By Hammad Rind
In spite of all our postcolonial struggles for decolonisation — as evinced, for example, by Iraqi scholar Ferial Ghazoul’s book Edward Said and Critical Decolonisation — we still owe a tremendous debt to canonical English literature. This is especially evident when one peruses Hammad Rind’s brief, but incredibly pithy, and at times erudite, debut novel, Four Dervishes.
A power failure in relatively modern times drives the initial narrator out of his house, lamenting over missing his favourite television show for the first time in decades. In a manner spookily reminiscent of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the narrator winds up listening to the stories of four disparate figures he encounters seeking shelter from the monsoon, within the confines of a graveyard.
One of them is the gravedigger himself — shades of the famous scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Yorick’s skull is discovered, are unmistakable here. The second is Ferydun, or Freddy, who hails from a mixed ethnic background. A man suffering from syphilis and a dignified Gothic-looking woman complete the quartet, which is as diverse and esoteric as any construction by T.S. Eliot.
Although short, Four Dervishes is not an easy read by any means. It is crammed with allusion after allusion, ranging from postmodern film stars, to religious tropes such as djinn, to references to far-off places — many of which I would doubt existed, except in the mind of the writer, had he not taken obvious pains to actually research the places to which he alludes.
A dream-like debut novel indicates clearly that its author has both talent and a gifted intellect, despite its deficiencies in structure
For example, the Gothic lady hails from Lahnda, and the author gives a detailed footnote on its geographic significance. Unlike Susanna Clarke for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or H.M. Naqvi for Abdullah the Cossack, Rind does not rely extensively on footnotes. Alas, this is a glaring weakness, for many references beg further explication and, although several readers of fiction groan at footnotes in novels, books such as Four Dervishes would be considerably enhanced by including far more.
Be that as it may, the Gothic lady describes how her loving parents — well-connected and well-regarded in town — raised her to be both educated and independent-minded. However, when time comes to marry, neither they nor she feels the need to ally her to a man. Conveniently, she is betrothed to the Holy Book in the ceremony of haq baksh [relief from obligation], so that her lands and property may remain within the family.
This suits her well enough and Rind does a magnificent job of describing how, when the bride is put to bed, she looks at the beautiful volume next to her with genuine relief and joyful curiosity. Readers will not need to be disappointed about the fact that such a spirited and lovely heroine remains chaste in a boring sense of the word.
Without giving away too much of her increasingly harrowing story, I will simply note that it involves a tragic stillbirth as well as a darkly comic relationship with a stalker, to whom she displays her knees in an act that is as endearing as it is provocative.
Banu announced to the overjoyed Antoine that she did not want their child to lose her parents at the hands of her own compatriots or be envenomed by the pervert state organs. It did not take long to convince him. He didn’t think twice about the idyllic Orient before they boarded a private jet and came back to the peaceful West where children are not vaccinated with venom. — Excerpt from the book
Rind is no stranger to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of romantic realism — the stalker metamorphoses into a tree! I appreciate that readers of this review (let alone the book) will raise their eyebrows at this juncture, but there is something persistently otherworldly about several of the major tropes found in the Gothic lady’s story, as well as in those of her companions.
Following the Gothic lady’s story, Freddy of the mixed parentage speaks at length about his own background, noting that he hails from a place called Rey. His Eastern mother fell in love with his farangi Western father while at college. She immersed herself in books and his father, Antoine, immersed himself in her.
A particularly disturbing aspect of Freddy’s mother’s story is not that she was inculcated into the mysteries of sex by a man from the Occident — I use this outdated term deliberately because Freddy enjoyed what he himself terms an Oriental lifestyle as he matured — but that she was compelled to erase all influences of the East as she raised her son.
Naturally, Freddy reacts to this by becoming rather curious about his roots, which leads him on many adventures, the most bizarre being when, famished and fainting, he is rescued by the well-intentioned owner of a fast food joint. A generous supply of chicken wings and an encounter with a physically well-endowed woman named Vanessa lead to further adventures, not to mention an emotional and visceral attachment to Vanessa.
Rind is not shy about, or averse to, dwelling on the sexual; yet another of the quartet, Zoltan, describes how he frequented the Diamond Market for a suitable whore until he found one with hennaed hair and an enormous nose ring who pleased him.
I wish Rind had given freer rein to his latent capacity for humour. The tales are far from boring, but could have benefited from more mirthful moments. To be fair, Zoltan’s story is one of great pathos, stemming from his struggle to protect his twin sister’s honour, and perhaps humour could not have alleviated it much — especially since his predicaments lead to him contracting syphilis, from which he appears to be dying at the juncture when he recounts his tale.
Indeed — and ironically — the young gravedigger Zeno’s story is much funnier in parts, especially when he dwells on his school days in general, and an episode where he needs to empty his bowels in particular. Zeno’s homosexual feelings are described in tasteful detail and, in spite of the mystical references throughout the book, there is an earthy quality to the tales, reminiscent in some odd ways of the Old Testament.
Gog and Magog, Dajjal, Sodom and Gomorrah are all alluded to at various junctures and, while many novels centring on graveyard narratives mention djinn, it is evident that Rind has researched aspects of this race thoroughly, as he has many other elements of his novel. A comparison here to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is inevitable, especially the manner in which one segment of a character’s tale leads on to another.
It would be ungenerous to harp on the point that the novel would have benefited from being longer and less compressed; there is a rushed Proustian feeling to the style and content of the writing that makes the text both frustrating as well as tantalising.
That Rind has both talent and a gifted intellect is unquestionable. However, it would be worth his while to engage in future creative endeavours with more well-structured plots and better developed character and action.
There is a haunting, dream-like quality to his prose in Four Dervishes, the creation of which was undoubtedly intentional. But even if this is a drug-trip of a book, the high is well worth experiencing.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 8th, 2022