Do dogs dream? Can there be a graveyard for books? Is the urge to kill someone brutal? These are some of the ideas that Nasir Abbas Nayyar has put across in his latest collection of short stories Aik Zamana Khatm Hua Hai [An Era Has Ended].

This is his fourth collection and it has to be said, with a great deal of certitude, that the writer — who a little more than a decade ago shot to literary fame as a critic, and is inarguably the most influential critic of his generation — is going from strength to strength in fiction writing. His strength stems from multiple sources; scholarliness, creativity and a fertile mind are just three of them.

The book introduces us to another facet to Nayyar’s personality (it was always there, but not as pronounced as this time round): his sensitivity to the incessant bombardment of the socio-cultural and political stories, in the shape of daily news, that are unfolding in the post-9/11 world. Since he is a scholar who is an ardent reader of philosophy and literature, he puts his characters in a framework built on the movement — not necessarily progress — of human life against the backdrop of history. As a result, the tales that he spins ‘today’ are inalienably attached to an acute sense of the ‘past’.

But before allowing the reader to flip through the first story, Nayyar pays tribute to two of his favourite creative souls: the poet Majeed Amjad and writer and critic Asif Farrukhi. The title Aik Zamana Khatm Hua Hai is taken from a poem by the former, and the collection is dedicated to the latter. Farrukhi’s death on June 1, 2020 came as a huge shock to Nayyar, as to the entire Urdu literary world.

The collection opens with a story called ‘Tumhara Qanoon’ [Your Law]. It is about a bunch of prisoners and their interaction with personnel belonging to the law enforcing agencies. The prison inmates — five of them — appear to be intrepid in a way that they deem law and its intricacies a construct not worth taking seriously.

At certain moments — such as the passage in the story where the authorities are trying to convince them to consume food because they’ve not eaten in a while — the prisoners’ attitude to their incarceration and the justice system is one which borders on scorn. This, ostensibly, signifies fearlessness.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar’s fourth collection of short stories showcases the writer’s scholarliness, creativity and fertile mind

But there’s another layer to the tale: rather subtly — though done in a dialogic form, which appears to be Nayyar’s favourite narration mode — it touches upon the subject of immortality. Despite the ambiguity of their crime, it’s clear that there’s (a sense of) collectiveness to it. The reader gets it when an officer debating with the inmates raises the point that what the latter fear is the post-death anonymity which is leading them to yearn for immortality.

This tussle between authority and those with a lesser say in society continues in the brilliantly crafted ‘Har Aadmi Har Kaam Kar Sakta Hai’ [Every Man Can Do Anything]. Again, on the surface the story pivots around a person looking for employment. After some strife, he lands a job at a place headed by a loquacious man who tells him that every person can do anything with the caveat that he, the job-seeker, cannot leave the room that he has entered of his own volition.

The mystery surrounding the atmosphere of the room is not hard to decipher. The contemporary world we live in — and even a few decades before that — has always had a Kafkaesque ring to it. Welcome to the world of the known unknown.

The air of mystery continues in all of the stories with varying degrees. For instance, in ‘Khwaab-i-Sagan’ [Dogs’ Dreams], a man named Malik is a spy, but whom he works for is not known. His farmhouse is the location where the story is set and where a particular breed of dogs awaits the protagonist to mull over life in a way that he has never done before. The writer turns the concept of a dream as a hidden, repressed feeling on its head, by imparting it with a commonality shared by living beings ensnared in unavoidable circumstances.

At certain moments — such as the passage in the story where the authorities are trying to convince them to consume food because they’ve not eaten in a while — the prisoners’ attitude to their incarceration and the justice system is one which borders on scorn. This, ostensibly, signifies fearlessness.

The variety in the subject matter of the collection is astounding. While the socio-political and philosophical move alongside each other in the above-mentioned three stories, unrequited love and mythology suffuse ‘Gharat Gar’ [Depredator] and ‘Kahani Aik Par Ki’ (The Story of a Wing] respectively. This is where scholarliness and creativity combine to produce a striking effect, where Gharat Gar saddens the reader and Kahani Aik Par Ki brings forth misplaced conceptions that plague a society such as ours.

That being said, pain, torture and death linger in the subtexts of quite a few of these stories. The characters, wittingly or unwittingly, keep coming to them in clear or roundabout ways. Perhaps it would not be wrong to refer to what Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, in his essay on Anatole France’s novel The Gods are Thirsty, writes: “[Principal character] Gamelin, the painter with the new playing cards, may be the first literary portrait of a ‘politically engaged artist’… What captivated me in France’s novel was not its condemnation of Gamelin, but the mystery of Gamelin.

“I say ‘mystery’ because that man who ended up sending up dozens of people to the guillotine would probably in some other time have been a kindly neighbour, a good colleague, a gifted artist. How can an unarguably decent man harbour a monster inside him? Would the monster be lurking in him in peaceful political times as well? Undectectable? Or perhaps actually discernible? Those of us who have known terrifying Gamelins — are we capable of spotting the monsters sleeping inside the kindly Gamelins that surround us?”

The mystery of characters in Aik Zamana Khatm Hua Hai is what lovers of literature will find fascinating in this highly recommended book as well.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Aik Zamana Khatm Hua Hai
By Nasir Abbas Nayyar
Sang-i-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693533132
152pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 31st, 2021

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