Ghuroob-i-Shehr Ka Waqt
By Osama Siddique
This is Dr Osama Siddique’s first Urdu novel. Previously, his English novel Snuffing Out the Moon was translated into Urdu as Chand Ko Gul Karein Tau Hum Jaanein.
Ghuroob-i-Shehr Ka Waqt [The Time of the Setting City] is the story of Khalid, a lawyer. But it is a story of our times as well. As we move through Khalid’s past, we witness the paths we have taken, and those we did not take, more clearly, and understand why we are where we are today. As we delve into the lives of the people Khalid comes in touch with, we see our world through many eyes and perspectives, and not from just Khalid’s perspective.
But the novel is about our present — the political and economic turmoil we see around us, the degradation of institutions, especially of the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, the role of the establishment in not just managing politics but their efforts at managing narratives, the rewriting of history and the present and the resulting repression, the rent-seeking of the elites, the rapid and steep decline of our educational institutions and academia, the decline of intellectual life in the country and, very importantly, the journey of our cities towards smog and environmental degradation-induced strangulation. Ghuroob-i-Shehr Ka Waqt indeed.
But it is a story, or many stories, of humans living through this turmoil and doing human things. People being kind to each other and people showing unbelievable cruelty to each other. Individuals so driven by their ambition and ego that they do not consider other individuals to even be human, and who try to achieve self-gratification any which way they can. The corporate lawyer who exploits his juniors and makes money from corporations, but wants the world to know that he is a champion for the environment.
An experimental and innovative debut Urdu novel from Osama Siddique delves into the political and economic upheaval we see around us and the stories of humans living through this turmoil
Or the chief justice who is willing to bully, cajole, undermine truth and justice to ensure he gets the praise he wants and can make some claims to immortality. The academics who want promotions on the basis of poor and plagiarised work, but would do anything to stop others from doing genuine research and good teaching. The university vice chancellor who does not mind destroying the reputation of an old educational institution as long as he gets to look good and have his name projected. The real estate developers who would like to destroy everything for housing societies and profits. We see these characters around us all the time. Some in particular, I am sure, are based on real characters in our society.
But there are those who live differently. For example, Khalid’s khala (maternal aunt), who spends all her time reading, writing and doing research (till she is forced to quit) and then teaching/coaching/mentoring children from her neighbourhood. Or Khalid himself, who wants the law to help those in need and provide justice to litigants. Or the ex-intelligence officer who wants to help people when their land is being forcibly taken over by state-backed real estate developers. And many more.
But as a reader, I got the sense that it has been a losing battle and a war only for one side: the millions who have to live with the hubris of those in power. Given where we are at, this is not surprising.
The novel is quite experimental and innovative. There is one story that runs through, but many others, tightly connected or not, also come along. The author’s use of Urdu poetry to relate to themes in the novel, to express the feelings of the characters, to take the conversation deeper and to explore new areas, is also quite ingenious.
The use of language is also interesting. The Urdu of the novel is the way we speak nowadays, with words borrowed from English, and not too difficult. The idiom and expression is contemporary as well. But we seem to be connected to our literary traditions as well as to literary traditions from around the world. The reason is the author’s use of poetry and prose from other writers to pin down ideas that come up in the lives of characters.
There is the use of the mysterious and the bizarre as well. And in a few places, it is left up to the reader to make of it what they want to make of it. The non-human narrator who lives in the resthouse where some of the political prisoners are kept is an example. The dancing naked child and the old man that the chief justice keeps seeing and hallucinating about, is another example. They are apt and make the moments even more poignant with their mysteriousness.
The author definitely has a well-developed sense of humour. We can see plenty of examples of it and some moments are laugh-out loud funny. But more often, it is humour with sarcasm which gives a deeper insight as well.
The book is 575 pages and with 99 chapters, which is long for a novel. But it could have easily been longer still as there are aspects of our contemporary life that the author has not commented on, or which have not been used as grist for his creative purpose.
The publisher, Book Corner, has done a lovely production job. The quality of paper, script, the binding, cover art, all have been done with a lot of care. The photos used, at the start of each section, are beautiful and nostalgic. The care and effort in the production of the book is rare to see these days.
The reviewer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums. X: @BariFaisal
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2022