How about chancing upon a work of fiction which convinces you that you have personally known each and every single character in the story that is being revealed? Where you develop a sense — as you read along — that you have grown up among some of them, have known some in the recent past, and then continuously find the presence of a few others around you who lurk, breathe, live and work in the same social habitat as yours. One of the biggest successes for a story being told is when the reader begins to perceive himself or herself as an integral part of the narrative. For me, that is what makes Abbas Zaidi’s The Infidels of Mecca an intimate journey into the recent past while, at the same time, this outstanding novel resonates with the collective misery of our present.
Every reader may not feel the same way since we know that each work of fiction has a context, more so if it is woven around the distinctive social and political experience of a certain community of people. But can we decontextualise any piece of writing in the name of universal literary appeal? One wouldn’t think so. Particularly when the term ‘universal’ is taken for granted only for what is being produced in the Anglophone, Francophone or Spanish-speaking countries. We may include here the literature being produced in other languages made available through translation or being written by non-native people in European languages, to cater to the sensibilities of the reader in Europe and North America.
Zaidi does not write actual biographies of specific individuals, but all his characters are so palpable and identifiable in the context of the underbelly of Pakistan’s political history and sociology, that these characters become universal. At least, they are universal for those who have participated in the social and political struggles for a just and humane world in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America over the last century. Those who have faced prejudice and oppression, torture and incarceration, can see the life portraits of themselves and their comrades. Besides, they can also find the characters of those who represent the status quo and act in the name of the ideology of power — divine or worldly.
Unlike how the publisher chooses to classify it, in my humble view The Infidels of Mecca does not simply fall into the genre of political novels. Although it revolves around the event of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, essentially it is neither the story of Bhutto nor those who masterminded her murder. It does embrace all actors — explicitly or obliquely — and the events that took place in the chequered political history of Pakistan until that time, or which continue to happen since. There is a brush with some regular and odd characters of the working class. Some of these characters include the palmist, the bookseller and the parrot man. There is also a compassionate and humane treatment of the characters of soldiers whom the main protagonist Dara continues to meet around his neighbourhood.
All characters are so palpable and identifiable in the context of Pakistan’s political history and sociology, that they become universal.
However, it is the individuals from the politically conscious middle class or lower middle class — academics, students, artists and political workers — whose lives are directly affected by the course of larger events and upheavals. These women and men — who are incredibly brave or not-so-brave, overly committed or still curious, thoroughly optimistic or partly cynical, clear-headed or mildly confused — are the real protagonists of Zaidi’s novel.
The young artistic man Dara Shikoh, of mixed ethnic and sectarian parentage, is born into a family where all male members serve in the military. His father is considered a successful and influential commander who has been decorated for his expeditions. He also happens to be a devoutly religious man who combines within him his faith and patriotism. As it goes, he is also fully aware of the need for his personal financial growth. Dara’s mother is a woman brought to Pakistan by his father from Afghanistan as a young wife after her family, belonging to a different sect, is killed by the same man whom she is forced to marry. She defies her husband during her short life and the husband, an otherwise aggressive man, puts up with her patiently. After her early death, her stepdaughter brings up Dara Shikoh with the utmost care and affection.
Dara becomes part of a group that oscillates between the ideals of Sufism and socialism. The group is steered by an elderly professor and includes those who believe that, upon Benazir Bhutto’s return in 2007, Pakistan will move towards becoming a peaceful, prosperous, equitable and inclusive society. Dara also falls in love with Laleen, a girl born into an Ahmadi family, introducing further twists in the plot. Since many of the people belonging to the group that Dara is part of are present at that fateful Rawalpindi rally of Bhutto, some of them get killed in the bomb blast that follows the shooting of Bhutto. I stop here and leave the details of what happens before and after to those who will feel tempted to read the book.
The prologue of the novel is the arrival of the vanquished in Karbala — women and children led by Hazrat Zainab, accompanied by the heads of the martyrs mounted on lances — and it ends with some fictitious transcripts of a newspaper editorial, a letter to the editor and a first information report filed by the police of an incident that happened in the novel. On the one hand, there is an uncanny presence of different smells and silhouettes that Dara finds himself surrounded by from time to time. On the other, the objectivity in analysing politics is rare as Zaidi unapologetically criticises those whom he also subtly praises. This is a tragic novel from beginning to end, but a must-read for those interested in understanding how politics shapes or destroys individual lives. Also, that there will always be a voice of truth raised by some — irrespective of the cost it entails and the fate it meets.
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, January 19th, 2020