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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

It would have been a commonplace scene in any other novel: a doctor’s visit for “the nonsense called the check-up.” In the clinic sits Doctor Crocodile, who has a mouth littered with gold teeth. The patient, whose initials go from Z to A, cannot describe what is wrong with him and what he does for a living. As the lavishly described scene reaches its end, the doctor certifies that, for this patient, no treatment is required. The encounter perfectly sets the stage for the novel which unfolds rather like a drunk man moving forward.

Highly familiar in its minute details and, at the same time, somewhat bizarre, The Tale of the Missing Man by Manzoor Ahtesham is a rather remarkable and very unusual story that avoids a straight linear progression. Instead, it moves through one detailed incident piling up on another, yet leaving a gaping hole in the centre for the missing man who is disengaged from his city and his story. The name of the original, Daastaan-i-Laapata, resonates with shades of meanings to be revealed slowly. Just as the word ‘disappeared’ has strong political connotations in some countries, ‘missing person’ has a particularly painful resonance for us, but ‘laapata’ makes us think of somebody with misplaced coordinates, a lost address and orientation.

More suggestive than any conventional introduction, the book opens with a very appropriate couplet from Zafar Iqbal, a leading and prolific poet from Pakistan, but less known outside ghazal circles: “The water roils, my shattered reflection quivers on it/ The stone softens, and my dim words melt into oblivion.” Following the main character’s trajectory in his piecemeal life, it is apparent that he is a good-for-nothing drifter. He is not a modern-day Ilya Ilyich Oblomov from Russian writer Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblamov and his milieu is not responsible for his failures in life. Shown reading E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, he is more akin to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man from Notes from the Underground.

An English translation of a one-of-its-kind novel from Bhopal, once dubbed one of the ‘best untranslated novels’ in the world, retains its suppleness and grace

Noting that, unlike many characters in Hindi fiction, he is “not the typical victim of societal forces”, the translators — Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark — in their Afterword credit Ahtesham with having “created a fascinatingly devious antihero, by nature an underground man.” He quits his job working for the junk dealer, is accepting when his wife and two daughters leave him, breaks up with old friends for reasons best known to him, recalls long-ago loves and does not worry about the general sense of ennui he generates. It could be less personal, the angst of the modern-day person out of sorts with the world he lives in. Not surprisingly, the novel is lauded by Amit Chaudhuri as “a point of convergence where the lineages of Kafka and Saadat Hassan Manto meet.” It is a point of many convergences.

The antihero plays with forms of narrative, too. In an interview, while describing their initial reaction to the book, the translators said that “it paid homage to the Persian daastaan tradition of episodic, heroic storytelling, while simultaneously offering a subtle subversion of this tradition suited for the present day and age. It’s a novel that asks the important question: how did we end up where we are today? Where the ‘we’ is the narrator, the Indian Muslim community and post-independence India as a whole.”

The major characters and the lovingly delineated locale of Bhopal come alive in the book, but I would not want to read it as merely a ‘how are Muslims doing in India’ kind of novel, as it is layered and multi-faceted in its own way, relying on irony more than political allegory. As the author says, “People lead full lives and inhabit stories of their own. You might be acutely aware of their lives and stories, and even play a part in them from time to time. And then they arrive at the most critical juncture of their life, but all you remember them for is being the fork in the road that took you somewhere. Add that to the countless perplexities of life.”

How topsy-turvy the novel can be is exemplified by the preface being at the end of the first part and a similar intrusion of the author’s voice at the end of the second. The second part gives primary background facts about India in the 1960s and seems an unnecessary diversion, but such instances are only a handful. Instead, a sense of time and place is achieved through the novel’s rootedness in Bhopal and the city’s changing face, as depicted through a number of houses. From Aziz aka Acchan and Phaphu Biya to Dulhan Chachi, a variety of sharply etched characters are all strongly connected to their locale, making it a rich tapestry with delightful colours.

Finding the novel very easy to relate with — although I read it in Pakistan with limited knowledge of Bhopal or its ethos — I am delighted by the sudden emergence of affinities of all kinds, such as the appearance of red-velvet bugs in the rainy season. “Everything visible and alive in that fragment of time was like the red-velvet bugs: born in paradise, and alighting from the sky with the rain,” reads the text. A shiver of recognition runs down my spine. These red-velvet bugs are the beerr bahooti in Intizar Husain’s stories, a gift from heaven and not to be seen in the present-day world ravaged by climate change. It does not come as a surprise when one reads in the Afterword that Ahtesham “delights in blurring the boundaries between Hindi and Urdu” and critic Harish Trivedi regards him as “basically an Urdu writer writing in Hindi.” Reading Ahtesham’s work in English is a discovery in itself.

Ahtesham is based in Bhopal and, with five novels and several other books to his credit, is regarded as one of the most eminent and respectable literary voices in the Hindi language. His 1986 novel Sookha Bargad is available in English as A Dying Banyan, but it does not match the textured complexity of this story, originally published in 1995. Several years ago, this tale was identified as one of the world’s “best untranslated novels” by the New York Magazine and this may have prompted the translators to take up this task.

The translators must have faced a tremendous challenge, but they have done a superb job. Are we translating for a reader in Delhi or Dallas, they discuss their dilemma in the Afterword. They do not sacrifice the interest of one kind of reader for the other and create a happy middle ground that serves well the suppleness and grace of this delightful and evocative novel, which is one of its kind.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi

The Tale of the Missing Man
By Manzoor Ahtesham,
Translated by Jason
Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark
Northwestern University
Press, US
ISBN: 978-0810137585
280pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 6th, 2019

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