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The dust of distant times

Mihir S Sharma  |  New Delhi 

There is a truth about recent novels from Pakistan that few are comfortable accepting. And that truth is that they are often novels of discovery, in which the authors – while professing a writerly disdain for any larger purpose – nevertheless set out to explain that troubled country. This is not an unsurprising aim, as these novels’ creators have lived and worked in literary and political circles in the West, drawing from there the questions that drive their plots and their own sense of their work’s audience. And, of course, this coincidence of wants partly explains the recent attention such novels have received in the West and in India.

If Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s does not receive the rapturous attention that it deserves, it will be because it breaks free of these restraints. It begins a decade after Partition, in the old part of a town somewhere in the northern part of the subcontinent. It seems an essential part of Mr Farooqi’s project that we do not know whether, in fact, the town he is writing of is in India or in Pakistan — since he attempts to tell of the passing of the composite, Urdu-speaking urban culture that Partition wiped off the map.

He chooses two characters, both invested in aspects of that vanished civilisation, as embodiments of its graciousness, its virtues and its flaws. Both are ageing, their eyes dimming as they look back towards a more brilliant time when royal patronage in an undivided nation allowed their arts to rise above commerce. One is a champion wrestler, who runs an akhara with meticulous attention to ritual and tradition; in spite of aching knees, he always kneads and scents the clay on which the bouts will occur himself. The other is a courtesan, who wakes up before dawn every day to sing her riyaaz to the rising sun. Both of them must confront the passage of time and the death of their art; one accepts it with good grace, and the other rages against it, making one poor decision after another. Both of them lose those they should have mentored — in a reminder that traditions die not just because the world changes, but because they are murdered by those who hew to them too closely.

This book is a pleasure to read. The first from David Davidar’s new Aleph imprint, it is perfectly produced, its thick, elegant, old-fashioned paper and monochromatic design satisfyingly complementing the story it tells. And Mr Farooqi’s language is never laboured or strained. Beneath the simple, rhythmic, formal sentences of his English it seems possible to detect the Urdu of which he a master, allowing you to believe, almost, that you are reading an excellent translation of a book you have read before in another language.

That this is by design, not accident, is revealed towards the end, when one character meets a municipal commissioner who delivers a short speech about the duties of a civic official. It jars — and not just because this entire book is about a more antiquated notion of duty than the bureaucrat is outlining. It jars because Mr Farooqi shifts register effortlessly for that passage into an English that is more recognisably the English of today’s subcontinent, of position papers and newspaper reports and public defences of private probity. Of course, to those familiar with Mr Farooqi’s previous work – translating the riotous Lucknowi epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, and writing a hilarious, mock-solemn interpretation of the cult Punjabi film as a foot-fetishist’s Sholay – it will be doubly clear that the restrained style of is consciously chosen.

That Mr Farooqi’s book is different from many others that have emerged from Pakistan of late is, perhaps, not unrelated to the fact that he himself has had a trajectory as a writer that is out of the ordinary. After dropping out of engineering school and starting a small literary magazine in Karachi, he emigrated to Canada at the time that city began one of the convulsions of violence it has suffered of late. In Toronto, he worked for over a decade in fast-food restaurants and packing factories, borrowing Urdu from public libraries, writing and translating at night. This is a life story that gladdens a reader’s heart. It means that, as is so rare in today’s subcontinent, the writer writes because something within him needs to come out, and from devotion to his craft — the archaic principle, indeed, that Farooqi celebrates in this book. One is left wondering if such drive to create, such love of the subcontinent’s composite culture, is essential to write a If so, it is even more unique and precious.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Aleph Book Company, 2012
213 pages; Rs 450

First Published: Thu, May 31 2012. 00:24 IST