Arshad Waheed’s novel Other Days published by Jumhoori Publications, Lahore, may prove a serendipitous gift for the readers because it recreates an era which is significant in our socio-political and cultural evolution but has been ignored by both our official chroniclers and individuals/groups who apparently signified it. The former deliberately kept it under wraps out of political and ideological considerations as it envisaged an alternative vision of future and the latter let it slip to the margins of memory out of disillusionment and intellectual laziness. At last someone wondering “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?” dared that it was “time to turn back and descend the stair.”

The note on author says: “Arshad Waheed’s first novel Gumaan was published in 1995. He has also translated the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera. He studied Social Policy at London School of Economics. He lives in Islamabad.” The blurb hints at what the novel is about. “A chance meeting of two Pakistani characters living in the UK, on the New Year’s Eve of 2000, triggers memories they had been trying to evade since they left Sheher (city) in 1970s. Dreams. Kinship. Metanarratives. Sheher was calling them again.”

Telling the story of a novel however briefly can be boring and will end as a vacuous expression. No one can tell it better than the novelist. What is needed however is the perspective that would help understand the characters, their psyche, their actions and the happenings. 1960s/70s were the times of rumbling turmoil across the globe. Colonialism was gasping for life. Vietnam War fought with indescribable ferocity by both the colonised and the colonisers had triggered a worldwide movement against the old order. Young people especially students rose in revolt against the colonial and imperialist oppression in the universities of Europe and the United States of America.

The Soviet bloc and China supported morally and at times materially national liberation movements in the Third World with a view to curtailing the West led by the USA.

National liberation coupled with a hazy vision of a welfare state based on the socialist principles proved to be a motivating force for the younger generation in our part of the world. Leftist cadres emerged on the scene, not in large number though. But the segment was sizable enough to be feared by the state and comprador class that ran it. They were not a real threat as a material or physical force but what they carried was a weapon that could be deadly; a dream. Dream can be contagious; it spreads undetected from persons to groups and from groups to classes with the potential to undermine existing structures.

Arshad Waheed’s characters when young dreamed dreams. The vision of a transformed society and human relations became for some time a driving force of their lives. Struggle against the imperialism was what inspired them. Another factor that played an important role was their non-traditional view of man-woman relationship inspired by the liberal values practiced by Western societies they struggled against. Emancipated woman was the ideal that moved all concerned. Linked with this was efforts to revive people’s culture suppressed in the name of ill-conceived monolithic notion of national unity. Z.A.Bhutto’s regime despite its many failings proved to be a catalyst for cultural regeneration.

The question that never gets resolved is how to reinterpret the given that haunts the emergent groups socio-cultural regulator. The interpretation in a way would determine their choices. If they accept the given as such, they won’t be able to create fresh space for their somewhat potentially transformed existence. They will be little more that mundane nothingness. And if they reject the given, they will be ejected from the system with no social space to exist outside it. The hard to change situation keeps them placed on the horns of a dilemma. Protagonists representing the predicament have their contradictory dimensions. On the one hand, they signify a new vision of life free of class and gender oppression and on the other they are exclusive in a hidebound society and thus are unable to penetrate the mainstream which thrives on sacredness of tradition.

Another factor that restrains their growth is their emphasis on what they call ideology which in other words is their poorly grasped Marxist vision of history and its movement. They fail to translate the kernel of Marxist worldview into their own narrative capable of striking roots in their own soil. They pretend to be political activists but are more of social and cultural groups inspired by the vision of a future shaped by cataclysmic changes. Caught between the reinterpreted past and imagined future, they are rattled by the present with the hostile ugliness of its reality that refused to fade out. Hence the existential crisis with anguish and angst which ensues from it.

Arshad Waheed wonderfully captures the ethos of the era in his fictional narrative. His insider’s view, unpretentious stance and disarming simplicity distinguish it from other Pakistan fiction in English language that usually presents outsider’s view of our society in an idiom that is designed to impress rather than express.

Other Days is a literary tour de force as it discreetly says what has hitherto remained unsaid about the generation that introduced us to a dream of what we could be. What distinguishes man from animals, Marx says somewhere, is his faculty to visualise a future and construct it in imagination. The characters we come across in the novel have the creative power to imagine what could be our destiny; emancipation. There is no doubt that the generation that they represent has been a nova that emerged and faded away but the hope it left on the social patina still glimmers like a lodestar in the haze of our society lulled into a state of dreamless sleep by deceptive pleasures of consumerism. Don’t miss it. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2022

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