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FICTION: BETWEEN THE LINES

July 15, 2018

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Apparently, Asghar Nadeem Syed finds it difficult to do run-of-the-mill stuff, regardless of the medium of expression he happens to be using at any given time. From television drama to poetry and now to short stories, he carries a certain air about him which is his very own. It is as unmistakable as his burly frame at literary conferences and festivals where one can spot him without much fuss in a large crowd. He is tall and immediately identifiable. And so is his signature approach to creativity.

Kahani Mujhay Mili, the title of Syed’s collection of 10 short stories, may be literally translated into English as ‘I Found the Story’, but this is not the essence of what the title actually says. Let’s call it ‘An Encounter with the Story’ because Syed has used The Story — not ‘a’ story, mind you — in a sort of personified form that has provided the running thread through the stories. The Story tells the stories and all that is left for the writer to do is to write them out. It is a crafty move on its own, but there is more to it than just craft as readers would find out as they go through the narrative.

Using an alter ego is a time-tested technique of converting a dull and drab soliloquy into an interactive and engaging dialogue. The Story serves that purpose well for Syed. But there is still more to it, and for that we have to begin at the very beginning of the book. Disclaimers are often part of fictionalised works aimed basically at taking care of legal niceties. But here, it is slightly different. Let’s hear it from the man himself: “These stories and characters may well be found anywhere. The Story keeps moving just like all of us. All these characters must have met me somewhere and my imagination stored them for me. The convergence of the realistic and imaginary streams of these characters has been facilitated by me. You can call them imaginary characters, and any resemblance with anyone would be just a coincidence. It is this very coincidence, however, that makes a story life-oriented.”

The 10 short tales in Asghar Nadeem Syed’s collection reek of resistance literature which has its own meaning in today’s Pakistan

See? A bit long-winded and convoluted. But it is complicated only when you read it. The moment you turn the page, you know why Syed needed such an elaborate disclaimer. It starts off with a dancing girl Mohni, aka Nazli, whose abode is visited by “Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Patras Bukhari, Sufi Tabassum” and others. She is murdered by a moneyed trader of Faisalabad because she refuses to oblige him in the presence of such literary figures. Hmmm, you say and move on. But this is not the only ‘Hmmm’ that you will hear yourself utter with the book in your hand.

The Story raises questions — despite protestations by the writer — about the decision to take the Quaid-i-Azam to Ziarat Residency “when he needed intense treatment and not relaxation” in his final battle with a fatal disease. Hmmm!

One can see many a face in Bagheela whose name keeps changing — evolving, rather — as he moves from being a street urchin to businessman to councillor, mayor, member of the provincial assembly and who ultimately lands in the National Assembly as Makhdoom Syed Ghaus Bakhsh Bukhari, Sajjada Nashin, Dargah Pir Syed Najaf Shah. Hmmm!

A couple of stories deal with the 1947 partition of the subcontinent in today’s perspective before The Story narrates a tale — against the backdrop of the debacle of 1971 — revolving around Maalti, a Hindu Bengali woman in Dhaka, her daughter Sanjna and the latter’s father Major Imran Malik of the Pakistan Army. Hmmm!

The Story moves further on to the Pakistan that took shape in the 1980s and afterwards. It talks of intended militancy by the government of the time and its unintended fallout that the country has to face even today in a myriad of ways, but what it does talk about in a thinly-veiled — very thinly-veiled — narrative is the tragedy faced by Shanti, a Bengali actress who made a massive name for herself in Pakistani films and the politics played by “a military dictator” in the episode. This is the only instance in the entire collection where the identity of one character is all but obvious, but when it comes to the others — the culprits — even The Story takes a stutter and the narrator has to live with that. Hmmm!

The last three stories — London 2050, Hamaray Hero Wapis Karo [Give Us Back Our Heroes] and Samandar Pe Kya Guzri [The Plight of the Sea] — relate to future possibilities in relations with India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and, indeed, the “New East India Company” in Gwadar. It is up to the reader to decide if they are based on fantasy or on foresight. Syed takes no responsibility for either choice because, after all, he has only penned what The Story told him!

In terms of technique, the collection, spread over 10 chapters, tells a single composite story with the past, present and future of the main character: Pakistan. The choice is interesting on the part of the writer because in poetry he runs away from the classical ghazal format which has couplets that apparently tell their own tales, but remain part of the larger whole, bound by the rhyming scheme and word patterns. It may appear to be a contradiction in approach — and, lest it be misunderstood, there is nothing wrong in that — but maybe it’s just one of those coincidences which, according to Syed’s disclaimer at the outset, make a story life-oriented.

The lasting impression the collection as a whole might leave in the mind of the reader is that it reeks of resistance literature which has its own meaning in modern Pakistan where democracy is flourishing parallel to attempts at muzzling voices of dissent in a bid to have a uniform narrative across the board on just about everything. It is probably in fiction alone that we can hope to hear a voice of sanity. And that, too, has to be said between the lines with an elaborate disclaimer upfront. It is so multi-layered and multi-purpose that the disclaimer shall rightfully be taken as the 11th story in the collection. It’s cerebral stuff.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Kahani Mujhay Mili
By Asghar Nadeem Syed
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 969-3530985
272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 15th, 2018