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FICTION: A SYMPHONIC DEBUT

April 14, 2019

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Calling it a case of venit, vidit, vicit [he came, he saw, he conquered] would be a bit out of place — for one needs a bit of sustained output to earn such an unqualified plaudit — but with his debut novel, Haroon Khalid Akhtar has definitely announced his arrival on the local literary scene. And even though ‘arrival’ is often equated — in life and in literature — with ‘disillusionment’, Melody of a Tear is a clear exception on that count. Just a couple of pages into it, one has to agree with celebrated author Mohammad Hanif who has called Akhtar “an utterly original voice” with a “brilliant imagination.” That, indeed, is the case; no qualifying clauses there.

A banker by profession, Akhtar comes with a pedigree that is good enough to brag about as long as one is not trying to emulate it. Any desire to step into the giant, and rather gigantic, footsteps of his father Mohammad Khalid Akhtar — the man who gave us the unorthodox Chakiwara Mein Wisaal [Love in Chaakiwara] and Makateeb-i-Khizr [Letters From Khizr], among other titles — could have been killed in equal measures by self-doubt and public comparisons. But Akhtar has fought off the former and the latter will only add to his stature.

Those familiar with the writings of Akhtar Senior would recall that, while he did his thing in Urdu, his narrative was so heavily anglicised that one could even spot the semi-colons and colons in the mind of the writer. In a routine, everyday sense of the term, it was not flowing or lucid because, in his own words, the narrative was conceived in English owing to his wide-angle exposure to English literature, but the thought was delivered in Urdu. For Akhtar Junior, there is no dichotomy in thought and expression. He has chosen his own path and, more critically, done justice to his choice.

Though a first-timer, Haroon Khalid Akhtar displays the ability of a veteran to captivate readers as much with the storyline as with his observant eye and dazzling diction

As for the story, it revolves around Zara, Zaid and Waris without this being the clichéd love triangle (not by a long shot), though there are moments when people can use their own imagination — fertile or otherwise — to decide for themselves if there are shades of it in some convoluted, unconventional form.

The storyline is so delicate — almost fragile — that it is downright impossible to talk about it without spoiling the fun for prospective readers. Even talking about the protagonists carries the same risk. Suffice it to say that it is about “a grief-sucking engine” roaming around “the Thornland.” Is the melody that of a tear sucked or of a tear shed? Well, it is for the readers to decide, after keeping in step with the melody which is mellifluous in every sense of the word.

While the story cannot be talked about here, Akhtar’s craft of storytelling can always be — and should be — put under the microscope. Sci-fi and spoofs apart, all fiction has to be plausible. Only life has the liberty to be as implausible as it likes. Fiction can’t be stranger than fact. It is the other way round. This is despite the fact that the moment a reader — or viewer, for that matter — starts off with a piece of fiction, it also happens to be the moment when, consciously or unconsciously, there takes place a voluntary suspension of disbelief.

The lesser mortals use this latter escape clause to ply their trade, arguing that, after all, it is fiction. The straitjacket of plausibility, however, is the universal touchstone to identify great fiction. So, then, does Melody of a Tear have a plausible storyline? Absolutely. Even when reality crosses the threshold of fantasy, the narrative holds its line. It is like somebody managing to be rational even in a dream. The story has just such an airtight plausibility, and for a debut novel it doesn’t get any better than that.

Another element of the craft is the manner in which and the pace at which the plot unfolds. Does it keep you hooked? You bet. On the surface of it, the narrative is simple and spontaneous. Not many would even realise the amount of manufacturing that has surely gone behind the scenes to keep at bay the complexity of a tale that has the tale of the tale built in, and where one narrator passes on the baton effortlessly to another in a move that is as swift as it is breathtaking.

And, finally, the diction. Is it lucid? If it is not, nothing is. It has that level of lucidity. Akhtar has an amazing sense of observation and the due process of internalisation that leads him to descriptions, similes and metaphors that are charming, refreshing and literary to the core. There is not one — repeat, not one — cliché across the novel.

With his observation and especially his expression that is simultaneously perky and seemingly surreal, Akhtar does bring to mind The Gun Seller, another debut novel, by Hugh Laurie who would be better known to many as the curt, pill-popping diagnostician in the television show House M.D., and to others as a wonderful musician with multiple albums to his credit. Called a “terrific debut” by the respected Telegraph, the story and its telling remain two different entities. One is sombre, the other sparkling. The duality is not as stark in Akhtar’s case, but when he talks of, say, suicide, and the preparation leading up to D-day, he does touch that rarity.

“One fine Sunday evening two years ago, we both sat unacquainted at the Seaview parapet, buried in our books. Mind you, back then, reading was still considered an acceptable form of public behaviour.” — Excerpt from the book

Good fiction in any case is like walking a tightrope. With a story as intricate and a plot as intriguing as that of Melody of a Tear, it becomes a crisscrossing, zig-zagging tightrope. Just spend a second on the imagery to see what a tricky undertaking it must have been. To his credit, Akhtar has managed it with aplomb through a narrative that gets paradoxical and diction that borders on the oxymoronic.

As the dictum goes, there is one novel in all human beings. It is so because every life has a story, is a story. A person’s creative process, which any piece of fiction in essence is, can be realistically judged only from the second novel onwards. Anybody with a vested interest in enjoying a good piece of literature would — and should — hope that Haroon Khalid Akhtar would pick up the gauntlet and keep them coming.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Melody of a Tear
By Haroon Khalid Akhtar
Niyogi Books, India
ISBN: 978-9386906779
210pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 14th, 2019