Tarar’s Fragile Times: The Work of Mustansar Hussain Tarar
By Muhammad Safeer Awan
Sang-e-Meel Publications
ISBN: 969-35-3488-3
224pp.

The title of the book under review comes from the English rendition of the title of Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s novel Khas-o-Khashak Zamanay, translated by Muhammad Safeer Awan, the author of this critical study. However, as the title suggests, and a close reading of the book endorses, fragility works as a sort of epistemological principle of Tarar’s oeuvre of fiction. While navigating times, events and characters’ lives, Tarar’s fictional imagination remains prone to capturing their fragile, unstable sides.

Awan, a notable critic, opines that the type of fiction Tarar has produced throughout is a “fiction of ideas”. In comparison to ‘fiction of situation’, which mostly revolves around linearity of time and interesting, well-connected events, ‘fiction of ideas’, the author explains, “depicts more abstract concepts: the dilemmas, the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the characters’ selves.”

Though the author has not itemised those ideas that are disseminated across Tarar’s fiction, he has expounded the major themes of his novels. Idea and theme are not synonyms. Theme is common to both types of fiction: fiction of idea and fiction of situation. It seems that Awan intends to stress on the fact that Tarar’s novels are distinct from those of his contemporaries in dealing with the complexity of human existence, morals, identities, etc. The things which are complex, manifest themselves as fragile or tragic-comic.

It needs to be stressed also that Tarar’s novels — from Parinday [Birds] to Bahao [Sorrows of Sarswati, as translated by Awan], Raakh [Ashes] to Mantaq al Tair Jadid [Modern Conference of the Birds] to Main Bhanan Dilli De Kingray [Had I Smashed Delhi’s Fort] — are not essentially philosophical. They don’t treat ideas as something abstract, an intellectual construct built out of logical thinking; instead ideas in Tarar’s novels are broadcast through the characters’ actions, behaviours, feelings, their mutual relations and words.

A new book presents a serious critical study of Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s novels

It is true that the ideas in Tarar’s novel speak, but through the complexity of characters’ selves and through the unequalled existential dilemmas these characters have to experience. So, you need to comprehend the idea from examining the whole complex of characters’ selves.

A story is narrated and an idea is described. Interestingly, modern and postmodern Western fiction is more prone to description, hence it is more about ideas and dilemmas of human existence, while a major part of new Urdu fiction is still embedded in the classical Eastern tradition of narration, eschewing describing psychological and spiritual crises of the charterers’ fragile selves.

Awan has sought to explain and analyse how fragility informs the narrative, the descriptive and performative modes of Tarar’s fiction. The idea of fragility suggests that everything we experience in our daily real world, in history, or whatever we observe in the realm of our imagination and into the deep layers of our existence, is essentially flimsy, unstable, fickle and erratic.

So, there is no room for grand narratives, universalism and absolutism. That’s why Awan insists that Tarar “repudiates all sorts of absolutist thinking” and “he doesn’t endorse simplistic avowal of grand narratives, whether of nationalism or self-righteous piety.”

It is not easy for any Pakistani writer to renounce nationalism — a grand-grand narrative, not just because of political reasons, but also owing to literary causes. The whole trajectory of modern Urdu literature, since its inception in the late 19th century, is steeped in this or that kind of nationalism. It became incumbent upon each modern Urdu writer to negotiate the idea of a nation. Tarar also doesn’t repudiate the very idea or the grand narrative of nationalism, rather he finds his own way to negotiate it.

Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Mustansar Hussain Tarar

In Khas-o-Khashak Zamany and Roop Behroop [Guise, Disguise] particularly, Tarar diagnoses — and renounces — the tyrannies of religious identities. While negotiating the idea of nation in his novels, Tarar embraces the secular-humanist approach, repudiating any parochial notion of nationalism.

Awan particularly emphasises that, though Tarar underpins the dilemmas of human existence, he shuns envisioning the world through an anthropocentric lens. This planet is not meant only for humans; all other creatures, no matter how huge or tiny they are, have an equal right to inhabit here.

