Published earlier this year, Zubair Ahmad’s Pani Di Kandh [A Wall of Water] weaves together defining themes from Punjab’s post-Partition history with personal recollections. The result is a free-flowing memoir-style short story that moves back and forth in time, presenting us with a micro-historical look into the varied experiences of Partition, migration and urbanisation, refracted through the author’s autobiographical lens. Written in a candid — at times colloquial — style, Ahmad’s prose delights in parts where his poetic eye sketches in the quiet serenity of nature, although at times this sensuous expression is overpowered by the tedium of meandering, narrative detail.

The first couple of narrations zigzag between two contrasting locales in Lahore — Krishan Nagar and a suburban private housing society — setting the stage for the city’s urban transformation, which becomes the central thematic in these incipient pages. By deploying memory as a literary device, Ahmad structures his nostalgic musing for a long-lost Lahore around an encounter with another living being: a cow that is brought into their home from the village.

The central narrator takes us back to his teenage years, sketching in the characters of the loving mother widowed all too soon, the pragmatic aunt who heaps chores upon her young nephew and the many neighbours that left vivid impressions upon him. The cow is to be cared for by the young protagonist, who, from now on, must sleep outside to guard the animal and help milk it every day. In poignant prose tinged with humour, the author describes the young child’s terror at being made to sleep outside, alone, fearing the smallest movement and the softest sound to be the death knell of his untimely undoing. However, as the stricken child’s fearful eyes meet the gentle gaze of the innocent animal, he realises he is not alone, and he peacefully falls into a deep slumber, lulled by the reassuring rhythm of the cow’s “jugaali” [chewing] and her undulating breaths.

A free-flowing Punjabi memoir that presents us with a micro-historical look into the varied experiences of Partition, migration and urbanisation

This incident ensconces a tender moment in the author’s life, a touching portrayal of a bond between human and animal that must be severed eventually as sewage lines, big roads and middle-class aspirations arrive in Krishan Nagar, and keeping cows in homes is banned by the authorities. This separation returns to haunt the central character’s middle-aged self, as he finds himself relocated in suburban Lahore, in a newly constructed housing society seeking to emulate middle-class notions of order and respectability, where residents have rallied the police to rid their neighbourhood of the Gujjars and their bovine friends.

As the police conduct a night-time raid to drive the bewildered animals out of the sterile confines of the gated colony, the author comes face to face with a lone animal, confused and lost, separated from her herd in the ensuing chaos as the police pursue the cowherders — the marginalised Gujjars — who are themselves relegated from the disciplining desires of an urbanising Lahore. The linking of these two Lahores — of 1970s Krishan Nagar and 1990s suburbia — stages the author’s sense of the alienating advance of his city’s urban transformation. The child’s tender attachment with the animal comes to symbolise the web of affective relations to land, cultural roots and wider kin that are sundered in the search for upward social mobility. The same frame is deployed in the author’s exploration of the theme of Partition, as snippets from his own trip to Batala, India, are juxtaposed with his mother’s reminiscences about her family’s flight to Pakistan as communal violence broke out in their village.

By deploying memory as a literary device, Ahmad structures his nostalgic musing for a long-lost Lahore around an encounter with another living being: a cow that is brought into their home from the village.

A passage that relays in chilling detail how his mother and her family escaped the riots that gripped their home shines for its ventriloquism of the woman’s voice, a necessary step towards gendering accounts of Partition and bringing marginalised oral histories to bear on the grand narratives of the nation. The evocative passage conjures its quality of horror through an extremely banal setting — a typical home with “aata gunnheya” [freshly kneaded dough] and a pitcher full of frothy, creamy milk along with other everyday essentials that is left eerily abandoned, frozen in time as a testament to the uprooted lives of its inhabitants — as a son is slain by a Sikh mob and the rest scramble to hide and eventually flee. With the contemporary rise of hyper-nationalist political culture on both sides of the border, art and literature must continue to fashion critical retellings of the fraught history that birthed the two nation-states, and evoke alternative imaginings through cross-border histories, a task that Pani Di Kandh contributes to.

However, while this passage is powerful precisely because it deploys the female perspective in its narration, the rest of the book leaves much to be desired in terms of its presentation of women characters, who appear marginal, dependent on their male counterparts and often introduced into the story writing via objectifying descriptions of their physical features. Another important question is that of genre; while the blurring of temporality and the shift between first-person and third-person narrative can make for an interesting formal experiment, the structure of Pani Di Kandh can seem somewhat incoherent, as it vacillates between an autobiographical tone and the short story form.

Further, while the events and recollections sketched out in the book provoke the reader to reflect on larger social and political developments in Punjabi society since 1947, a sharper, more extensive writing in of historical context would benefit the general reader. This is felt most strongly in the recurring references to the author’s own involvement with progressive politics; this is a history that bears no official record in Pakistan, yet also doesn’t surface as a strong thematic in Pani Di Kandh, despite its significance as the intellectual backdrop that shaped the protagonist’s philosophical outlook.

That said, the writer has paid skilful attention to the construction of his prose, which fuses a modernist narrative form with the vast vocabulary of the classical tradition. This makes for an enjoyable read that is highly recommended, especially for native Lahori readers wishing to take a walk down memory lane and relive the quotidian, yet reassuring sense of belonging enclosed in the city’s winding streets.

The reviewer is currently pursuing a PhD in Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Cambridge

Pani Di Kandh
By Zubair Ahmad
Kitab Trinjan, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9699141058
124pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 9th, 2020