Derrida Haraamda Aur Doosri Kahaaniyan
By Julien Columeau
Maktaba-e-Danyal, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694191119
234pp.

In his long introduction to his 1978 book Orientalism — in which he takes on the British, French and, later, American imperialists and their “colonial gaze” — Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said stated: “Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient — and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian or philologist — either in its specific or general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism.”

Julien Columeau, a polyglot from France writing in Urdu on Pakistani subjects, is bound to be seen from Said’s prism of Orientalism by certain quarters.

The title tale of Columeau’s new collection of seven short stories, Derrida Haraamda Aur Doosri Kahaaniyan [Derrida the Bastard and Other Stories], is a character sketch of the narrator’s friend. The narrator is writing it 20 years after the friend — a college teacher named Shahid, alias Sheeda — disappears.

The core plot revolves around Sheeda’s life and Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s pivotal role in it. Sheeda goes to Paris on the pretext of learning the French language, but his real intent is to attend Derrida’s lectures. At one such lecture, he and Derrida get into a confrontation over the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. Around 10 months later, Sheeda returns to Pakistan and, surprisingly, Derrida arrives here as well. The truth of the confrontation between the two is then revealed.

A new collection of Urdu short stories by Julien Columeau often reads as character sketches of characters plucked from real life, but with an amalgamation of fact and fiction

The reference to Derrida and his presence are used as a hinge to reveal the reality of Sheeda’s character, while also adding to his mystery. Sheeda is a complex and enigmatic character and, at the end, one is not sure if he really did have any interactions with his favourite writer, Derrida, or if the whole episode was just a figment of his imagination.

The story becomes a sort of tribute by the narrator to his missing friend. In a real-life parallel, Columeau dedicates the book to his own friend, journalist Mudassar Mahmood Naaru, who went missing in 2018 and has not been found yet, and Naaru’s late wife Sadaf.

Mutrajma [The Translator] takes inspiration from the legendary Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his Russian translator, Dr Ludmila Vasilyeva, called Sasha in the story.

Instead of placing the poet on some superhumanly high moral pedestal, Columeau — through the unnamed character modelled on Faiz — depicts him as an ordinary man bearing his fair share of flaws. The extreme manifestation of human frailty is hinted at through the character’s association with young Aasia who is translating his works, her disappearance — which comes as a result of her close relationship with the poet — and the poet’s later attempt to strike up a romantic relationship with his other translator, Sasha.

Sasha’s response remains ambivalent throughout. It cannot be called completely professional, nor entirely personal. However, the fictional poet makes quite a few advances with the intent of developing a sexual relationship with her, only to be rejected partly because of Sasha’s fear of the Soviet intelligence agencies.

Written in first person from Sasha’s point of view, Mutrajma unfolds the workings of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s propaganda machinery, particularly its use of literature. At the time, literati from Pakistan and India would go to the USSR and be feted by a government that suppressed its own writers and poets. In Columeau’s story, the spies surrounding the poet on his visits illustrate the manipulative regime.

Columeau has tried to camouflage the main character by changing the titles of Faiz’s books, as well as changing the names of the international poets who were his friends. He makes several references to the actual Faiz and his fictional creation expresses dislike for Faiz’s poetry, but the references that expose the inspiration are too strong to dismiss as coincidences. It feels as if the author ‘wants’ his readers to rip the camouflage off.

From left to right: Sajjad Zaheer, Dr Ludmila Vasilyeva and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The latter two serve as inspiration for Columeau’s story ‘Mutrajma’ [The Translator]
From left to right: Sajjad Zaheer, Dr Ludmila Vasilyeva and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The latter two serve as inspiration for Columeau’s story ‘Mutrajma’ [The Translator]

Feroze Iqbal Ki Chori [The Plagiarism of Feroze Iqbal] is about a musician stuck at a creative dead-end. He receives a lucrative assignment but, unable to find the inspiration to compose an original melody, steals a tune written by a young European man that he heard on a trip to Gilgit-Baltistan

In all three stories, Columeau pits the central Pakistani character against a Western foil. There is an obvious contrast between the two, as the white character is given the higher pedestal than the brown in each instance. Because of this, readers will not be able to ignore Said’s definition of Orientalism and how it applies to Columeau. However, the next story bails the Frenchman out.

Manhoos Angrez [The Cursed Englishman] is, once again, written from the first person perspective. The narrator is remembering Stephen, a thuggish drug addict who taught a course on filmmaking that the narrator took.

Stephen exploits his students and the tale’s other Pakistani characters in every possible way to complete his dream project, a film inspired by the cinema of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. However, Stephen’s film Muzaffar — based on William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and set in Cholistan — flops badly.

Columeau plucks his characters out of real life and then presents them as an amalgamation of fact and fiction. In an interview, he had said that he’d asked a Russian mutrajma — he didn’t name her, but it was most likely Dr Ludmila Vasilyeva herself — to write her memoirs, or an autobiography, and tell the stories of the Urdu poet whom he had made the subject of his fiction. She declined to do so.

As for Derrida, he actually did visit India if not Pakistan, in 1997, and had interacted with the audience just as his character does in Columeau’s story.

Qari Zafar tells of Maulvi Muhammad Sarwar Mughal, a religious fanatic who shot dead Zille Huma Usman, minister for social welfare for Punjab, in Gujranwala in 2007. Mughal was a serial killer who considered himself ‘God’s soldier’ and had murdered at least four other girls before assassinating the minister.

Meanwhile, the tale of Imtiaz, a key character in Zalzala [Earthquake], is reportage of what Columeau had heard from a Pakistani man who had spent years in an Indian prison and met with tragedy as soon as he returned home.

Many of the stories in Derrida Haraamda appear to be character sketches, with not a lot of drama or conflict. Columeau has long been wont to fictionalise the real lives of iconic Urdu writers of the past, such as Saghar Siddiqui, Miraji and Intizar Husain. With the last one, he offended friends in Lahore as the story raised plenty of eyebrows. It remains to be seen how his take on another icon of Urdu poetry will be received.

In most cases, one of two main characters is juxtaposed against the other. One lacks a voice, while the other describes him or her; this creates an aura of mystery around the latter who speaks, but is not spoken about. Sometimes, the author engages in psychoanalysis, revealing the complex human nature in its myriad forms.

Qari Zafar and Daayen, Daayen [Witch, Witch] were originally written in Punjabi and translated for the book into Urdu by Shahid Shadai and Zahid Nabi respectively. Perhaps the need to write in Punjabi was influenced by Columeau’s research on the language for his PhD. However, he told me that when he sent his first Punjabi story to Punjabi scholars and writers, many didn’t even read it. The disappointing reception compelled him to have the tales translated.

Coming back to Said’s theory of Orientalism, stereotyping Columeau as a mere Orientalist with the baggage of colonial biases would not be fair without a deep analysis, perhaps by applying the theory of deconstruction — what Derrida himself was known for.

The reviewer is a member of staff.

He tweets @Irfaanaslam

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 21st, 2022

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