this madness by trying to find its underlying causes; rather the abnormality is brushed away as being a fault of character and generation after generation is subjected to the same ‘maddening’ circumstances.
As a writer, Baig shows a willingness to experiment with craft and style. Some of the stories show a unique flair for thrill as the narrative leads up to an explosive moment of revelation. Other tales oblige readers to judge the choices made by the characters, encouraging us to challenge the norms of our society. And then there is the classic theme of how those striving for upward social mobility must sever connections with people who were once part of their lives, but who could not climb the social ladder alongside them. Baig also explores the dearth of economic opportunities for the youth in our country and how vulnerable young people, desperate to become productive members of society, are exploited by others. There is also some nuanced discussion of certain taboos.
It is a point to note that all stories are narrated by male characters and there is hardly any presence of females. Perhaps this is because of the gender segregation that is such a deeply entrenched part of our social fabric, as a result of which the male consciousness is devoid of any female voices.
For those who like to read feel-good romances, this is not the book for you. For those who are keen to explore the dark secrets of our society and who want to understand the depths of what motivates people to behave the way they do, Saints and Charlatans will be nothing less than a rollercoaster ride.
The reviewer is a civil servant and freelance writer
Saints and Charlatans
By Sarim Baig
Mongrel Books, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 8th, 2018