By Riffat Naheed Sajjad
Jumhoori Publications, Lahore
Professor Riffat Naheed Sajjad, the retired principal of Government Postgraduate College, Rawalpindi, belongs to that generation of Pakistanis that was born just a few years after the country’s creation, saw protests against Gen Ayub Khan’s dictatorship transform into a countrywide political movement and saw East Pakistan secede in 1971. Craving an impartial and equal society, her idealism is based on the joyful slogans that called for the establishment of a democratic society.
An unbiased and honest writer, she’s published several short stories and two novels: Ek Mausam Dil Ki Basti Ka [One Season in the Hamlet of the Heart] and Chaand Ke Tammannaee [Yearners for the Moon].
Her newest novel, Chiraagh-i-Aakhir-i-Shab [The Lamp at the End of the Night], is about the drift in Pakistan’s history. It is the story of a country whose past has been rewritten, whose present has nothing to lose, and thus there is an urgent need to light new lamps for its future.
Her protagonists are ordinary Pakistanis, dreaming of revolution, struggling against deeply entrenched systems of exploitation and striving to bring change. Each morning, they rise with new hope, each night they close their eyes, worn out with fatigue. They are the political workers, teachers, students, poets, writers, intellectuals and labourers who sought social justice and public rights, who were jailed or exiled and, ultimately, were lost in the murky depths of history.
A new novel paints Pakistan as a portrait that acts as a kind of mirror, which reveals the dissipation of our resources, and our youth, by our very own hands
The novel begins with a group of fresh university graduates putting up a stage play. Being from the middle class, without powerful connections, they can’t find sponsors. Desperate for help, they accept aid when approached by representatives of dubious non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but vicious reality soon hijacks their glowing idealism.
Aurat Front [Women’s Front] is one such deceptive organisation. Ostensibly set up to help women, it’s actually funded by unknown enemy countries to create political chaos in Pakistan. Its chairperson, Sara Haq, convinces the group to launch a protest against a candidate in the upcoming elections. Despite having misgivings about the NGO’s interference in matters unrelated to its stated purposes, the group — feeling indebted — reluctantly agrees to come out into the streets.
Some opposers get wind of this protest and descend upon the protestors, badly beating up Qaiser, who comes from a poor village family. Qaiser’s father takes the boy back to his village; this is the final straw that breaks the theatre group’s unity, sending them all on their differing paths.
Venturing deeper into the story’s multiple threads, we meet university professor Abbas Rasheed and his unusual, peace-loving family. They are survivors of the horrors of 1947 as well as 1971. Professor Rasheed is considered an enemy by every dictator that comes into power, from Gen Ayub to Gen Pervez Musharraf. During Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime, he’s whipped for speaking out against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution and imprisoned in the dungeons of Shahi Qila, Lahore, for three months.
Professor Rasheed was a friend of Salman Sahib, whose parents migrated to East Pakistan in 1947. When Bangladeshi authorities expel Salman for being an ‘Indian’ migrant, he comes to the western wing, believing he will get fair rights as a citizen. But after seeing Rasheed be whipped in his own country, Salman’s confidence is badly shaken.
Meanwhile, Parveen is a housemaid for her village’s landlords, but their son takes advantage of the poor girl’s helplessness and assaults her. The feudal family sends Parveen to their own daughter in the city without informing Parveen’s parents. When the parents demand her return, the lady of the house tells them Parveen has eloped.
Parveen’s mother, with the help of Akbar — a man from their village who now lives in the city — seeks help from Aurat Front, but Sara Haq is friends with the powerful landlords and, instead of recovering Parveen, uses the case to gain clout on social media. Akbar then turns to Salman Sahib’s NGO which, unlike Sara Haq’s, is a genuine organisation. Parveen is ultimately recovered and finds a job and a place to live in the city.
As contrast to the idealistic youth, Sajjad packs her novel with antagonists who never miss an opportunity to get rich, either by hook or crook. Thirsty for money, power and rank, their only concern is getting ahead, no matter who gets crushed underfoot in the process.
Naeem Malik, for instance, is a small-time reporter for an evening newspaper and known primarily for cooking up rumours and scandals about film actors. He has no credibility or respect in the journalist community, but suddenly secures anchorship of a ‘serious’ 40-minute show on a news channel, and the author implies this could not have happened unless Malik had either the money to bribe his way in, or some very strong connections.
Malik’s main task — assigned by his unknown ‘handlers’ — is to spread chaos and disappointment. As a result, he spouts venom against Pakistan and should any guest on his show dare express a positive or patriotic sentiment, he shoots them down, not letting them even complete their sentence. All his energy is spent in trying to prove that Pakistan is a failed state and that the biggest mistake we, as a nation, made was to separate from India.
Although the author mentions every important political event that occurred after 1971, depending on her own understanding and knowledge, she takes special care in describing the circumstances of each martial law. She strives to keep her narration unbiased, but her sympathy towards fallen democracy can be easily felt. Perhaps, being as she was the principal of a government educational institution, she understands the anxiety and depression from which our youth has suffered for long.
Reading the book, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It seems as though Sajjad uses Pakistan as a portrait that acts as a kind of mirror, which reveals the dissipation of our resources, and our youth, by our very own hands.
The big question is, who can we trust? How do we figure out who is genuine and who has ulterior motives? The antagonists in Chiraagh-i-Aakhir-i-Shab have set their consciences aside to achieve their goals and, consequently, the portrait in the attic — Pakistan — has begun exhibiting the most disturbing and disfigured image of our collective society.
Having done all we can to destroy it, we denounce our country. But how can we blame a mirror-like picture that only shows our own ugly intentions, our own monstrous desires? It raises another question: when will we become mature and bold enough to look into our mirror to see that we ourselves are the cause of our demise?
Sajjad’s unconventional style turns this simple tale into an inspirational treat, but it is a depressing realisation that the dreams of a beautiful nation as seen by the youngsters of Sajjad’s generation are still far from coming true.
The reviewer writes short fiction in Urdu and is currently working on her first novel
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 26th, 2021