Sasa — the debut novel in Urdu by Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti, head of the English Language department at the International Islamic University, Islamabad — begins with a question: “What do you want?” The answer is muhabbat [love]. This is followed by a series of questions and the last one tantalises the reader’s conscious being: “How do you want it?” As if the enquirer has love cooked and ready to serve on a large white platter, accompanied by the needful spoons and forks (leave the knife aside; it is too harsh an implement for such a fragile emotion). But this time, instead of an answer, the response is a surprised question in itself: “What? It exists?”
The story begins in a small, remote village somewhere in Punjab where Saleem, a student at the primary school, is tasked by his teacher to find where love is around him. One would assume Saleem would go directly to his mother as, for children, the first manifestation of this particular emotion is their mother. But for reasons unexplained, the little boy appears to have different ideas. Taking the task to heart, he sets out on his quest only to be hushed by people who are overwhelmed by his question and find it unfit — and rather vulgar — for a child his age to be asking.
This experience lodges into Saleem’s psyche. He wants to find love around him, but in order to be sure, in order not to mistake it for something else, he first wants to know whether it really exists. However, with the passage of time, his search somehow metamorphoses from seeking the existence of love into seeking out ‘the One’ whom his love rightly fits.
A debut novel traces a journey of self-discovery through global politics
Saleem moves to the United States and believes that his search will end here. It’s a different world, after all, so refreshingly unlike the conservatism he has left behind. Men and women are free to mingle, caste and creed are not so vehemently imposed, so surely it will be possible for him to find the One here. But if the different culture is a welcome respite, the differences in culture — as he comes to learn — are not as accommodating as they initially appeared.
Here, the novel becomes an immigrant’s experiences of discrimination, particularly that faced by Pakistani students in foreign universities. Against a backdrop of the American invasion of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden’s alleged capture in Abbottabad, Saleem witnesses the manipulation of the media, of how news is broken to make American soldiers appear to be saviours of humanity and how any untoward incident on American soil is manoeuvred to besmirch Pakistan. As his classmates, friends and associates begin to turn against him and treat him as the other, he is led to believe that, say what people will, nothing — not even love — can actually ignore cultural differences.
In the wake of the escalating tension surrounding global politics and by becoming the target of prejudice, Saleem loses interest in the life he had hoped to lead in America with Jean, whom he asks to convert to Islam. She refuses and breaks up with him for being a conservative, orthodox Pakistani.
A defining moment comes when Jean asks him to organise a funeral for her pet bird, the titular Sasa. Saleem complies, because Sasa was how he was able to get close to Jean in the first place. However, as he covers the dead bird’s grave with mud, he breaks down, unable to comprehend how someone could be so naive as to mourn over a mere bird while indiscriminate bombing is killing hundreds of people elsewhere.
He sheds tears for the many nameless children who wouldn’t even be allotted a grave because there were too many pieces, flung too far and too wide, to collect and bury. But the mourners at Sasa’s funeral believe he is weeping for the bird, and his otherness, his humanity, receives a momentary reprieve from racial prejudice.
Saleem returns to Pakistan; empty-handed, empty-minded and empty-hearted, with that old question burning: “Where is love?” He is welcomed by his mother who has grand plans for him, and by families with eligible daughters. The interest shown in him by these families at least restores his ego; Pakistani men are used to being treated as the one and only and Saleem’s pride has been deeply wounded by the fact that one of his romantic interests in America left him for another man.
Pakistani men are used to being treated as the one and only and Saleem’s pride has been deeply wounded by the fact that one of his romantic interests in America left him for another man.
His search, however, has not ended. He continues moving in circles, or rather, a spiral — the uppermost sense of continuance intertwined with notes of hope and tragedy. Yes, he is Prince Charming, but existing in that period of time after Cinderella left her glass slipper behind. He is holding on to her shoe, turning and tossing the kingdom to find the right sized foot. Then, like the shepherd in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, he discovers that what he set out to seek was with him from the very beginning. He just didn’t know. Yet even now he faces the same obstacles, except that the cultural barriers he must overcome now exist not in a distant country, but right here at home, among people who have lived and grown together in the same land.
Sasa has its faults; there are minor flaws in plotting and confusing timelines and occasional excesses in descriptions of what constitutes beauty, but Dasti makes up for it with his good grasp of language and expression, knowledge of international politics and his detailed expositions of family loyalties, national allegiances, betrayals and the sometimes misguided desire we have to protect our loved ones, especially our children, from the truth.
The reviewer writes short fiction in Urdu and is currently working on her first novel
By Muhammad Sheeraz
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 3rd, 2019