Aaina Haaye Khud Shanasi
By Muhammad Hamid Zaman
Sang-e-Meel
ISBN: 978-969-3534-92-4
160pp.

Two white stone rungs and a black silhouette frozen in time. Like the degeneracy of human disposition on nature’s whetstone, this was the outline of a man’s shadow. On the morning of August the 5th, year 1945, he had sat musing on the stone footstep leading to his house. What had he been thinking? Maybe he was scanning the newspaper. Or maybe he had just walked out with a cup of tea. Or? Then, precisely at 8:15 from the belly of an aircraft above, hellfire descended, consuming this unknown man and his entire city.”

The entire stone, notes Muhammad Hamid Zaman in this bitterly sensitive essay, save a patch where the unknown man had sat, had burnt into an eerie white. That patch of charred black stone was all that remained of the man’s burnt body. It is now preserved in the Hiroshima museum as a vestige of that terrible moment in history. As is a child’s mangled bicycle and so many more remnants of the tragic man-made decision.

Picking out the above extract from a corpus of 12 essays was not easy, because there are countless excerpt-worthy lines in Muhammad Hamid Zaman’s heartfelt essay collection, Aaina Haaye Khud Shanasi, framed in Urdu chaste enough to warm the heart of any language-lover.

With descriptions chiselled so realistically, the wisdom so subtly embedded between his own footprints, this is an amazing mapping of mind and time. Zaman has decoded facets of the past primarily in an effort to find himself, as the title tells us, but it also decodes every reader’s past, making the present more impartial in evaluating geopolitical egotism and, perhaps, positively shaping a futuristic rebirth of the human condition.

A collection of offbeat Urdu essays on ordinary and not-so-ordinary travel destinations transforms into poetic reflections on the human condition

Of the collection of 12, not one essay is comparable to the other in terms of flow, of decoding the self, in information upload, literary worth or witty sarcasm (this last being mostly directed at the writer’s own self). Well placed and spaced across the text, the wit and self-directed humour becomes the saving grace in an ambience of pain, injustice and horror.

Zaman’s wit amidst the sombreness of the world’s follies is a tiny speck of hope. Embedded in human situations, it gives a soothing break amidst tense experiences. A big hand to Zaman who can sensitise us all about the horrors, the fallibilities and injustices of the past as well as give hope of better times and good sense.

Muhammad Hamid Zaman
Muhammad Hamid Zaman

His own pandemic-period strolls in his neighbourhood and appreciation of the fact that the idea of Italy’s largest mosque, initiated by an Ottoman and brought to fruition by a Vatican Pope, are cases in point.

Zaman’s physical journeys take the colour of a spiritual trajectory, in which course is easily ignored, and hazy events and places and people become larger-than-life icons. There is spiritual reincarnation through hope in the inherent goodness of human nature, in tandem with acknowledgement of the human capacity for tyranny, self-aggrandisement and weakness for egotism at the individual and collective levels.

With descriptions chiselled so realistically, the wisdom so subtly embedded between his own footprints, this is an amazing mapping of mind and time. Zaman has decoded facets of the past primarily in an effort to find himself, as the title tells us, but it also decodes every reader’s past, making the present more impartial in evaluating geopolitical egotism and, perhaps, positively shaping a futuristic rebirth of the human condition.

Zaman creates for his reader space to introspect over collective crimes, by pointing out how some of history’s most horrible events have been able to turn entire communities and governments towards redressing “the sins of the father.”

No run-of-the-mill globe-trotting, his moves away from the beaten track (except for one Washington DC sojourn) to write about destinations and events that would escape the random tourist; reason enough for not letting the book itself be closeted in the confines of any recognised literary genre.

Travelogue? Fiction? Sermon? Ideological or intellectual critique? Zaman’s book defies classification, because his is the maverick penmanship of a sensitive, poetic soul, transforming ordinary and not-so-ordinary travel destinations into unique experiences.

From Senegal, with its lonely, stand-alone statue ostensibly dedicated to African Renaissance, to Christchurch, after New Zealanders went through the worst communal attack in their history, each essay revisits history, events and ideologies buried in the sands of time.

Essay through essay, Zaman sagaciously muses on the transient nature of human thinking, its intent and the results thereof. As the first person (I) changes to the royal (we), one cannot but see one’s own placement in the scheme of things that Zaman reflects upon. Therein lies the artistry of mind and content.

Standing in Lenin’s forlorn Petrograd study (which had once been a shrine of sorts) he tries to demystify the creed his generation was raised to be in awe of. Looking up at the massive International Monetary Fund high-rise in Washington DC, he opens a dialogue over the myth of international compassion for the children of a lesser god. Paying homage at the Kitasato Shrine in a Tokyo residential district, he is as much in awe of the subservience of one loyal pupil (Kitasato the mastermind behind some amazing medical breakthroughs) to his teacher (Robert Cook, the German scientist) who “double timed” — well almost — to beat his pupil to the coveted Nobel Prize.

Bending double to enter the Sarajevo Tunnel of resilience and hope, he brings to public mind how soon the siege of Sarajevo, history’s longest and toughest, has been wiped out from human memory. He captures the soul and spirit of the subject matter in moments of intense sensitivity; a sensibility road map for the future.

As a result, where on the one hand he awakens pensive brooding over human failings in the past, on the other he allows us to marvel at the resilience of human determination under the most trying circumstances.

Yet even to those who are aware of Zaman’s professional expertise as a much-in-demand biochemist among international academics, it is his sensitivity of mind and heart — that achieves near-artistic expression in its emotional response — that comes as a surprise.

Science and sense may be partners in crime, but it is when science teams with sensitivity that the aesthetics become awesome. Aaina Haaye Khud Shanasi is that piece of awesome aesthetic, readable again and again in times of individual and international turmoil and stocktaking.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/report writer who has taught in the LUMS Lifetime Learning Programme. X: @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 10TH, 2024

Editorial

Ominous demands
Updated 18 May, 2024

Ominous demands

The federal government needs to boost its revenues to reduce future borrowing and pay back its existing debt.
Property leaks
18 May, 2024

Property leaks

THE leaked Dubai property data reported on by media organisations around the world earlier this week seems to have...
Heat warnings
18 May, 2024

Heat warnings

STARTING next week, the country must brace for brutal heatwaves. The NDMA warns of severe conditions with...
Dangerous law
Updated 17 May, 2024

Dangerous law

It must remember that the same law can be weaponised against it one day, just as Peca was when the PTI took power.
Uncalled for pressure
17 May, 2024

Uncalled for pressure

THE recent press conferences by Senators Faisal Vawda and Talal Chaudhry, where they demanded evidence from judges...
KP tussle
17 May, 2024

KP tussle

THE growing war of words between KP Chief Minister Ali Amin Gandapur and Governor Faisal Karim Kundi is affecting...