IT is often assumed that those who write in English would read and find inspiration in English language works. But what if Urdu, not English, is the first language of an English language writer, as it is in my case? A whole universe of literature, both modern and classical, which I read in Urdu is part of my consciousness and influences it in many ways. Another parallel universe, of foreign language works which I read in translation, informs it in a similar manner. I have not stopped reading in English but I now find myself more attracted to the stylised use of language in the English classics and mining the Urdu classical literature for vagrant twists of plot and structure.
I sometimes feel that the best models for novels about the South Asian society can be found in works of Asian literature, not because the human experience is any different but because there’s an affinity in the sensibilities of Asian cultures. For example, it would be no scandal if a widowed woman in the West, with grown up and married daughters, decides to remarry. But it would be considered scandalous in almost every Asian society — at least for the widow’s daughters and their extended families. This is why an Asian writer’s treatment of a subject can be very instructive for someone exploring similar themes.
When I read the kind blurb Mohammed Hanif wrote for The Story of a Widow, which spoke of the similarities he found in the treatment of family narrative in my novel and Jane Austen’s works, I made a mental note to read Jane Austen. I still haven’t. While I could only wonder what Jane Austen might have made of the comparison, I didn’t have to wonder about what others made of it. When I called up one of my friends to ask what she thought, she told me, “Aray baba, Jane Austen is sooo good. You don’t deserve the comparison.” The world is a very cruel place for a writer. Jealous people abound who do him all kind of spiritual harm. I told myself that I must no longer solicit further opinion from the public about that comparison. But it gives me an opportunity to speak of the one book to which The Story of a Widow owes a debt in particular, besides a lot of popular “female digests” read in my undocumented wayward youth.
I discovered Jun’ichirô Tanizaki one day about seven or eight years ago when I had stepped into an old books outlet to take shelter from a particularly heavy afternoon shower. I came out with his novel Sasameyuki published in English translation as The Makioka Sisters.
The Makioka Sisters tells the story of four sisters belonging to an elite Osaka family now in decline. The two older sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, are trying to arrange a marriage for the shy and retiring Yukiko. The youngest sister Taeko wants to get married but can’t because older sisters married first. Tired of the wait, Taeko flings herself into affairs with men of dubious character.
Tanizaki, who used his personal life to feed his art, modelled the characters after his third wife Matsuko and her sisters. So, in a way, The Story of a Widow owes a debt not only to Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko, but also to the Tanizaki family.
This simple Japanese story remains for me one of the greatest novels ever written for its depiction of family relationships and tensions which have so much in common with the dynamics of South Asian society. When I imagined The Story of a Widow — a simple story in which the protagonist, Mona Ahmed, really makes only one decision toward the end of the book to find happiness in her life — the masterwork that inspired its scope, and validated its subject and narrative voice for me, was The Makioka Sisters.
Now that I have effectively written my own blurb for my novel, I don’t want to hear public opinion about it. But I do wonder what Tanizaki might make of this relationship between his masterpiece and my amateur effort. It’s a good thing that he’s been dead a good forty-five years, and can no longer effectively protest!
But supposing he does send me a note of complaint from the beyond?
Well, it occurs to me that I just may have to write a novel about a man of dubious moral character for which the thrice married Tanizaki would be a very nice model indeed.
If Tanizaki’s novel helped me exploit the dynamics of the family relationship as played out between the female characters, what about the central male characters? Who inspired their characters? Well, the plot gets a little complicated here.
Am I Him Or Is He Me?
One can always trust the family to spoil one’s happiness. For nine months I was perfectly content as I saw the protagonist, Mona, slowly drip out of a two-page outline into a 300-page novel and emerge from the wreckage of her first marriage with the deceased Akbar Ahmad into a dramatic life with a new and mysterious husband Salamat Ali. Then my wife stopped by my desk one evening and told me she hated Salamat Ali. I informed her that apart from some of his deeds, most female readers I’d shown the manuscript to actually found his character rather charming. She responded, “It’s because they don’t have to live with him.” As she walked away, I suddenly realised why she wanted Salamat Ali to die in the end.
