This should have been my novel to end the year with. But it did not turn out that way. Once started, I finished it quickly in cold, grey December. Like most of my reading, this too was almost accidental. I had other books in hand and still more on my wish list. I stood undecided before the heavy tomes of Roberto Bolano’s 2066 and even heftier tomes, two in fact, of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, wondering if I should begin with one or the other and knowing that sooner or later, I would succumb to both.
A friend wanted to read Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s Numberdar Ka Neela and while trying to locate my copy of the slim novella, it was Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s fantasia that fell off the shelf. The two books had come out as smart paperbacks many years ago. I picked it and lazily started turning the pages. Before I knew it, I was gleefully transported back to the delight which only this author can offer.
This was the year to read Bees Sau Gyarah again, had I remembered in time. Looking back, this should have figured in my list of books to read in the year. Though I have long stopped making and following such lists, I can recall that I had re-read George Orwell’s 1984 in the year of the Lord 1984, dutifully and with a sense of urgency. To add to the flavour, I decided to read it in the masterly Urdu translation by Abul Fazal Siddiqui and I still remember that what surprised me the most this time around was how the Orwellian atmosphere was recaptured in Urdu by a writer known for his rural-based and stylised, longish tales of a very different nature. This should be taken as an irrevocable proof that Orwellian times are upon us. The author of Bees Sau Gyarah too acknowledges this world view, saying that the idea of this novel came to him after reading reviews of Orwell’s novel. Reviews, not the novel itself. This is vintage Akhtar, who had more good-natured fun in his fiction than anything else.
I would have still avoided reading this book if I could. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar was a great boyhood favourite of mine and a boyish spirit characterises the best of his work. I have become more cynical, demanding more even from old favourites and dreaded that I would find his writing dated like some of the writings of his great friend, Shafiqur Rahman, best left to a simpler, more innocent period of life.
Akhtar was past his prime when I first met him in the office of Sehba Lakhnavi who edited the monthly Afkaar. He used to say that his best writing days were over and that he writes out of sheer habit. Friendly and encouraging to novices like me, I soon found out that the way to his heart was through books. He was very happy that I liked R.L. Stevenson (another perennial boyhood favourite) but very perplexed that I did not share his enthusiasm for Graham Greene, probably the greatest writer in the world for him.
He would spend entire afternoons in the Afkaar office going through heaps of books received for review and send long cheerful letters when he went back to Bahawalpur, written on sheets torn from old diaries in a fine, illegible hand; I would sometimes ask him to read these out to me when he came back. It was the Chacha Abdul Baqi stories and Chakiwara Main Wisaal which made me laugh out aloud and the travel pieces dream of impossible journeys. We had drifted apart by the time I read Bees Sau Gyarah.
This time around, the novel discomfited rather than amused me. I found some of the jokes tinged with sadness. Even the year 2011 is future no more. The narrator Mr Popo introduces us to a nightmarish world as he starts touring Shutraba, the capital of Mazineen, both loaded names. His own country is Yoknapotawaha, a name not funny as it is derived from William Faulkner whose novels form the saga of Yoknapatawpha County. A bomb attack destroys the Manhattan skyline and the great Empire joins the ranks of Babylon and Nineveh.
Too close to 9/11, I now read it as a surreal piece rather than humour. Meanwhile, America still rules the world.
As Mr Popo gambols though the capital, he notes that it is full of ageing bachelors and the few women visible in the streets are enclosed in “kiosks” made out of tin and fitted with headlamps, side horns and small wheels. The poor and homeless are re-named Lovers of the Open Air. The special police category is PULJAKMACH — Pakar Lo Jis Ko Marzi Chahey (nab anybody you like). The state machinery includes the Ministry of Lies, the Ministry of Ignorance and the Ministry of Food which are operated by the identical twin brother of the Minister of Finance. Urdu has replaced Zulu as the national language in Africa and Pakistan is a province in the state of Islamistan, along with Afghanistan and Iran. Shades of the future, anybody?
While Mr Popo is busy writing his tour reports, there is a coup back home and he moves through hilarious episodes while trying to remain incognito. As future turns to past, it is the dystopic parts of the novel which get imprinted in my memory. It seems to me that Pakistan has moved closer to bearing an uncanny resemblance to Bees Sau Gyarah, which in no way should be held responsible for the State of the Nation!
The writer pens fiction and literary criticism.