September 08, 2019


Tikon ki Chauthi Jihat [The Fourth Dimension of a Triangle] by Iqbal Khursheed consists of two novelettes: Tikon ki Chauthi Jihat and Gard ka Toofan [The Dust Storm]. The author is a writer, journalist and Urdu columnist as well as editor of the literary magazine Ijraa. Moreover, he helped co-author, with Ahfazur Rahman, the significant book Azadi-i-Sahafat: Sab Se Bari Jung 1977-78 which was translated by this reviewer into English as Freedom of the Press: The War on Words 1977-78.

After introductions and comments by literary stalwarts Hasan Manzar and Mustansar Hussain Tarar comes the first of the two novelettes, set somewhere remote in the vast region of the freezing, snow-clad mountains of Northern Pakistan. A man on an official visit to this area is kidnapped and held by terrorists in their hideout. He is blindfolded and confined for an extended period of time while his whereabouts remain unknown to his family and his organisation. Understandably, they begin to assume the worst.

Written in a clipped style, the narrative is built up through the first-person point of view of each of the three main characters in turn. These are the hostage, his pregnant wife back home far away in Karachi and the lead kidnapper. The political environment and the circumstances depicted in the story serve as a backdrop for multiple emotional relationships, as well as for what emerges as a love triangle. The story unfolds gently with a rhythmic flow that keeps the reader drawn in throughout. The plot explores how the same individuals can behave subjectively and in apparently contradictory ways under diverse situations. How — because of past events in their personal lives — caring and sensitive people, concerned for their family, community and land, can become ruthless murderers and outlaws. The story is a vivid portrayal of the clash within people of basic universal human emotions against acquired ideologies and an effective demonstration — depicted with remarkable dexterity — of how love and hatred can exist simultaneously within an individual at the same moment.

Two novelettes offer an empathetic portrayal of the brutal effects political environment and economic conditions can have on individual human beings

Here, Khursheed’s style of writing reminds one of My Name is Red, by Turkish novelist and winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature Orhan Pamuk, in which multiple narrators tell their respective points of view of the same events and situations. However, My Name is Red is a much more elaborate and complex work than Tikon ki Chauthi Jihat.

The second novelette, Gard ka Toofan, unfurls in the milieu of the congested neighbourhoods of the megacity of Karachi with its chronic social, economic, civic and politically burning issues. It is set during the turmoil of the preceding three decades. The plot revolves around two adolescent best friends growing up in the same neighbourhood. They are loyal to each other and vow to remain so forever, and even die for each other. It is a resolve that proves ominous in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Their friendship and unbreakable mutual bond gradually comes under the strain of their immediate external environment, which eventually leads to tragic circumstances beyond their control.

The theme of Gard ka Toofan is inspired by the trauma of political, home-grown urban violence that exerts a stranglehold over ordinary inhabitants who find themselves and their lives inextricably trapped in their oppressive living conditions. However, the narrative focuses on purely humane aspects compatible with the characters. It is not tempted to yield to the prevailing topical views on political correctness, slogans or tags. Credit for walking this tightrope goes to the author’s skilful treatment of the plot, which is supported with dialogues that are short, crisp, pointed and effective.

Both tales are a super-sensitive artist’s empathetic portrayal of the brutal effects political environment and economic conditions can have on individual human beings stuck within that particular universe. Khursheed deftly paints a compassionate, non-judgemental and label-free picture of the conditions existing in the country over the last three or four decades, with a special focus on Karachi. Nevertheless, the fundamental social dynamics exposed are not exclusive to Pakistan; they can — and often do — play out in any region of the world, which provides a universal appeal to the narrative.

The most powerful message that comes across in the second novelette is how normal, innocent and well-intentioned human beings — particularly the youth — are moulded into hardened individuals and how their core personalities are disfigured by their surroundings and peer pressure, transforming them into cold-blooded monsters and heartless murderers. The narration convincingly constructs the characters of reluctant criminals into a class, which ultimately arouses more compassion than repulsion among onlookers, whether they happen to be perpetrators or victims. It indirectly calls for the questioning of the collective role played by the rest of the community in creating a kind of society where evil breeds evil.

That the book is dedicated to Karachi — the author’s hometown — does not come as a surprise, as there is so much of the city in both novelettes. The language in both tales has a strong visual and sensual quality akin to that of a screenplay. While the plots are ostensibly different, probably the single common premise in the two stories is about concerns linked to the limitation of an individual’s power within society to determine his or her own destiny.

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

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 8th, 2019