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FICTION: THE PUNJABI SELF OF NOW

November 04, 2018

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Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

Makhdoom Tipu Salman’s Hookaan [Cries of Anguish] explores the complexities of middle-class selfhood, trying to unpack the shaping of identity and culture by the regime of economic exploitation and social conservatism in contemporary Pakistan. In many ways, his short stories offer a corrective to the problems plaguing the Punjabi language which he outlines in the preface. The author establishes his language-activist intent, decrying the denigration of Punjabi as a language reserved for expletives or for the illiterate.

Salman calls for the use of Punjabi in discourse on the humanities, social and natural sciences to garner respectability for the language amongst the lettered classes, who are increasingly adopting English and Urdu as their first languages. His stories, populated predominantly by upper middle-class characters, translate the experiences of modern, urban life into a literary form that seeks to articulate the aspirations and struggles of these upwardly mobile groups.

Among the 13 short stories housed in the collection, some such as ‘Roti’ [Bread] and ‘Mitti’ [Earth] read more like didactic essays covering topics ranging from the evils of capitalist production to the historical glory of the Indus Valley civilisation. However, ‘Dehaar’ [Day] shines for its stream of consciousness journey that sojourns through characters threaded together in the banal cycle of the everyday. The story starts with an ordinary day in the life of a middle-class male, giving voice to ruminations over his transition from a poorer neighbourhood in Lahore to a well-to-do locality in the posh district of the city, with a family and a respectable job. Yet from the very beginning, we know that this is not a simple depiction of bourgeois domesticity, as a sense of alienation is almost palpable in Salman’s prose. The story’s first sentence begins, “He grabbed his tie and wound it around his neck...” signalling the act of strangling and evoking the suffocation revealed in the man’s internal monologue in which he struggles to maintain the façade of middle-class contentment. He hops into a cab, which becomes the site for an inter-class encounter with the taxi driver, shedding light on the psyche of Salman’s upwardly mobile, petty bourgeois character. We see him bully, and then play benevolent benefactor to the meek cabby, a cathartic mechanism for dissipating his own alienation.

Short stories in Punjabi that attempt to articulate the aspirations and struggles of upwardly mobile groups as well as a cultural agenda

At this point, the narration shifts and we enter the thoughts of the driver, learning of his journey from a small town on the peripheries of Lahore and his desperate struggle to escape the trappings of caste. The taxi driver, whose voice now takes over the reins of the narrative, had sought out a life in the city for its anonymity, hoping that Lahore could become a place where perhaps even an untouchable Dalit “Christian” could blend in with the crowd. Here, we are provided a view into the debilitating humiliation that untouchability works into the sense of self of one born into a low caste. This is an exploration few literary texts in Pakistan have undertaken, where the public sphere is dominated by an erroneous assumption that the menace of caste operates only in the ‘Hindu society’ found in India.

Through its visceral examination of caste prejudice, middle-class alienation, working-class precarity and everyday sexism, ‘Dehaar’ connects with well-worn traditions of progressive writing in South Asia that were created by an anti-colonial spirit of critique that marshalled the genre of socialist realism to produce a literature of emancipation. This sensibility also resonates in two other short stories in the collection — ‘Qaraardaad-i-Maqaasid’ [The Objectives Resolution] and ‘Mein Haan Kanak De Ik Daana’ [I Am a Grain of Wheat] where Salman undertakes a historical revisionist take on Pakistani national identity through a satirical personification of the Objectives Resolution and a celebration of the Indus Valley civilisation as the pre-Islamic, quasi-secular past worthy of patriotic pride.

However, where Hookaan disappoints is in its treatment of women. The female characters in Salman’s stories are peripheral caricatures, such as the woman in ‘Mitti’ who serves as the ignorant foil to her enlightened husband as he details the illustrious history of the Indus Civilisation to her in a tone of great condescension. Similarly, in ‘Kaafee Da Dooja Cup’ [The Second Cup of Coffee], the unnuanced sketching of the interaction between the male protagonist and the two women he describes as “whores” fails to rise above an objectifying male gaze in its depiction of female characters. Although in ‘Thai Khusra’ [The Thai Transgender], the author attempts a more complex thematic engagement with the fluidity of sexuality and gender, Punjabi literary production still has a long way to go in developing a contemporary feminist aesthetic, as evinced by a controversy last year over a sexist fictionalisation of poet Nasreen Anjum Bhatti’s life in Lahore by the short story writer Nain Sukh. A literary milieu dominated by men, with only a handful of prominent women writers and critics, the Punjabi literary sphere in Pakistan still has a long way to go to develop a literary aesthetic sensitive to the issues of gender and sexuality.

Towards the end of the book, we also find three of the stories — ‘Sabzian’ [Vegetables], ‘Piyo’ [Father] and ‘Roti’ — reproduced in the Gurmukhi script. Although books from West Punjab in the Shahmukhi script are often republished in East Punjab in the Gurmukhi script, the decision to publish both scripts together, side by side, in a single book is a welcome move. It serves as a powerful symbol of the connective cultural tissue that continues to bind the region even as we cross 70 years since the partition of the subcontinent.

For the average reader in Pakistani Punjab, Gurmukhi alphabets that were used commonly alongside the Shahmukhi letters are now alien and unfamiliar. This dissonance is grounded in a communal consciousness that maps language and script on to the Hindu-Sikh divide, a gulf that Salman urges his readership to review, encouraging us to learn to read both scripts of the Punjabi language. Hookaan thus combines its literary endeavour with an agenda for language politics that tries to grapple with the vagaries of nationalist identity and societal change.

The reviewer is pursuing a PhD at the University of Cambridge

Hookaan
By Makhdoom
Tipu Salman
Fiction House, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9695625903
132pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 4th, 2018

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