First, a simple fact: we love to read and listen to stories. Upon finding them interesting, we start sharing them with our friends and even with strangers. Second, a lesser known fact: we get to know the world in terms of fiction. Factual data gathered through the senses acquires greater meaning after going through a process of fictionalisation. In simple terms, this means that, in the due course of making things meaningful, we are more prone to resorting to narrative logic instead of rational or scientific logic.
Narrative logic enables us to muster a coherent view of the universe embodied in the congregation of the actions of fictional characters and events in a story. What others do in a specific situation suffices logically to become a norm for us. On the other hand, rationality requires a sort of loneliness; no one is there to lead you to find the meaning of things except you and your intellect — reasoning objectively regarding abstract matters.
Another simple, yet most significant fact: when some uncertainty or vagueness engulfs us and we are stuck with indecisiveness, it is mostly stories that help us overcome the unbearable state of uncertainty, leading us to a clear, conclusive psychological state accompanied by a sort of emotional comfort. These stories emerge out of a vast repository of our personal or collective memories, individual or archetypical unconscious. They act as a liberator. So, it is not surprising that we may happen to meet lots of people who may lack any sort of knowledge, but it is very rare that we could have encountered a person who had no stories to share with us. We can therefore say that narrative logic is more common, more popular and even more desired than rational or scientific logic. Here a conclusion might be drawn: we Homo sapiens are more fictus than sapiens, meaning that our earnest desire is not to become a wise person, but to be a storyteller. So it is not surprising that almost every person wishes to read or listen to stories, but very few show an interest in critically understanding and analysing them. As far as stories are concerned, imagination precedes intellect.
Fiction’s most significant form appears when it creates grey areas and challenges black-and-white certainties
Fiction glues us to one another. Every community, society and nation state needs its own peculiar fiction. It is their shared stories fabricated out of their history, cultural experiences and ideological aspirations that keep them united and accord them a peculiar identity — in the words of political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson, “Nations are imagined communities.” And here emerges a paradox. Stories are liberators, identity markers and they can ensnare us in ideology — a play of power. The irony is that ideology may appear in the garb of a liberating narrative.
Now two more very important facts: first, in the absence of artistic value, fiction can turn into an ideological piece. Nothing is more hazardous than ideology when it is ingrained into a fictional narrative. Not only is it easily and uncritically consumed, but it makes readers perceive the world in black-and-white certainties. Second, though the artistic value of fiction takes many forms and it can be defined in more than one ways, its most significant form appears when it offers a resistance against an ideology by creating grey areas and throwing away black-and-white certainties. Ideology is like fast food: spicy, tasty, hazardous and marketable, too, while art is like chewing gum: sweet yet inconsumable and which can be turned skilfully into different forms, pointing out diverse ways to interpret our true experiences of life.
In Urdu literature, Naiyer Masud’s fiction offers a convincing case of how a story is weaved into a piece of art and how an imaginary narrative is pregnant with a multiplicity of meanings with no stress on the compulsory search for a single, authoritative meaning — a quintessential trait of ideology. His stories resist, and at times defy, all kinds of realism: social, psychological or surreal. They are not symbolic in the literal sense of the word either. Their style is simple, their plot is not so intricate, yet their meanings are elusive. They don’t make you encounter well-known, familiar and commonly experienced worlds. Stories written in a social-realist style take readers closer to a familiar, commonly experienced world — these stories do a single service: they make you redeem scattered impressions of daily life in an organised manner. Masud’s fiction, on the other hand, takes you into the ‘real’ world of fiction: a fancy.
There are two kinds of fancies: hollow and pregnant. Hollow fancies amuse us while pregnant fancies give us a rare chance of ‘constructing’ new, enlightening meanings by applying our own ways of understanding. Masud’s fiction falls under the second category of fancy — a true example of the great art of fiction. It creates grey areas where we find neither absolute certainties nor out-and-out uncertainties; we come across a world of probabilities.
Masud’s fiction doesn’t cut us from reality. It offers us an aesthetic distance to confront the grim, gloomy and unimaginable sides of reality. His short tale ‘Occult Museum’ is an astounding example of this. It doesn’t tell things that are usually deemed untellable. ‘Untellable’ are things that are suppressed and silenced by political and social forms of authority. Instead, it narrates those things ‘fancifully’ that remain unimaginable because of our habit of succumbing to narratives we inherit from the ideological state apparatus (education, religion, family, etc).
The following lines from ‘Occult Museum’, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon and Jane Shum, make us imagine the unimaginable: “And what I didn’t understand at all was that the person who was my oldest and dearest friend in the dream, and who disappeared even as I was looking at him, didn’t exist in reality. I saw him for the first and, up until now, the last time, in my dream. In his wake he left a whole series of memories that went back to him and memories I no longer remember. I kept talking to him, calling him by his name the whole time, but after I woke up I didn’t even remember his name. Perhaps that is why, for days afterwards, I was assailed by the thought that he should have had this dream, not me.”
What didn’t exist in reality can be imagined in Masud’s fiction. Here is a ‘play’ of absence and presence, appearance and disappearance, memory and forgetfulness, certainties and uncertainties and reality and fiction. In this play we sense how the road to reality takes unexpected, baffling turns; how a dream about a never-existing friend becomes a most memorable event which, in turn, can unravel the mystery of the life we in reality live. This play makes us realise that reality is not a fixed thing or what is thought to have existed in narratives we inherit from others; rather, it is an invention done on the borders of the past and present and waking and dreamy states.
Great fiction keeps reminding its readers that everything in the words of fiction is imaginable and, of course, possible.
The writer is a Lahore-based critic and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadeed (criticism) and Farishta Nahin Aya (short stories)
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 19th, 2018