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FICTION: FLIGHTS OF SYMBOLISM

January 27, 2019

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If the impressive pile and the amazing span of his creative output is anything to go by, Mustansar Hussain Tarar does not seem to be particularly fond of symbolism in literature. He has the skills to say what he wants to say — or, for that matter, wants his characters to say — rather directly. His latest novel, Mantiq Al Tayr: Jadeed, however, is as allegorical, if not more, than Fareeduddin Attar’s original Mantiq Al Tayr that has remained a global classic for more than eight centuries. This potion of symbolism and Sufism will be as interesting for Tarar fans as it would be intriguing.

Though he is known for neither of the two traits, Tarar’s choice of narrative does make sense when you see the subject he is dealing with. Several years ago — almost six decades, actually — his debut novel, Fakhta [Dove], set in Moscow, was a symbolic expression of the global geopolitics of the Cold War era. Those who have lived through that phase, or have a clear understanding of the currents and cross-currents of it along with the Left-Right contours of existence in our part of the world, would know the sensitivities a young Tarar would have faced in expressing his thoughts.

In today’s Pakistan, the rigidity of intra-Right fissures has thrown up a much more daunting challenge. Is it this challenge that has forced Tarar to go symbolic once again after all these years? Was it the only recourse left to him to express himself on the matter of religious interpretation and still get away with it? More than a reflection of Tarar’s mindset as a writer, the answers to such questions might actually tell us where we stand as a society and as a nation.

Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s latest novel embarks on an allegorical journey to deal with issues of religious interpretation, updating a classic of world literature

Regardless of his literary choices, Tarar is on record having voiced his fascination with Attar, the 12th century Nishapur mystic who was bitten by the bug of pantheism, though certainly not at the same level as, say, Mansur Hallaj who remains the epitome of that thought stream. In an interview with a website, Tarar spoke about his inspiration thus: “… [T]he book that has influenced me the most is Mantiq Al Tayr [The Conference of the Birds]. This book has had the greatest influence on my imagination and writing … This book in one way or the other has influenced every novel of mine.”

That being so, let’s see what Mantiq the original, is all about. In the Persian poem, birds of all types and descriptions gather to decide the bird-king. Considered the wisest of them all, the hoopoe takes them on a journey to locate the legendary Simorgh. The journey entails flying over the valleys of Quest, Love, Knowledge, Detachment, Unity, Wonderment and Annihilation. At the end of the journey, the self disappears into the universe, becoming timeless. Of the many starters, 30 birds make it to the final destination only to learn that they themselves were the Simorgh — which in Persian literally means ‘30 birds’ — and that the Simorgh was each one of them and all of them at the same time.

What Tarar has done in his version is change the characteristics of the birds. If Attar was allegorical about the journey and the destination, using them to underline the equation between the Creator and His creations, Tarar’s birds carry the massive burden of being representatives of the celestial revelations, and who travel long and hard to meet their counterparts representing man-made belief systems. The destination becomes even more confounding — not confusing, mind you — with the emergence of birds representing Ishq, the never-ending altruistic love that underpins the Sufi stream.

Tarar has called the characters Gumaan Aur Khabt Ke Parinday [birds of presumptions and insanities], but it is not clear if it is a label slapped on all the three categories of his birds, or one of them, and, if so, which one. That, at least in part, is the fun of symbolism.

The narrative keeps dipping in and out of a dream about which you never know for sure if it is a dream, or a dream within a dream, or when it is someone’s dream and when it is someone in someone else’s dream. Those who have watched Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece Inception would be much better off keeping track of certain phases in the storyline than those who haven’t.

With diction and creative energy at his disposal, Tarar stands justified in fiddling around with a classic which is not everyone’s thing to try. Just remember how many sequels and prequels are produced in fiction and on cinematic screens that fall flat on their face even though they are conceived and produced by the same people who did the original. When it is done by someone else, and when it happens to be a case of something such as Mantiq, that has stood tall for as long as it has, the task becomes that much more daunting. Tarar’s twist makes the tale compatible with the times we live in without doing any disservice to the original. He certainly walks the tightrope like the master funambulist that he is.

The only other example of the kind that readily comes to mind is Intizar Husain’s Scheherazade Ki Maut [The Death of Scheherazade] which is an extension of the famed Al’f Laila Wa Laila (Thousand and One Nights). Husain did it with a short story; Tarar has done it with a novel. Both have given classical works of pure genius a new life in the light of the times we are living in. That makes them both geniuses in their own right.

There is one piece of symbolism in Mantiq that Tarar has not touched upon apparently. The brief but critical mention of China in the original within the mythical circular mountain of Kaf has its own value to the larger context, but in today’s Pakistan — which is the setting for the current version — China could have had its own meaning(s). Tarar may have said a lot while leaving it unsaid. That may well have been the case... or maybe not. That is the real fun of symbolism.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Mantiq Al Tayr: Jadeed
By Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 969-3531574
200pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 27th, 2019