Hoori Noorani of the publishing house Maktaba-e-Danyal told me some months ago that she had found some fascinating Urdu fiction works of a writer who lives in New Zealand.
In March this year, when I happened to be in Karachi, Noorani invited a motley group of her friends to dinner. She introduced me to her new author — a serious-looking man wearing spectacles and sporting a short grey beard — while praising his book Loag Sargoshiyon Mein Goya Hain [People Speak in Whispers].
Our eyes met and, instantly, the author and I hugged each other tightly. This was Raja Shehzad, an old friend from more than 35 years ago, whom I was meeting after three decades.
Forgotten memories of our childhood and youth came rushing back to us. Shehzad and I used to spend hours together in Radio Pakistan’s canteen or its studios. We would also meet at every other Irani ‘hotal’ and ‘Pathan ka hotal’ in downtown Karachi.
In common parlance, as we know in Pakistan, ‘hotal’ is the generic word for both café and restaurant. Iranian and Parsi restaurants and bakeries were run by Muslim, Zoroastrian and Bahai families who had either migrated from Iran or from Bombay [Mumbai] in India and were settled in Karachi since long. Pakhtuns, mostly from Balochistan, used to run tea shops in every nook and corner of the city, which were referred to as ‘Pathan ka hotal’.
Those were the times when Karachi began to witness its transition from the most peaceful, inclusive and cosmopolitan city of Pakistan to becoming a warzone for feuding political and terrorist outfits, police and paramilitary forces — horrible memories we certainly want to turn away from, but which hauntingly reappear.
Shehzad and I also reminisced about the enriching times we had participating in Bazm-i-Talaba [Gathering of Students] and other radio programmes during the mid- and late 1980s. We learned so much from our exceptional producers such as Ismat Zehra, Qamar Jameel, Yawar Mehdi, Zameer Ali and Sibtain Jafri, to name a few.
Shehzad was not only a budding poet and prose writer then, he began to edit and publish a magazine. He was a generous host when I would occasionally visit his flat in the Garden East neighbourhood of Karachi. But over the years, Shehzad and I completely lost touch. Poet Ahmed Mushtaq once said: “Ik zamana tha keh sab aik jagah rehtay thay/ Aur ab koi kahien koi kahien rehta hai” [Those were the times when we all lived in the same place/ Now we all live separately in separate places].
This apparently simple couplet is so multi-layered and describes not only physical separation, but laments our separations caused by time, space, ideas and feelings. In our few meetings since March and some conversations over the phone, Shehzad and I realised that we may have grown differently, but have not grown apart.
In Loag Sargoshiyon Mein Goya Hain, Shehzad has collected 64 short stories and one novelette ‘Agyari’ [Kindling Fire]. He has brought to the fore those real-life characters who, in most cases, languish in obscurity. Even if acknowledged, these people are treated with a mixture of indifference and contempt. They are judged for their social class, religious faith, ethnic identity and sexual orientation.
Women and men, transgender, gay and queer, impoverished, drifters and tramps — all are given a name and a voice by Raja Shehzad. The inner suffering and worldly existence of such people rarely succeed in capturing the imagination of our mainstream writers; even if they are depicted in some work of art, the story seldom revolves around them.
Besides, Shehzad has provided a civilisational backdrop to his writing. His demonstrated command over Vedic mythology and Buddhist teachings, blended with his knowledge of Islamic and other faiths and cultures practised in South Asia, makes his stories smell like petrichor — unlike in Pakistan and most of our contemporary writing, where we observe a cultivated disconnect from the local history, culture and civilisation of the South Asian Subcontinent. Our state and large segments of society continuously struggle to delink themselves from their roots.
Shehzad’s characters range from Draupadi of Mahabharat to Munni Bua of Orangi Town, from Siddharth and Yashodhra of Kapilavastu, to Afzal Mamu and Razia of Ranchore Lines. But the focus has largely remained on the common dwellers of Karachi, who belong to various castes, classes, faiths, ethnicities and sexual minorities.
He has also felt the profound sense of loss and the misplaced aspirations and hopes among those who migrated from India after Partition in 1947. Shehzad’s nostalgia for the somewhat inclusive and liberal character in the past of a deeply divided city of the present visibly comes through.
He brings to life the streets and neighbourhoods, plants and trees, aromas and smells, flavours and tastes of Karachi where he spent his childhood and youth. There is a dull pain that crosscuts each story. It is also interesting to note the diverse roots of this quintessential Karachiite writer living in New Zealand for decades: Shehzad’s father came from Murree and his mother spoke Sindhi. Both parents belonged to different religious sects as well.
The spontaneity and artfulness of Shehzad’s language as a narrator, and the dialogues he writes for his protagonists in several dialects and multifarious idioms, make his work different and exotic. For instance, in some places, he makes liberal use of expletives in his characters’ speech. This particular language in a few stories may bother some of our more conservative readers because we mostly follow a traditional word scheme in Urdu and other Pakistani languages, although this has entirely changed in the contemporary literature of many other world languages.
Furthermore, that is the whole point Shehzad has tried to make. Whether it is through his themes or his choice of language, he wants us to take on life as it is, appreciate its diversity and colourfulness, crudeness and fineness, grief and gaiety.
The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 15th, 2022