By Arshad Waheed
Jamhoori Publications, Lahore
Medical doctor and writer Arshad Waheed has been on the literary map for some decades now. His first Urdu novel — 1995’s Gumaan [Presumption] — depicted radical student politics in 1980s’ Pakistan. Between Gumaan and his debut English-language novel Other Days lies scattered a good body of translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera.
In fact, Waheed’s fascination with the latter runs deep; Kundera’s novels abound with swimming pools and Other Days begins with Sara and Daud, immigrants of Pakistani origins, meeting at a swimming pool in London. This chance meeting triggers a journey into a past that is buried mostly in a city named Sheher, that seems to bear all the hallmarks of Lahore.
Sheher is where Daud and Sara grew to become bosom friends, closer than close, during their time at university, where both were part of left-wing student groups, deeply involved in protest and study circle routines.
One day, Daud invites Sara to his dormitory, which is attacked by an extremist right-wing student group — during Gen Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, the segregation of sexes on university campuses was enforced by a religiously affiliated student morality police with the connivance of administrations mostly made up of right-leaning staff.
Daud is beaten to a pulp for defying the campus segregation code and has to flee for his life to the United Kingdom. Circumstances are such that he is unable to leave a forwarding address for Sara.
Sara marries Zafar, another student ideologue, and bears him a daughter, but their marriage is short-lived. Then, the bank where she is employed relocates her to London. Finding her feet with a young child in tow is quite a challenge, but Sara overcomes the obstacles with help from friends and the kindness of strangers.
Although Sara has, by now, willed Sheher into oblivion, the chance meeting with Daud at the pool propels her to nostalgically repurpose her life. Her daughter Sammi, meanwhile, is grown up and experiencing her own identity crisis. Powered by the quest for her roots, Sammi starts taking regular research trips to Pakistan.
In Sheher, Sammi falls in with the religiously inclined Bano, who helps Sammi negotiate her way through the zigzags of the research project. The Pakistan of Sammi’s time is burning in the flames unleashed by the country’s unsavoury involvement in Afghanistan and the resultant rise in domestic religious extremism, student radicalism and military dictatorship.
Sammi cannot hold herself aloof from the push and pull of these forces, and shows some inclination for religious politics. Against this background of menace and violence, she meets Zakariya, a bureaucrat, and becomes the object of his attention. She is leaning towards accepting Zakariya’s proposal of marriage, but the memories of Ahmar — a university classmate from London — linger in her mind.
In a separate strand of the narrative, Sara and Daud take their own trip down memory lane to Sheher, but this is a Pakistan at its most violent and securitised. Daud visits his village only to discover that even this little hamlet is not immune from the larger forces at play and he is picked up by ubiquitous security forces on suspicions of spying.
All of Waheed’s characters are consumed by nostalgia, longing, half-realised dreams of social change and personal fulfilment, and are either actively engaged in events or earnest observers of the same. Ahmar reports on the Afghan war while Sammi is entrenched in researching religion. Then there is Mehreen, Sara’s friend from university, who is happily married but still tangentially involved in protest politics, as is Sara’s former husband and Sammi’s father, Zafar.
Daud has become a writer since coming to the UK and is intensively engaged in making sense of it all. From Sara’s regular, furtive peeks into Daud’s computer screen, we come to learn more about Daud’s past and present.
In a trajectory that resounds deeply of history repeating itself, Ahmar’s reporting on the war falls foul of the securitised state and he is, unsurprisingly, kidnapped. After his release, he goes into exile in an unnamed European country. The novel ends with Sara again returning to the UK; whereas her first journey was full of hope, with the second she has nothing to dream for — Daud had died and Sammi has stayed back to consider long term prospects in Pakistan.
Although Waheed bring all the disparate strands of the story together with a deft touch, Other Days is significant for its portrayal of a generation of students who migrated from rural areas and mid-sized towns to Sheher for education, and received a willing or unwilling baptism into the politics of the day. The pull of their rural origins remains with them, no matter if they are in Sheher or London.
This is a journey full of painful adjustment, with many loose ends remaining untied. As one writer has suggested, moving from a village to an urban environment is a difficult undertaking in terms of mental and social acclimatisation. Comparatively, moving from one metropolitan centre to another is a cakewalk, with attitudes and global awareness firmly in place.
Waheed’s novel is strong on the subject of transition, with all its associated trials and tribulations. The characters swing between their home towns and Sheher, their nostalgic remembrance of things past, lost and found again in the progression from rural to urban areas. And, despite having been exposed to global trends by virtue of long stays in the West, they keep returning, the dark birds of unyielding nostalgia continuing to nestle in their souls.
Very few Pakistani English-language novels deal with the lives of rurally raised, lower middle-class students who make it to universities in cities such as Sheher, with all associated rites of ideological passage duly performed. An exception, perhaps, in recent years is Daniyal Mueenuddin, who has written perceptively and fluently about his experiences of rural life in Pakistan, touching upon the complex issues of land, power and politics.
The reviewer is the author of Patient Pakistan: Reforming and Fixing Healthcare for All in the 21st Century.
He tweets @arifazad5
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 17th, 2022