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FICTION: LAMENT OF THE POWERLESS

December 16, 2018

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Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

For someone born and brought up in the north of Pakistan, to be able to write so authentically about the southernmost tip of the country is astonishing. Yet Qazi Fasih, a surgeon by profession, displays more than mere acquaintance with the land, the people and the customs — not to speak of the utmost power of the rich in the deltaic region of Sindh — in his poignant and readable novel, The Song in the Night.

The slim volume opens in quite a dramatic manner: fishermen, farmers, artisans and shopkeepers from nameless villages, pushed on to the lowest rung of poverty, are travelling to a meeting point where they intend to protest. Those who can afford to hire vehicular transport overload it, while the ones who can’t get a ride rely on their feet. Their womenfolk have given them red rice, flatbread and murky water in plastic bottles to keep them going (pun intended).

Leading the large delegation from his part of the delta is a “scrawny middle-aged fisherman, with grizzled hair” called Jannu who, like all others, has been adversely affected by the depleting water from the Indus. Needless to say, it is the dams built on the river that have done the damage. An old fellow traveller recalls that there used to be thick evergreen mangrove forests on the banks of the river: “These swamps were good breeding places for shrimps and fish, of which there was no dearth. The boats never came back empty as they do now. There used to be abundant fodder for animals and the herdsmen didn’t have to travel far. Milk and butter were cheap.” What has swung the battered people into action is the plan to build a canal which will carry the effluence from sugar mills to the river and result in irreparable loss to the region on a stupendous scale.

An evocative novel about the underprivileged and marginalised in Sindh reads like a vivid screenplay

The novelist, at this point, changes over to another chapter with a view to introducing Jannu, who lives in a bush house with his nagging wife Nooran, 17-year old son Wali who is willing to pay any price to become wealthy and 15-year old lovely daughter Marvi, who cares for everyone in the family and abides by the principles of morality.

There is a profusion of intelligently crafted characters in The Song in the Night. Apart from Jannu and his family, there is contractor Kamal Rizvi who is bent on having his pound of flesh by building the canal. He bribes government officers into silence and, what is worse, he buys Comrade Haider, a politician looking to revive his waning career, but not before the so-called champion of the poor has whipped up the anger of the people from the delta.

Before selling out, though, Comrade Haider takes Jannu and other villagers to what is called the “port city” — no prizes for guessing it is Karachi — and a demonstration is held at the Press Club, where some local activists join them. As the protestors turn violent, the police arrive in full strength. Tear gas shells are hurled to disperse the demonstrators. Haider talks to the media in his characteristic emotion-charged style and also gets Jannu to speak a few words about the calamity that the canal will cause.

Meanwhile Jannu’s son Wali persuades his best friend Akbar to join him in hitchhiking to the port city, but not before convincing Akbar to steal his father’s gun, which he tucks into his own garments. Haider gets them employment in a motor workshop; it is there that, during a strike in the city, Akbar is murdered and Wali is forced to kill one of the attackers in self-defence. Before he can run, he is arrested by the police.

In a separate arc that depicts yet another aspect of regional culture, the villagers attend the investiture ceremony of a spiritually venerated landlord, Pir Moazzam Shah. At this festival, Marvi drops her scarf which is picked up by a young potter, who plays heart-warming tunes on his flute. This results in a boy-meets-girl situation and a till-death-do-us-part relationship ensues.

A heart-wrenching situation arises when the filthy rich and highly influential landlord Bachal is introduced. Sitting with his conniving servant Mithal one evening, the 78-year old laments that after the demise of his fourth wife he has nothing to do but to wait for death. Mithal says that he can enjoy life by marrying Marvi, the beautiful daughter of a poor fisherman. Mithal takes Bachal to Jannu’s house along with gifts of food and they stay overnight. A boat ride is arranged so the landlord can shoot geese. To say that Bachal is smitten by the beauty of the girl young enough to be his granddaughter is to state the obvious. Bachal, however, believes that by marrying her he will be doing her a favour, for a highly attractive girl such as Marvi deserves to lead a luxurious life.

The region in which the novel is set has been suffering for years from drought and, when rain finally begins to fall, the villagers are jubilant. The torrential downpours soon become a cyclone, forcing the people to run with their families and whatever they can carry. Jannu is unwilling to leave his house; he believes they can ride out the storm by taking refuge in a tree. He is injured when the roof of his house falls on him and Marvi is burdened with the responsibility of keeping her parents alive. It is hair-raising to read how they spend three nights up in the tree, particularly when Marvi realises that the insects bothering them during the night are actually hundreds of spiders who have crawled out from their burrows in the ground and begun spinning webs in the branches.

Who rescues the family and takes the injured fisherman to the hospital, and who gets to marry Marvi, ought to be left for readers to find out. It must be said that Fasih’s vivid description of the cyclone, the plight of the people, the villagers’ flight to the embankments and the destruction of the land give the impression that the novelist was an eyewitness, which is what one also feels when Fasih narrates the villagers’ attack on a police station. The author’s bio in the beginning mentions that he has written over 20 stories for television and this shows in the book: the story reads like a compact, vivid screenplay and were it entrusted to a competent director, it would make a worth-watching film or long play on television.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

The Song in the Night
By Qazi Fasih
Rupa, India
ISBN: 978-9353041144
183pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 16th, 2018

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