Hiroshima and Other Stories
By Ibn-e-Sa’id (M.H. Askari)
Translated by Shama K. Askari
Lightstone Publishers
ISBN: 978-969-716-159-1
332pp.

The present state of the world reaffirms the lesson that remains unlearnt from every armed conflict in history — that human perfidy knows no bounds.

What morality could justify the killing, maiming and incapacitation of hundreds and thousands of men (and women) by any organised effort? All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men, when they march to crush, to erase and to eliminate entire peoples, what moral conviction enables them to keep their hearts and minds cocooned from the consequences of their actions?

But if one were to ask the kings’ men, they would probably counter that nothing in this world is black or white. Nothing is certain and, by that logic, the absence of reason isn’t necessarily what it looks like. For those involved in making split-second decisions in situations where action is required, not just to pre-empt but also stave off danger to one’s life, moral convictions might not mean much. When death is staring you in the eye, you either cut off its knees or let it do the same to you.

In this light, the collection of short stories written by Mirza Hasan Askari (M.H. Askari), who wrote fiction using the alias Ibn-e-Sa’id, and which have recently been republished after translation — thanks to the efforts of his daughter-in-law Shama Askari — bring attention to the split-second dilemmas that always encompass armed conflicts and their entire physical, emotional and metaphysical effect on people.

An English translation of a collection of short stories by M.H. Askari showcases human beings trying to make the best of very difficult circumstances

Human beings, whether they align with expansionist tendencies — imperialistic, colonial or even fascist — are, at the end of the day, just that: human beings. Any context or narrative attached to their actions resulting from instantaneous decision-making might not entirely be of their own making and they might just be cogs in a bigger machine.

This collection of stories about the inner battle between the heart and mind, reason and uprightness, pride and prejudice, and the brief interlude between the sparring that often proves decisive in inclining us one way or the other, has stories originally published in eminent literary journals of the Subcontinent, including Saqi, Naya Daur, Savera, Adab-i-Latif and Saat Rang.

They stem from the experience of having a ringside view of the devastation caused by the Second World War, while some, such as the ‘Eve of Canton’ (which was translated by Ibne Sa’id himself along with ‘Raat Guzar Jati Hai’), are about the political movements in countries that were touched by the global armed conflict.

One literary device — or character — through which the author chooses to capture the hazy contours of human experiences that often remained hidden behind the veil of custom or belief is Mahil, an educated (and handsome) British army officer. In the words of Ibne Sa’id, “…Mahil is an extremely interesting, intelligent, attractive young man, who I had met for the first time in New Delhi at Connaught Place, and who, on our very first meeting, was adamant upon entering my stories.

“After that instance, he constantly keeps appearing in my stories. In the jungles of Burma, in the romantic ambience of Singapore, in the revolutionary environment of Indonesia, and in Japan the land of beauty, he has remained with me. He has never left me alone, he possesses my mind, and the result is that he walks into all my stories based on these areas, and till date there is nothing I can do to stop him…”

I would tell my subordinate soldiers that they were fighting for freedom, for the freedom of mankind, we were protecting the world from the cruelty of the Nazis, to liberate countries from fascist influences — and our subordinate young soldiers would give up their lives willingly. In spite of it all, I believe we have no reason to celebrate Victory Day. — Excerpt from the book

For example, in the story titled ‘After the Victory’, in a pub in Delhi, Mahil tells a group of single women with English names celebrating Victory Day: “For four years I have been a part of this war; for four years I have fought side by side with the English and the Americans against the enemy; for four years I found my life encircled by every possible danger. I would tell my subordinate soldiers that they were fighting for freedom, for the freedom of mankind, we were protecting the world from the cruelty of the Nazis, to liberate countries from fascist influences — and our subordinate young soldiers would give up their lives willingly. In spite of it all, I believe we have no reason to celebrate Victory Day. The final victory remains!”

In ‘The City of Lights’, set in an English pub, he tells an Irish girl, “Between that dusty hall and this English pub, there is a world of a difference, which I can cross in a leap, but you on the other hand, because of your Anglo-Saxon upbringing, might be reluctant to do so. I met you a short while ago at the [Coventry] museum, yet I have known you for centuries. I use the word century because it was my ancestors who laid the foundation for Aligarh College and gave us the Baghdadi Qaida in one hand and King Reader in the other … you have been existing in my subconscious mind for a century.”

It is through voices such as Mahil’s that the world is apprised of the contribution of South Asians to the biggest armed conflict of human history. In fact, this is the biggest achievement of Ibne Sa’id’s work in fiction — he was already an established name in the field of literary criticism — he demonstrated that South Asia was a participant rather than a passive bystander of the Second World War.

In the story ‘Echo’, a British military officer on his way to his final assignment in India, reminisces about infantry soldiers under his command in the East who used to shout “Ya Ali” or “Sat Sri Akal” before carrying out their orders, while playing kabaddi and dancing the luddi in their free time.

On the front lines, he is chided by a young second lieutenant, “… Or perhaps you are blind, you are unable to see that, in spite of philosophy, classical music, spirituality and modern art, humans can become beasts for other humans, he is ready to suck the blood of others, he tells the others that my God is different from your God; therefore, it is better if I remove you from the face of this earth, your homeland is different to my homeland… it is important that I annihilate you, superb! Bravo! A big hand for philosophy, spirituality, music and modern art.”

While many have described the stories to be just a snapshot of time and place, these stories are much more than that. The characters in these stories, including the brooding Mahil, are deliberately left as mysterious, and don’t come off as cultural or historical products, but rather as complex human beings trying to make the best of very difficult circumstances.

The chiding of a nameless second lieutenant in India to another British army officer — “Sir these human beings are an enigma, they are angels in a flash and demons in the next, all priests, religious heads and political pacifists continue to speak nonsense” — is more powerful and poignant than his upbringing.

The very absence of depth from characters and plots, is exactly what makes these stories published decades ago, still relevant and timeless. The strength of Ibne Sa’id’s work lies in recognising the fallibility of human beings and the fact that human pride will keep being in the way of all reason, moral uprightness and law.

To quote from the story ‘Echo’: “That second lieutenant was moving towards some unknown destination. John, he himself was being compelled to become a chapter of history from the past. He will now go back to the barrack and pack his meaningless belongings and board a troop ship and sit in a comfortable cabin and the ship will blare its earth-shattering horn and head towards the past. The second lieutenant and other officers, the men, the women, and children with timid faces, will all drift in different directions, and between East and West the twain shall never meet …”

The reviewer is a former member of staff.

She can be reached at tehmina@iba.edu.pk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2023

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