Sunday, June 14, 2020

Harsh Reality and All things Surreal

Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan manages to be a charming travelogue as well as a fine example of old school journalism that delves deeply into the troubled history between Indian and Pakistan, while providing balanced insights into the situation as it was and is. The Partition which remains a suppurating wound is a prickly subject and Khatlani treads lightly but doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths either making the reader wince at the painful memory of that dark time when so many were killed so senselessly.

The book is also a fascinating history lesson on the circumstances that led to the partition itself, its aftermath, the birth of Bangladesh, political intrigues and assassinations that shaped the violent history of Pakistan, the bitter wars fought between the ‘Separated Twins’, precious overtures of peace that succeeded every bit as much as they failed, terrorist attacks that derailed all efforts towards rapprochement, and the simmering cauldron of conflict that is Kashmir. Leavened with humorous and sentimental tales about colourful characters such as Aqleem Akhtar aka General Rani, Pakistan’s abiding love for Bollywood in general and Madhuri Dixit in particular, a shared passion for cricket that birthed an epic rivalry… the pages practically turn themselves.

However, it has to be mentioned that the author cuts considerable slack for Pakistan’s far from secular character by digging deep for examples of the pitiful few who advanced in their chosen careers despite belonging to other faiths. His stand is far more critical and harsh though when it comes to secular India which boasts of multitudes belonging to different religions who have excelled and rose to the top of their respective fields though there have been admittedly shameful instances of communal strife and violence.

That said, I loved the tale of the Bulars who taking after their ancestor Rai Bular, a Muslim devotee of Guru Nanak, played a significant role in saving many Sikhs during the partition and have continued to work towards inter – faith harmony. By sharing heartening anecdotes about those individuals who distinguished themselves as shining examples of kindness, friendship and bravery on both sides of the contested boundary, the author does provide a salve of sorts for past hurts and offers a modicum of hope that India and Pakistan will someday set aside their differences and head towards a future brightened by friendship and shared ideals.

The famous Urdu author, Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs is an entirely different kettle of fish altogether with its adoration of all things surreal, starkly removed yet mired in the nitty - gritties of harsh reality as it attempts to look at the bigger picture of the human condition in all its unvarnished glory. Translated by Haider Shahbaz, the narrative boldly plunges into all things bizarre as it charts the tortuous journey of Hassan and his fragile mind, fraught with his assorted anxieties. His story of course, is not straight – forward subject as it is to interpretation at every stage while relying heavily on the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief and submerge him/herself entirely in the dazzling array of feverish images expertly conjured up by the author who has a sure hand and a deft touch.

Never less than intriguing even when making allowance for a tendency towards self – indulgence, Baig’s saga is wildly creative and endlessly fascinating as it segues wildly all over the place while careening across the will – o – the – wisp tendrils of a wandering mind as it alights on assorted objects, veering off – tangent into their improbable yet not quite impossible backstories. Other characters who traipse across the narrative include a bunch of budding auteurs trying to make a film called This Film Cannot be Made, a collector, junkyard owner, a professor whose manuscript on enlightenment might have been mistakenly relegated to the trash heap, a theatre troupe featuring a motley crew of artistes, hopelessly corrupt and villainous cops, amongst others. This novel will prove to be a challenging read because it has many layers and can be explored at many levels of thought. Yet, it is engaging, shocking, hilarious and deeply troubling in turns and leaves one feeling as though one has been put through the ringer – emotionally as well as intellectually. A tour – de – force of a novel! The translator deserves kudos for doing justice to the brilliance of the original material while keeping much of the essence intact. Baig and Shahbaz can take a bow!

This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

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