Ek Rasta Hai Zindagi
By Rafi Mustafa
Pakistan Publishing, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694191102
400pp.

Those of us born in the 1940s or ’50s were too young, or not born yet, when the Great Divide of the Subcontinent occurred in 1947. According to our parents and elders, that historic cataclysm deprived us from savouring the delights and blessings of that unique and esoteric ‘rainbow’ Ganga-Jamuni culture that was their pride, and hogged their conversations while we were growing up in an independent Pakistan.

Not having lived in the lap of that versatile culture — a product of centuries of close interaction in the fertile Gangetic plains of the Subcontinent between peoples of different faiths and traditions — could have been a big gap in our nurturing, but not really. The alluring tales of that bygone era were narrated to us by our forebears, scions of the generation that had partaken richly of its cultural panorama, and painted for us a veritable picture gallery in all its colours and dazzling dimensions.

Our elders pined for what they had left behind in the process of migrating to Pakistan. Even as children who had no clue of history, we could feel their longing for what had parted company from them, in their reminiscences of their paradise lost.

Rafi Mustafa, like this scribe, belongs to that generation who grew up hearing such reminiscences. He may be a professor of chemistry who has spent a lifetime in the West, but he is a prolific writer too, whose cultural roots and moorings harken back to the fabled land of that lost paradise. So, his flourishing pen has been at work in recapturing, in stories and novels, the enchanting memories of his rich ancestral culture and its abundant offerings.

A family of Gangetic Muslim feudals finds itself ravaged by the seismic change induced in their lives by the division of India

In a brief span of five years beginning 2017, Mustafa came up, first, with Tales from Birehra: A Journey Through a World Within Us. That book — written in English, perhaps with the intent of informing readers in his adopted homeland, Canada, of the font of his cultural moorings — put his stamp of authority on contemporary literature as a master storyteller of the paradise lost, a modern-day Milton sharing his loss with those who have no prior knowledge or inkling of it.

His second book, in Urdu, is titled Aey Tahayyur-i-Ishq [O Wonder of Love]. It is, in a sense, a biographic novel, amply studded with glimpses of life as lived by the Muslim landed gentry of patrician ancestry and origins in the lap of the great Ganga-Jamuni culture.

The accolades that Mustafa deservedly garnered from critics and general readers for his two earlier works clearly encouraged him to come up with Ek Rasta Hai Zindagi [Life is a Way or Path]. Patterned on his earlier works, the new novel is about a family of Gangetic Muslim feudals — aristocratic and patrician to their bone-marrow — that finds itself ravaged by the seismic change induced in their lives by the division of India and the deluge that came in tow.

The main character is one Munnoo Mian, known to all and sundry not by his real name of Hifazatullah Khan, but universally by the pet-name bestowed upon him by his elders. It was a given thing in the Ganga-Jamuni culture for men and women to be known by their pet-name, while the real name was forgotten to such a degree that even the closest of friends or relatives would have a hard time to come up with it — I myself didn’t know the real names of some of my first cousins until I was fairly grown up.

For aristocrats, it was quite below their dignity and exalted status for the men to work. They literally lived on, and off, the fat of the land. So, Munnoo Mian has a hard time adjusting to the new reality that the cataclysm of Partition thrusts upon the likes of him. He learns to work, nevertheless, because there is no other way left for him to feed his family, and becomes the very efficient manager of a general store, eventually taking over the business.

Mustafa’s forte is his total command over the cultural roots and backdrops of his characters. He knows the idiom and lingo of that particular way of life and its denizens and uses this knowledge to enliven his characters and make them seem real and familiar.

Another tradition of the landed aristocracy — a norm and not an exception in that culture of yore — was petty foibles and idiosyncrasies that persisted and lingered on for years, often decades, among the scions of joint families. When Pyaray Mian, Munnoo Mian’s brother-in-law, chances across his uncle in Pakistan, bitter memories of the past keep him from reconnecting filial ties even after 16 years of separation.

With his versatile command of the strains that kept that esoteric culture going for centuries, despite frequent upheavals and ups and downs, Mustafa weaves a fascinating fabric of how it flourished before the great split of 1947, and how it toiled hard to adjust to the topsy-turvy ambience of post-Partition compulsions.

The novel is a meandering tale of Munnoo Mian’s clan, spanning the two wings of a physically divided Pakistan. Rather than having a definitive plot, it is a detailed, comprehensive and, at times, highly amusing portrayal of the daily chores, familial interactions, customs and rituals of a typical feudal Muslim family of undivided India’s Uttar Pradesh.

Mustafa’s forte is his total command over the cultural roots and backdrops of his characters. He knows the idiom and lingo of that particular way of life and its denizens and uses this knowledge to enliven his characters and make them seem real and familiar.

His amazing grasp of the customs and rituals that animated the lives of pre-Partition aristocracy keeps the reader glued to the narration of how members of Munnoo Mian’s family interact with each other, how romance between first cousins blooms and matures into marriage and how old animosities and rivalries within the clans play out in a new country.

Like a master bricklayer, the author arranges stones of different hues and colours to create a mosaic that binds his characters together. Closer to his profession of a chemistry professor, a more apposite simile would be that he concocts a melange that’s so palatable.

Politics has been an inseparable metaphor of our South Asian culture since the British colonialists set foot on its soil. Some of Munno Mian’s family get caught in the turbulence that a violent chauvinism unleashed later in the country’s eastern wing in 1971, and which culminated in the birth of an independent Bangladesh. Tragedy strikes the clan and death stares its members in the face, at the hands of the hotheads of the Mukti Bahini, the terror group sponsored by Pakistan’s enemies.

Through his characters, Mustafa paints a picture of how the peaceful citizenry of East Pakistan, loyal to Pakistan, was targeted and killed. Fairness demands that atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistan Army in the guise of keeping law and order are also highlighted and Mustafa does so judiciously.

The author’s grasp on the subject of his book is flawless. However, one gets the feeling that he didn’t know exactly how to finish the narrative. He ends it, abruptly, by saying — through a main character — that life is a path that leads to no destination.

This is where the author and I differ in thought. Life isn’t without purpose. There’s a well-defined purpose of life on this earth and, in the opinion of many, a long cavalcade of God’s Messengers was sent just to explain this phenomenon. Life is not a path that leads to nowhere and ends — according to the author — suddenly, in a blind alley. Life is a passage that has a foretold destination. It is, in fact, destiny and destination rolled into one.

The reviewer is a former career diplomat, author, poet, columnist and motivational speaker

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 27th, 2022

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