By Abdaal Bela
Over time, Pakistani writers have provided us with so much to read that we now have quite a library. But with the mass of content available in Urdu fiction, it is tricky to work out what to read and what to avoid.
Some novels and short story collections have proved to be particularly exceptional, and readers who may have recently developed an interest in Urdu literature are often recommended the same works time and again.
Pir-i-Kamil, a masterpiece of a novel by Umera Ahmed, is one such book. Another is the classic Raja Gidh [The Vulture King] by Bano Qudsia, which employs a stream of consciousness to narrate a psychological journey set amidst a love triangle.
Can Lafz [Word] by Abdaal Bela aspire to become such a book? A mixture of poetry and prose, it comes from the pen of a retired army colonel who has more than 20 works of Urdu fiction to his name.
The theme of the book is meant to be the same as the title. In the eponymous section, ‘Lafz’, Bela writes that, in his pursuit of investigating the concept of words, he ended up compiling an entire book.
He believes that words are undoubtedly the most amazing achievement of human invention and a kind of magic. So powerful are they that a mere shift in their arrangement can bring about massive changes in the world.
Words are also very tricky, he cautions, and must be used with extreme care. When, and when not, to use a certain word may well be as important as a matter of life and death.
But although we get a sweeping lesson from the author on the notion of words, it is quite difficult to categorise the approach of the book itself. Is it a collection of poetry? Of short stories? Has the author simply jotted down his thoughts as and when they came to him? There are 215 ‘pieces of writing’ in the book, but we cannot define them.
Several — chapters, let’s call them, for the sake of simplicity — are conversations between a lover and his beloved. Many are, again, on the subject of words, the multiplicity of meanings, and how differing perspectives lead to vastly different interpretations of the same word.
He believes that words are a kind of magic. So powerful are they that a mere shift in their arrangement can bring about massive changes in the world. Words are also very tricky, and must be used with extreme care.
In the piece titled ‘Aaee Samajh’ [Do You Understand?], the discussion surrounds ‘dafeena’, or hidden treasure. Addressing the beloved, Bela says she is out looking for dreams, in search of riches that may change her fate. But she is looking in all the wrong places. The city where she seeks her dreams is full of high-rise buildings, fast-moving cars and people exhausted from the drudgery of life.
Yes, she will certainly find treasure in a city, but not what she considers a city. Also, what she thinks is ‘treasure’ is really not it, at all. Bela believes real treasure is humanity, a sense of community and, in his opinion, that can only be found in cities long since abandoned, that have crumbled into ruins. True treasure is human values, which are sadly no more a part of modern life.
Although the core theme of the book is words, Bela traverses a wide range of subjects. Many a time he draws upon the scientific. For instance, in the chapter titled ‘Ab Batata Hoon’ [Now, I’ll Tell You], he advises readers not to believe in the phenomenon that is time.
Ironically, it takes the author a while to get to his point. First he talks — again, to the beloved — about her interest in travel. She is surprised when he enlightens her with the profound knowledge that every path doubles up as a way back to the beginning.
A paragraph is devoted to looking through the contents of her shiny leather purse with the golden snap closure. He asks why her brow is furrowed with worry. Does she know why her airline ticket has a torn stub? It’s because she used it to come here. She doesn’t remember where she began her journey from? Was she deported? Well, every country has its rules.
Time, in Bela’s view, is very selfish. It is like a cassette tape that we can rewind and fast-forward in order to get to the songs we like most. The narrator exhorts the beloved to understand the ephemeral nature of time.
In ‘Pata Kaunsi Baat?’ [You Know What?], he deliberates on the subject of eternity, of the sun, the moon and stars, and the cosmic black hole where they go to die. There is a discussion on mass and gravity, on the enormity of the sun that we cannot even comprehend. He wonders what if one could hold the sun in the palm of one’s hand, squeeze it into a tiny ball.
‘Uss Subha’ [That Morning] is a despondent recollection of pleasurable memories. Immersed in the beloved, waking up morning after morning to the comfort of the beloved’s presence, until that one day when the eyes open to the light of the sun, only to find the beloved no longer by one’s side.
Lafz is lengthy and, although Bela takes elements from our modern lives, building upon concepts of justice, friendship and love that might encourage readers to internalise and relate, the book struggles to engage.
The free verse form — for lack of a better classification — that the author chooses to write in, liberates him from adhering to the rules and restrictions imposed by qaafiya [rhyming patterns] and radeef [repetition of a word], but he does repeatedly exhort readers to ‘understand’: 17 pieces are titled with some variation on the word ‘samajh’ [understanding].
If only we could.
The reviewer is lecturer at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. He tweets @Sohail_QAU
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 19th, 2022