Afsanay, Dramay, Novel Ke Chand Auraq
By Saleem ur Rehman
Qausain
ISBN: 978-9-69-726004-1
240p

When T.S. Eliot was asked by his publisher whether he agreed that most editors are failed writers, he replied “perhaps, but so are most writers.”

Muhammad Saleem ur Rehman, the poet, translator and fiction writer, is better known for having the longest stint as the editor of the Urdu literary journal Sawera, spanning at least five decades. In doing so, he also mentored generations of writers, including some senior Urdu writers of today. But he came to publish his own collections very late. So late that, when penning his profile for Dawn, the late Asif Farrukhi had labeled him “the invisible man.”

Saleem is now 90, but his collection of poems, Nazmein, was printed only about four years ago, while his book of short stories, two dramas and a part of an unfinished novel, Afsanay, Dramay, Novel Ke Chand Auraq, has been only recently published. These follow his translations of ancient Greek literature, including Homer’s Odyssey. That he remained shy of writing and publishing more was perhaps because of his work as an editor and critic, as the latter can be more harsh on themselves compared to other writers.

Saleem ur Rehman’s short stories take their time, like slow creepers, to grow on readers. One has to be patient with them to become a part of the dispassionate world he creates. Sometimes nothing significant happens in them. One such story is ‘Neend Ka Bachpan’ [Childhood of Sleep], in which the protagonist is a boy lost in the wonders of the mundane, pondering over ordinary phenomena, looking for the extraordinary. He is lost between sleep and wakefulness and nothing clear comes out of this state of mind, leaving many questions unanswered for the reader.

A rare and long-awaited collection of fiction from a distinguished man of letters leaves the reader thirsting for more

In ‘Waqt Pighalnay Ki Daer’ [Waiting For Time To Melt], time is stuck in the life of the army men who cannot get rid of horrible memories and trauma from the riots at the time of Partition in 1947, in which their families were massacred. They are again on the border in a war, still carrying the wounds of the Partition. They are stuck, as they can neither turn back nor move forward emotionally and mentally. However, there is a possibility that war might shake them out of their past, nudging them to move ahead in life.

The Partition theme recurs in a story titled ‘Siberia’, in which a character loses his mind and dies. There can be an autobiographical element behind this theme as Saleem himself had witnessed Partition and migration, having been born in Saharanpur, India, on April 12, 1934.

When he migrated to Lahore with his family in 1952, he was a young man of 18, and the experience might have left indelible imprints on his impressionable young mind. The characters in ‘Siberia’ are hysterically suffering from phobias, originating from half-cooked knowledge and hearsay. They fear the ice age and Siberian climate in a city such as Lahore.

Saleem’s interest in science fiction is evident in two stories, ‘Raakh’ [Ashes] and ‘Rozgaar’ [Livelihood]. ‘Raakh’ creates a dystopia in the background of atomic war between world superpowers. The scenes in the post-apocalyptic world are that of suffering from the aftermath of the war and its impact on climate in the Global South, where infrastructure is facing devastation.

The author has employed symbolism to depict the horrors of the situation, with soot and dust falling on the earth. Flocks of ducks are flying further south to save their lives, while a vulture is dying. The images portray life and death. The life of the protagonist corresponds with the times he is living in, as he attends the marriage ceremony of a girl, oblivious of the fact that she could have become his wife. The end of life on Earth moves side by side with the end of the possibility of love.

‘Rozgaar’ depicts a make-believe world, where extraterrestrial beings move among humans and employ them.

Saleem ur Rehman’s short stories take their time, like slow creepers, to grow on readers. One has to be patient with them to become a part of the dispassionate world he creates. Sometimes nothing significant happens in them. One such story is ‘Neend Ka Bachpan’ [Childhood of Sleep], in which the protagonist is a boy lost in the wonders of the mundane, pondering over ordinary phenomena, looking for the extraordinary. He is lost between sleep and wakefulness and nothing clear comes out of this state of mind, leaving many questions unanswered for the reader.

‘Bakhabar, Bekhabar’ [Aware, Unaware] tells the tragic story of a poet who was once famous in the literary world, but who has fallen out of favour. It’s an interaction of a young journalist with the miserable life of the poet, exposing the hypocrisy of the literati and literary circles that Saleem has had firsthand knowledge of since his arrival in Lahore.

The story is an expose of the hypocrisy of the literati, journalists and editors who turn into vultures. It reminds one of In Custody, a novel by Anita Desai that was turned into a movie by Merchant Ivory Productions, starring the inimitable Shashi Kapoor and Om Puri.

A common feature in Saleem’s fiction is the loneliness of his characters facing existential crises. It comes out in its starkness in ‘Awazain’ [Voices], in which a lonely ageing couple resorts to storytelling to kill time. They want to adopt a child but then abandon the idea, afraid of the child leaving them upon growing up.

Most of his characters are lonely males seeking the company of friends. They are either alone or facing a breaking relationship. Women are conspicuous by their absence in Saleem’s fiction. The women characters that exist are passive. ‘Bekaar Muaash’ [Useless Earnings] and ‘Mawaaqeh’ [Opportunities] are two such stories.

In the first one, the protagonist is facing estrangement from his wife while, in the other, he breaks up with his partner. The women in both stories are absent, just like in most of the other stories. But that’s okay. Even Shakespeare was accused of leaving the women out of his writing, or creating weak women characters.

One surprising aspect of the book is the art of Saleem ur Rehman as a playwright. The playwright in him seems to be outperforming the fiction writer in him at times, when one reads his short one-act plays, ‘20 Baras Baad’ [20 Years Later] and ‘Professor Nafarmaan Khan Ki Machine’ [The Machine of Professor Nafarmaan Khan].

In one, he once again takes on the future, with his dystopia set in a country facing an overpopulation crisis, while the other is a comedy about scientific discoveries. Both are full of humour. The plays are short and crisp, worthy of being performed in theatres. One feels that, just like fiction and poetry, Saleem should have written more plays. While one may find distractions and dull passages in his fiction, his plays, just like his poetry, are immaculate.

In one of his recent interviews, when Saleem was asked why he delayed bringing out his books, he said he could not find an explanation for it. But while reading the book, one still wonders why he did not publish it earlier.

T.S. Eliot’s views about editors might be true for many, but not for editors such as Saleem ur Rehman.

The reviewer is a member of staff. X: @IrfaanAslam

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 19th, 2024

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