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COLUMN: The author’s swan song

October 16, 2011

NAJMA Suhail’s maiden novel, Andhaira Hone Se Kuch Pahle, holds great meaning for me; the sudden demise of the author urges me to talk about the novel which made an appearance not long before her death.

Suhail was primarily a short story writer and has to her credit three collections in addition to a very fine collection of character sketches. But her reputation as a writer was somehow overshadowed by the literary fame of her learned husband, the late Professor Suhail Ahmad Khan, who commanded great respect in Urdu’s literary world as a critic.

The characters in Andhaira Hone Se Kuch Pahle are in the last phase of their lives, with old friends gathering together after a long separation to enjoy their final days.

The central character is of Aftab Alam, an aged man leading a lonely life in a well-furnished spacious house in which all the comforts of life have been provided to him by his wealthy son who lives in the U.S. The obedient son regards himself duty bound to remain in touch with his aging father and the paid attendant, who is under strict instruction to attend to him with a vigilant eye and cater to all his needs and wishes. But what the old man wishes for is beyond the scope of the attendant.

Suffering from an acute sense of loneliness, he yearns for the company of his dear ones.

This yearning leads him to embark on a journey in search of his old college friends. He eventually succeeds in tracking down two of them and convinces them to stay with him in his house. Both, tired of being treated as outcasts, consider the old man’s offer as God-sent.

Living together, these three forsaken souls relish in remembering the good old days when they were in the company of fellow students and leading a happy-go-lucky-life.

But Aftab, even while sharing bitter sweet memories, is unable to forget the pangs of his unfulfilled love. He recounts how his failure to reconcile with his wife caused a conflict in his married life. The estrangement from his late wife now reminds him of his callousness and insensitivity. So this lonely man is a repentant soul carrying a sense of guilt with him. And how dexterously has Najma Suhail depicted all these feelings.

Her restraint, exercised throughout this novel, has brilliantly conceived this character. Though the scenario is an emotionally charged one, which may have tempted any writer to pack the expression with sentimentality, Najma does not succumb to this easy prescription of popular appeal.

The sense of personal dignity does not allow her to stoop to such demonstration; no emotional outbursts, no protestations here. Quietly the characters suffer what they are fated to. What is visible is only a dignified sadness. In fact, what characterises this novel is the undercurrent of sadness present throughout the narrative.

The handling of a situation comprised of strained human relationships in a delicate way, guarantees the novel’s literary merit.