FICTION: NORMAL AS PARANORMAL

Published November 20, 2022

Khafeef Makhfi Ki Khwaab Beeti: Bhayanak Maawra-i-Amoomi Waaqiyaat Per Mabni Yaadaashtain
By Mirza Athar Baig
Alhamd Publications, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9698988326
968pp.

Ever since the publication of his debut novel Ghulaam Baagh [The Slave Garden] in 2006, Mirza Athar Baig has continued with his knack for surprising his readers, stretching the form of the Urdu novel as well as experimenting with language.

After Ghulaam Baagh he came out with two other novels; Sifar Sey Aik Tak: Cyberspace Ke Munshi Ki Sarguzasht [From Zero to One: Chronicles of the Secretary of Cyberspace] in 2010 and Hassan Ki Soorat-i-Haal: Khaali Jaghein Pur Karo in 2014, which was translated into English five years later by Haider Shahbaz as Hassan’s State of Affairs.

Many people consider Baig’s novels ‘experimental’ — a term he does not fancy. In an interview with Urdu novelist Muhammad Asim Butt, published as ‘Mirza Athar Baig Se Novel Ki Zabaan Aur Usloob Per Muqaalma’ [A Dialogue with Mirza Athar Baig on the Language and Form of a Novel] in a special edition of the literary journal Adbiyaat, Baig says: “‘Experimental’ is a word which is used here more than the rest of the world. When we want to call [a novel] useless, we dub it ‘experimental’. In fact, anything creative is experimental. That’s also a definition of creation, that is, anything which didn’t exist before. Whatever is creative is definitely experimental.”

Notwithstanding the views of critics, Baig has just published a new novel that seems to have the same intention as his previous works, of shocking the readers. The book is given the lengthy and intriguing title of Khafeef Makhfi Ki Khwaab Beeti: Bhayanak Maawra-i-Amoomi Waaqiyaat Par Mabni Yaadaashtain [The Dream Life of Khafeef Makhfi: Memoirs Based on Horrible Paranormal Incidents].

In Mirza Athar Baig’s latest novel set in the mountains, valleys and caves of the Potohar region, nothing happens many times while its protagonists keep searching in futility for the occult

The titular Khafeef Makhfi is a peanut farmer in the Potohar region of Punjab, with a passion for researching the occult. Working under the guidance of Monsieur L’Enfant, a researcher from France, Khafeef publishes his work in a Pakistani magazine of the occult called Asraar [Secrets], while L’Enfant adds to Khafeef’s research and publishes the augmented works in France.

The novel spans over the events of some days, beginning when Khafeef Makhfi — real name Sultan Zaman — embarks on adventures in search of the paranormal in the mountains, valleys and caves of Potohar. Accompanying him is his servant, Mohkam Din, whom Khafeef considers an assistant in his research.

The adventures all turn into misadventures and nothing paranormal happens. However, all the main characters consider the normal as paranormal and the ordinary as extraordinary. “This is going to be significant,” is Khafeef’s frequent refrain, although nothing ‘significant’ actually happens.

In the Adbiyaat interview referenced above, Baig says on the subject of reality that “In European literature, there have been experiments regarding the concept of reality and it is said that reality is what I see, not what it really is … Simple reality is very limited.” Here, Baig is talking about realism and surrealism/ symbolism in literature, but the same applies to the character of Khafeef Makhfi.

Absurdity — a branch of existentialism and postmodernism — is prominent in Baig’s new novel, where all events, small and big, turn into nothing, though they are not presented as such. When anything happens, an effort is made to make it look paranormal.

This includes a research ‘adventure’ in Kurral Kukri — a place in the mountains that the locals consider haunted; Mohkam Din’s memories; and Khafeef’s own dreams. However, despite the hullabaloo created around the normal, insignificant phenomena, nothing turns out to be particularly significant.

It seems the novelist is taking a jab at researchers, independent and otherwise, who are busy conducting a plethora of useless research that has no specific purpose and is only meant to be published in journals here and abroad. These same ‘researchers’ hold important chairs in universities and academic institutes and benefit from the support of similar researchers in the West — Monsieur L’Enfant in Khafeef’s case — who help in getting their papers published.

While Khafeef, Mohkam Din and other minor characters — such as the waiter at the Kohistan Hotel where the researcher and his assistant are staying — appear to believe in supernatural and paranormal phenomena, others — such as Khafeef’s wife and children — have very different views. The world of Khafeef and Mohkam Din may be presented as a microcosm of superstitious society, but the question arises whether parallel reality can be denied even if it exists in the minds of the people who believe in it.

Nothing comes out of the adventures — or misadventures — of Khafeef and his team as every foray into the occult proves futile. It reminds one of Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. While Beckett’s work was famously called “the play where nothing happens, twice”, Baig’s novel goes beyond: it is a book where nothing happens many times.

The influence of the Punjabi language in the novel is quite conspicuous, as some characters speak entire sentences in a Punjabi dialect spoken in the mountains of the Salt Range. It feels as though Baig has used Punjabi words, sentences and idioms deliberately to make his characters appear real despite his apparent lack of fondness for realism in fiction.

In the Adbiyaat interview, Baig says: “a language gets a new form after its exposure to different dialects and accents in different regions and this is the quality of a living language. Urdu in Punjab is not the same as spoken in Lucknow. It’s neither written in the same way, nor could it be written. Rather, it should not be written like [Lucknow’s Urdu]. It has to imbibe a colour from the locale.”

In an interview I conducted with Baig — ‘A Novel Should Have Something Novel About It’, published in Dawn in 2014 — the writer had said that he liked throwing a challenge to his readers. With Khafeef Makhfi Ki Khwaab Beeti, the challenge seems to be who can stick around long enough to read it in its entirety, for it does stretch on unnecessarily — something that can put off even the most avid of readers. The almost 1,000 pages could have been truncated considerably. But for that to happen, a good literary editor is required. Unfortunately, such a phenomenon is non-existent in Pakistan’s publishing world.

In the Adbiyaat dialogue with Muhammad Asim Butt, Baig had talked about the process of writing, saying that literature is not just entertainment: “The reader’s concept of literature needs to be changed. Writing is not entertainment, and a writer does not always enjoy writing. He suffers pain, too. Sometimes he does enjoy it, but that’s a changing situation. Why does a reader always expect entertainment and pleasure? They should have to experience pain, too, along with the writer, accompanying him. Pain and pleasure are both part of entertainment and the reader must understand this.”

In the nearly nine-year-old interview with myself, Baig had given the title of his then work-in-progress as Jamal Shamsi: Fareed Rajab Ali Ki Taareek Duniya [Jamal Shamsi: The Dark World of Fareed Rajab Ali]. One wonders if that is the same novel now published as Khafeef Makhfi Ki Khwaab Beeti. If so, it shows — perhaps because it took such a long time for the book to come out — how much work Baig puts into writing a novel and the constant changes that he keeps making in a book.

The reviewer is a member of staff. He tweets @IrfaanAslam

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 20th, 2022

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