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FICTION: THE WONDER YEARS

April 28, 2019

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After Dr Rafi Mustafa’s previous book Tales from Birehra, a collection of interlinked short stories in English, comes Ae Tahayyur-i-Ishq (Na Junoon Raha, Na Paree Rahi), a coming-of-age novel which begins with a family deeply rooted in a culture rich in the traditions and values of a small town in northern India. Set in the 1930s and ’40s, the middle-class, semi-rural household of the protagonist Bilal illustrates the relationships among the characters of three generations of a family which experiences fluctuating fortunes. The language and expression of the novel has a lucid flow and momentum that kept me going, turning page after page, never losing interest in the story even for a moment.

The centuries-old harmony of this family’s multi-faith society is shattered suddenly by the upheaval and chaos of Partition, but really, the setting could be anywhere in the world where the trauma of war or natural disaster has toppled an established social and economic structure. This gives the novel a universal appeal. The subsequent events of rebuilding a new life from scratch in a strange new country and the travails of a family uprooted into homelessness and inching towards resurrection are beautifully portrayed in delightfully pure Urdu without the use of any clichés of the political or sentimental kind. For instance, words such as zulm [cruelty], saffaaki [brutality], beyimaani [dishonesty], badqismati [misfortune], khudgharzi [selfishness] or mohajir [migrant] etc hardly feature in the text, while being clearly shown through events in the narrative. And that too without leaning on any other language for that matter, except when painting characters who speak different languages.

Bilal is a student of class three when the world around him is set on fire and demolished forever. Part of a desperate family fighting for survival, he resumes his schooling and encounters new friends, as well as building relationships with different communities in the new country. His favourite adult and mentor is Mamoo, his maternal uncle. Mamoo is a very eligible bachelor who refuses to marry for most of his life because he does not want to shoulder the responsibilities that come with marriage. However, in his later years he does marry a local widow with children, a woman who comes from a background completely different from his own. Mamoo now has a stepson, the same age as Bilal, and they are already best friends. There is also a stepdaughter, Rubina, for whom Bilal coins the term “mumani-zadee” [daughter of mamoo’s wife]. Rubina and Bilal are nearly betrothed, but then conflicts emerge that disrupt more than just their proposed engagement.

Quite aside from the charming flavour of its original Urdu diction, a new novel succeeds in stirring a deep emotional response despite its cool, clinical writing style

Another girl, Memoona, living in the house opposite Bilal’s, matches the academic accomplishments and personal challenges of our protagonist. Both develop a rivalry, admiration and respect for each other over time as university students and nurture dreams of a future together. However, before their relationship takes off, Bilal earns a scholarship for higher studies that takes him out of the country for a long period of time.

The link of the narrative with the title of the novel becomes apparent upon Bilal’s return home after an absence of many years. The title, Ae Tahayyur-i-Ishq (Na Junoon Raha, Na Paree Rahi), is taken from a verse by a remarkable 18th century Sufi poet, Siraj Aurangabadi: “Khabar-i-tahayyur-i-ishq sunn, na junoon raha na paree rahi/ Na tau tu raha na tau main raha, jo rahi so beykhabari rahi” [Listen to the astonishing news about love, neither the madness remains nor the angst/ Neither you remain, nor I; the only thing that stays is oblivion].

The novel is like a steady, meandering stream with gentle turns and splashes, but with quantum physics, astronomy and the Big Bang Theory seamlessly woven in the tale. This adept amalgamation could be ascribed to the author’s career in academia — after completing his education in Hyderabad, Sindh, he went to Canada for his PhD and taught at several universities in different countries. The narrative brings to mind the world and subtle romanticism that Haseena Moin’s plays depict, before it converges to the universal concerns of existentialism.

The novel is like a meandering stream, but with quantum physics and astronomy seamlessly woven in.

In fact, what seems to distinguish Ae Tahayyur-i-Ishq from most of the contemporary Urdu literature — besides its charming flavour of original Urdu diction, syntax, idioms and vocabulary — is the grippingly cool, clinical writing style of a man of science, who still succeeds in stirring deep emotional response in the reader in spite of it. The characters are drawn so close to real life — largely through dialogue — that they grow to become as familiar as our own acquaintances. They are made livelier with the vivid descriptions of the atmosphere and surroundings.

Ae Tahayyur-i-Ishq offers a profound panoramic view of an important era, as well as insight into the ordinary individuals that lived through it.

The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator of Freedom of the Press: The War on Words (1977-1978)

Ae Tahayyur-i-Ishq (Na Junoon Raha
Na Paree Rahi)
By Rafi Mustafa
Fazleesons, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694412429
286pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 28th, 2019