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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

There is a popular myth — the kind that circulates on WhatsApp groups — that a man thinks of sex every seven seconds. Syed Kashif Raza, in his first novel Chaar Dervesh Aur Ek Kachhwa [Four Seekers and a Tortoise], finally puts this myth to rest and asks a very pertinent question: what is the man thinking of for the other six seconds?

He is thinking about the same thing he was thinking in the seventh second; he just pretends that he isn’t.

Here is Raza’s on-the-go television reporter, Javed Iqbal, who has just witnessed one of the bloodiest bomb attacks in Karachi. He is going about his business, doing a live ‘beeper’, talking to his colleagues, but while doing all that he is consumed by thoughts of his neighbour’s wife who he believes might be interested in him. It would be a good enough insight into a young working man’s mind, but Javed has a parallel crush on a colleague as well. He believes he is in love with a fellow reporter — a young, ambitious woman — who reciprocates his clumsy overtures, but is really focused on her career. Seen from Javed’s point of view, she is the kind of woman whose bra-strap sends Pakistani manhood into spasms of impotence.

A majestic debut novel by a longtime apprentice of writing is a devastating portrayal of malignant male sexuality and has electrifying prose that is nearly pitch perfect

In a devastating portrayal of malignant male sexuality, Raza has written a novel which is majestic in its scope and a deep dive into modern manhood.

Javed’s bachelor apartment is a mirror of his mind: it is full of life-sized portraits of Hindi film actress Kareena Kapoor; his mind is a montage-on-a-loop made up entirely of Bollywood item numbers. His instinct is to seduce, his habit is to control. He wants to have everything, he can love nothing. In a crisply written sequence set in the TV newsroom and around Karachi, Raza captures him in all his glorious misery and gives us one of the most memorable characters of modern Urdu fiction.

The novel is divided into five parts, in which Raza gives us a gallery of rogues. The heads of the men who populate this novel are not a pretty place to visit. As Javed goes about on his double mission of finding carnal love with his neighbour’s wife and arranging himself an ambitious marriage, you might start thinking that, surely, there are better men out there. Meet his brother Aftab: a good man, a professor of philosophy who, after leading a life of abstinence — partly because of moral rectitude and partly because he is shy of nature — is crushing on a student who does hijab. How he will recognise her when they finally meet for a rendezvous is one of the neatest turns in the plot. But Aftab belongs to a minority which is not considered a minority and, when he is outed as an Ahmadi by the girl’s father, his career comes to a crashing end and he find himself on the run with his baggage of regrets.

Hark back to the past and meet Mohammed Iqbal, a petty bureaucrat who has a vague interest in archaeology and literature, but is a lifelong womaniser. His affair with a married woman produces a son called Bala who everyone in the village knows is illegitimate. Raza is one of the few contemporary writers who can describe modern urban and rural life with equal ease. He mixes up Urdu, English and Punjabi just the way it is all mixed up in our real-life conversations. Family life in a poor rural village is captured with as much detail as the workings of a TV newsroom. But it is in his rural foray that he falls for a much-abused trope of modern novels: the rural woman is simple; simple of mind and simple in her sexual needs. Whereas most of Chaar Dervesh Aur Ek Kachhwa’s female characters are bursting with ambition and make their own way in life, it’s the village woman who, although brave and foul-mouthed, comes across as the male urban writers’ fantasy, where they take the reader to a village for some simple, rustic loving.

Excepting this false note, Raza’s prose is pitch perfect, electrifying. This is perhaps because he comes to his first novel after years of apprenticeship: he has written two critically acclaimed books of poetry, quite a few colourful travelogues and translated into Urdu writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Milan Kundera. He is a TV journalist and, while you’ve probably never seen him on screen, he lends his voice to the midnight bulletin that he edits for a well-known channel. You can sometimes hear his voice on major stories — a big cricket win, the fall of a prime minister — that kind of news. It’s this midnight journalist’s voice that he brings to this novel: clear and booming, authoritative and immediate. You sit up and listen. With its multiple voices and changing registers, the novel reads like a fast-paced, slick bulletin with dramatic — sometimes surreal — images that won’t let you look away from the screen.

Urdu novels written by both men and women have had their share of bad men, failed men, flawed men, but they always come with redeeming clauses; they suffer, they sacrifice, and in the end they usually find salvation. Raza resists the temptation to give them an easy way out of the toxic webs they have weaved for themselves. Towards the end, Aftab is reunited with his college crush and finds sanctuary in a village, but we — the readers — know their potential killers are on their trail. There is an iconic moment in the first section where, after having lost his love, Javed goes to the beach at Seaview, walks into the sea and undresses while crying and uttering his lover’s name. But his self-indulgent misery is underscored by the knowledge that he knows there is a Press Club sticker on his car parked in the nearby fast-food restaurant’s parking and the police won’t bother him. Raza’s men, even when in the middle of a meltdown, know their backs are protected.

And what’s the kachhwa doing in this novel? There is not enough space here to praise the kachhwa so please go read this marvel.

The reviewer is the author of four novels, including the recently released Red Birds

Chaar Dervesh
Aur Ek Kachhwa
By Syed Kashif Raza
Pakistan Publishing House,
ISBN: 978-96941900000

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