Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Paigham Afaqui : Makaan

This celebrated Urdu novel is practically unreadable in an English translation that reads like it was  executed by  word-for-word software.  (even if the translator relates that he spent 9 nine years contemplating it)

But then maybe the original is just as difficult - because most of the text consists of  interior dialogues, and God knows that people usually don't think very grammatically.

The basic story is very simple.

A young medical student, Neera, living at home with her parents, is confronted by the tenant who lives upstairs. Soon after the death of her father, the tenant stops paying rent and decides that he would like to have the entire house for himself.  As I learned in "Pakistan: a Hard Country", the police and judicial systems of South Asia are notoriously corrupt -- so all the tenant has to do is pay them off, and then he can assault, terrorize, and even legally challenge his landlord until he gets what he wants.

The novel focuses on Neera's psychological growth -- as she must overcome feelings of fear, weakness, and despair.  She sends her aging mother away to live with distant relatives, and then she hunkers down to deal with all the challenges - which include graduating from medical school getting married. (her fiance was scared off by the tenant)

For the first hundred pages I kept wondering why she didn't just ditch the house and get on with her life. Was it really worth all that effort? But now I realize that it's about her identity as a woman - not her bank account - and this book is celebrated as a unique example of feminism in the Urdu language. (even if it was written by a man)

There are pages and pages of tedious, semi-religious interior dialogue in broken English, and concern for resolution was all that kept me reading --- so now I now must issue a Spoiler Alert.  If you intend to begin reading this book, it's time to stop reading this post. (though actually, it becomes clear early on that the soul of the intrepid young lady will emerge triumphant, even if she loses the house)


Regarding Neera:  Her ethnicity is indeterminate - at least to me - but her name suggests that her background is Hindu and Bengali.  And as her interior dialogues develop throughout the story, her inner life does seem to be Gods-are-in-me Hindu. She's the last person you'd ever expect to say "It is the will of Allah". But as a medical student, she has to be immersed in science-based  modern secular culture.  The triumph of her will could almost fit into an American  self-realization program like that of Tony Robbins - except that it seems to arise spontaneously within her - without any coaching.

Regarding the author: It's fascinating that he had a career in law enforcement. He experienced public corruption from within.  Possibly this book is his response to meeting a young woman like Neera and feeling the need to help her even if it cost him his job. He created a law enforcement character, Alok (also a Hindu name) who is fascinated by his need to help Neera.  But despite his high-mindedness and self-confidence in self control, he is easily drawn into the web of those who are attacking her.  He's wined - and dined - and fucked - and videos are made of his indiscretions.  By the logic of the narrative, it's not really important that he help her or not -- everybody who meets Neera wants to help her, eventually even the gangster kingpin. But still I'm bothered that his story is left unresolved.  When shown the tape, he reacts with curiosity rather than dismay - or as the gangster put it "I have shown that cassette to Alok. I could see what waves had been rising on his face. Instead of collapsing , they kept rising up, drawn tight like a bow string"

And now -- here are Neera's final words in her climactic confrontation with Ashok,  the gangster kingpin:

Ashok... I’m with you. Don’t be disturbed by the darkness that you have entered now after coming out from the radiance of the darkness. I’m there with you. I’m with you. You know well that I hadn’t come here to ask any help from you. I’d just come here to fight with you. I’d just come here to tell you how you had only been sitting contented here in your darkness. There is lots of room here for lights. Don’t be disturbed by the strange and unfamiliar dales (sic)  that you have to get largely involved with. You just remember me and my talks. The bushes will get cleared up by themselves and paths will get formed too. Even the slight changes in your attitude will take on the forms of big changes in the people. I’ll now wait for you. Will keep observing the things analytically. Of the journey that you set off toward. It’ll give me intense happiness. I’ll feel whatever you have been doing, isn’t being done by you at all. Rather, I'm the one who have been doing it. Believe it from today onward whatever you do.

As Ashok learns --- you don't mess with Neera!

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Manto : Kingdom's End and other Stories

This collection of short stories includes "Toba Sek Singh" which came highly recommend by the author of "Pakistan - A Hard Country".

That story got no further than its clever concept: the post-partition exchange of "lunatics" between India and Pakistan -- leading one to ask how lunacy might be determined in such a broken, crazy world.

Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955) was a journalist and Bollywood script writer who eventually moved to Pakistan -- and like many journalists, he seems to have been immersed in the daily grind of street life of bums, whores, madmen, junkies, and criminals -- on top of which, he lived through the sectarian riots that accompanied the 1948 Partition.

So his view of life is rather bleak- with a  gentle soul's sense of despair regarding life in a cruel, crazy, violent world. Not surprisingly, he became an alcoholic, accounting for his early death, as recounted in the final story as written by his nephew.

Most memorable was "Mozail", the story of a flirtatious young Jewish woman who teased and tormented her Sikh boyfriend before finally using her wits, and possibly sacrificing herself, to save him and his fiance from a murderous Muslim mob.  She may be the only positive primary character in the book -- and of course it's ironic that her ethic identity lets her move freely in a world where Hindus, Muslim, and Sikhs are all trying to rape, plunder, and murder each other.

I got the feeling that Jews and Sikhs were only superficially known by the author - so he shows us stereotypes.

The title story, which must have been the editor's favorite, concerns a Bollywood director who has retired  to live on the streets off the charity of friends.in the business. His self centered isolation is interrupted by an anonymous phone call that he receives while temporarily staying in the apartment of a friend. The female caller is apparently fascinated by his cheerful and inventive sense of loneliness -- and as they build a telephonic relationship his lonely kingdom is threatened.  The author resolves that problem by having him collapse and possibly die in some kind of paroxysm.  Like most of his stories, this one ends suddenly, grimly, surprisingly, and not very satisfactorily.

Just like the author's own life.

Most of these stories would appeal to a reader searching  for "just how bad can it get?"

And it can always get worse.

When he died, Manto was contemplating his next story as inspired by a newspaper account of a young woman and her child who were found naked and dead by the side of a road,  the victims of gang rape.

Extending for 26 pages, "Mummy" is the longest story in this collection -- and happily it concerns the gentler world of actors and writers in Bollywood.  Mummy is a widow who takes struggling creative people under her wing - but is eventually accused of pandering by the police and driven out of  town.

A farewell party is held for her - and in the final sentence one of her admirers is weeping: "Tears flowed in his eyes like corpses in a river"

How horrible to live where such an  image is so readily accessible.