For those who have moved across places, there is a town where they dwell and there is a town which dwells inside them. That is usually the town or village where they were born and/or raised. For those children whose forebears had to leave their ancestral town for fear of persecution, they acquire memories of that place through their parents or older relatives. These memories — which are not their own, but inherited — can also continue to haunt them forever.
The town that dwells inside them is not the town where they have ever lived, but the town of their ancestors. Most of us cherish good memories while carrying bitter ones along. We also bear a sense of loss that sometimes overshadows any gains that we might have made in the later years of our lives. The most sensitive among us — painters, poets, musicians, writers — can seldom avoid being nostalgic — particularly if they have grown old and now find it hard to cope with the changing values of contemporary times or don’t have the strength to make new friends who espouse a different sensibility.
Asghar Nadeem Syed’s novel Tooti Hui Tanab Udher [The Broken Rope Over There] apparently is a story set in Multan — the city that dwells inside him — but it is a set of multiple stories that are born through and lived by real-life characters across the oldest cities of the East — from Cairo to Damascus, from Samarkand to Multan, from Lahore to Delhi and from Thatta to Agra. Syed hinges himself to Multan — one of the oldest and prime civilisational centres of the world — but the tales he tells are universal stories that unfold in similar towns which saw the ascendance and decadence of — varied but somehow linked — Muslim cultures.
This is the world of narrow alleys and bylanes within timeworn neighbourhoods, bazaars where herbs, spices, dry fruit, concoctions, medicines and aphrodisiacs are traded, and the qahwa khaanas [traditional cafes] where the wise would gather and chat about the lasting and the ephemeral in the same breath. Something similar about these places, and what made them distinct from other towns, were the large libraries privately maintained by individuals, some of which would remain open to all those strangers and travellers from other cities and countries who had a thirst for knowledge. Besides, there were storytellers whose imaginations spread far and wide — from narrating stories of their own sexual exploits in the neighbourhoods familiar to the listeners, to telling tales of seafarers discovering unseen lands full of bounties. These men would gather spellbound audiences of young and old in the bazaars and squares of these old cities of the East.
Syed is among the few in his generation who have the ability to understand changing values — even if a part of him does not find it easy to cope with them.
Syed is among the few in his generation who have the ability to understand changing values — even if a part of him does not find it easy to cope with them — and he still carries that strength to make friends from the newer generations. This helps his narration in more than one way. He can amalgamate the events and happenings over centuries with his characters from later times, blending the stories that have stayed with us in different forms and with different names. There is a semblance of nostalgia, but he doesn’t get trapped into celebrating the past as it was. He goes beyond that by detaching himself from his prose whenever he wishes and uses the indifference of the narrator as a tool to bring forth the real story of the protagonists. His being a celebrated playwright for television, and the facility he has in writing scenes that are split over episodes in his serials, come to his assistance when difficult transitions from one story to another take place in the novel.
The character of women from the not-so-distant past is something in which Syed subtly rejoices. The determination of these women — concubines or housebound — in the face of a debauched and degenerate patriarchal, feudal society and their latent subversion of the man’s world remains an important feature of the novel. There are some tragic instances where the reader naturally feels compassion for these characters, but Syed refuses to patronise them and brings forth their agency to change their circumstance or challenge their condition.
Syed’s novel is an ode to Multan, but it is also a creative inquiry into what made that age disappear. We need more of such fiction that, without compromising artistic traits, remains close to life and has the capacity to delve deep into the psyche of our old cities and towns, of which there are many. It would be fascinating to explore the lives of ordinary women and men or the transgendered who inhabited these places in the past, or live there now.
There is another reason — apart from the theme, content, idiom and craft of Syed’s work — that this book warrants a mention. After writing plays and short stories, Syed has taken to writing long fiction. When it comes to poetry, Urdu and other Pakistani languages can boast a rich tradition comparable to any major world language. Urdu, in which Syed writes, in its present idiom and written form is younger than Pashto, Punjabi, Seraiki and Sindhi. However, it has also produced a galaxy of first-rate poets over the past three to four centuries and that tradition in all our languages continues. To a certain extent, it is also true for the short stories that have been written over the last 80 to 100 years. However, when it comes to long fiction, the number of important works produced in the form of modern novel and those who have produced them is embarrassingly small.
Here, we are speaking about a language spoken by 10 times more people than the Turks or the Japanese, for instance. But our list of formidable works of long fiction is 20 times less than what is written in Turkish or Japanese — leave alone what is being produced in French, Spanish, Russian and English. In that respect, Syed’s novel is a significant addition to our body of fictional literature.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 15th, 2019