I must not read too much into people’s comments, I told myself, but my brother phoned long distance to say that he knew who Salamat Ali was. And my editor slyly commented that he found my insight into Salamat Ali’s character rather intriguing. So when my mother told me she liked the story, I did not dare ask her whether she enjoyed the story for its own sake or because she identified her son as one of the characters. I had let loose Salamat Ali in the world, and he was making people see me in a new light.
I had not yet sent the book to the publisher. I had drafted two versions of the novel and I reached for the drawer and took out both versions. There were two views of Salamat Ali’s character and destiny. He was the only character in the novel whose personality and fate underwent a complete change between the two versions: one a serious tearjerker and the other a light-hearted, farcical family drama. In one book Salamat Ali was a good man who dies in the end, and in another a scoundrel who survives. All other details were more or less identical.
I sought friends’ opinions. Those who like tearjerkers wanted me to go for the first version. They made some very good points. All critics and award committees love the gory stuff, they told me. The more weeping and wailing between its covers, the more serious and profound a novel is understood to be. Such a book would melt their hearts. If I chose the first version, I might as well demand my cheque from the committee right now. Those were all persuasive points. I began grinning powerfully from the agreeable prospects.
I had nearly sent in that version when other friends started calling. Give us this other, happier version, they said. We would not need therapy afterwards. Fine, they told me, Salamat Ali is a scoundrel in this version, but you must let him out. Own up to yourself; this is what being an adult is all about. It would be cathartic, too. And you are not the only one. The world is full of rotters. Why do you think relationships are so hard to keep?
In tears I thought, well, if it would make me an adult and the world a happier place at one stroke, I should send in this other version. I looked around for a padded envelope to put the manuscript in but I had run out of them.
That evening as my wife and I went out for a stroll we walked through the Toronto Chinatown. In a shop she spotted a blouse she liked. She wanted to buy it, but I told her it did not look good on her. When she insisted, I informed her about cheap dyes which when washed make the colours run. She finally gave up. Afterwards, we went to a bakery, where I ran from showcase to showcase looking at all the fine goods on display. I bought an apricot pastry, and we returned home. But after all the excitement in the bakery, I forgot to buy the envelope.
The next day when we went out again I remembered to buy the envelope. On the way home I made a brief stop at my favourite ice-cream shop. I licked the ice cream happily, and when it was gone I looked around and found my wife was gone, too. I spotted her, trying on a pair of sandals at a shoe-store across the street. I hurried over to see what she was looking at. Now, I know a thing or two about shoes, and when she asked my opinion of them I gave her the full benefit of my knowledge, and pointed out shoddy workmanship that I felt she could never have discovered on her own in a million years. The salesman gave me a nasty look as my wife reluctantly handed back the sandals. As we left the store, she suddenly turned to me and snapped, “It’s not easy living with the Akbar Ahmads of the world!”
Well, I don’t know where that came from, but it certainly set me thinking. She had just compared me to Mona’s stingy and tyrannical first husband —not her second husband Salamat Ali. My wife is perfectly free to feel herself as persecuted as Mona, but wasn’t I supposed to be tormenting her as Salamat Ali? How could I be Akbar Ahmad now?
Was it possible that I got the whole thing wrong from the start? That I was not Salamat Ali? I was Akbar Ahmad! I called my friends to ask their opinion and they told me that in fact they saw many similarities between me and Akbar Ahmad’s character but didn’t want to test our friendship too much. My editor only said that he knew Akbar Ahmad’s fondness for food was too well delineated to have been merely fictitious. My brother said that except for the food bit, he thought Akbar Ahmad was a very fine human being compared to me.
He was talking garbage as usual. It’s my wife who knows me best.
So theoretically, perhaps, maybe it was just a possible likelihood that I was both Akbar Ahmad and Salamat Ali simultaneously. But this presented a bit of a quandary in terms of where I fit into the story.
As a last recourse I called a meeting of my friends. Once I had explained the situation to them in detail, they all agreed that what we had on our hands now was a completely new situation. And it needed a new answer to the same old question: Should I send in the first version of the novel or the second?