It is also true that Tarar “has captured not only the cultural and geographical beauty of Pakistan, [and] also its socio-political inequalities and ideological contradictions, and the agonies and the ecstasies of its masses”, but also that his fictional world has larger spaces for other species, especially for birds.

Birds, from his first novel Parinday to Bahao to Mantaq al Tair Jadid, appear as their own unique beings and as “profound cultural metaphors, powerful motifs” as well, and display Tarar’s “awareness of mankind’s fragile and often mutually destructive relationship with the natural world.” Tarar doesn’t only show sympathy towards birds and other creatures, he seems to create a special place for them in the ‘symbolic realm’ of his fiction. It is interesting to note that neither the parochial view of nationalism, nor anthropocentric hubris leaves room for eco-consciousness.

This book consists of 12 chapters. The introductory chapter outlines the chief characteristics that the author traces across all the 14 novels of Tarar. In subsequent chapters, Awan seeks to elaborate on the themes briefly argued in the first chapter. Among these themes, history, human existence, consciousness and the use of language are significantly prominent. The author seems to assert that these four themes are interrelated.

The questions and dilemmas of human existence are the product of history, in our case of colonial history, which not only made us suffer a disconnect from the local, indigenous culture and literary canons, but also from our natural environment and our languages. So, the fundamental experience of being in this region is characterised by a series of divisions, disconnections, displacements and migrations.

In tracing these themes in Tarar’s novels and interpreting them, Awan resorts to postmodern, postcolonial and ecocritical lenses, developed in the second half of the 20th century in the West. But he knows the difference between imposed interpretation and explorative interpretation.

He has also differentiated Tarar’s Urdu fiction from those of Pakistani Anglophone novelists. In Awan’s words, Pakistani English-language authors are mostly “pandering to the West and simply cashing in on a Western appetite for exotica.” This is a hard stance and needs to be substantiated — or rejected — by carrying out a comparative study of both Urdu and Pakistani Anglophone writers.

This book laments that, in Pakistan, there is a scarcity of serious literary scholarship. In the author’s view, ‘utility syndrome’ and a skewed notion of even utility might be the main culprit here. Apart from preferring an urgent, economically profitable outcome of any sort of effort over the fruits of the intellectual journey, we, the common people, and the people from academia alike, are entangled in the ‘modernity syndrome’.

Modernity believes in the primacy of intellect, rationality and individuality. But because of colonial baggage, we are accustomed to associating this triad to the modern West and Western modernity. So, anything that requires our intellectual effort, rational approach and individual opinion, is repudiated on the pretext that it is a secular-modern-Western construct and unrelated to us — and we usually forget that this us is not totally ours, rather a construct of the colonial era; a division was forged between us-Indian and them-English.

New critical theories were also discarded on the ground that they are Western. In reality, there exists a thin line of distinction between modernity and Western-colonial modernity, which is usually blurred. Serious literary scholarship demands relentless intellectual inquiry, interrogating fearlessly yet honestly the themes, ideas, forms, techniques and worldviews employed by authors. But sadly, intellectual inquiry of literary texts and questioning the canonisation of texts is labelled as a modern Western and non-creative activity.

Awan is justified in asserting that we haven’t developed our own critical theories. After discarding Western theories, it was incumbent upon us to have devised our own. However, it must be brought to light that, in Urdu, some critics — such as Hasan Askari, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Gopi Chand Narang and Wazir Agha — developed their own critical visions, which keep influencing burgeoning literary critics.

This book is a serious critical study of Tarar’s novels, though at many places it can seem a paean to the unequalled talent of Tarar. Overall, it is a commendable effort indeed. Awan places Tarar among the league of great world writers, like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Borges and Marquez — a contestable opinion — and hardly mentions Tarar’s contemporary Urdu writing for the sake of comparison.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic and short story writer.

His most recent publications are new editions of award-winning books Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-i-Jadeed and Us Ko Ik Shakhs Samajhna and Munasib Hi Nahi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 25th, 2024

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