Sunday July 14, 2024

A piece of the moon ( Part - I)

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
July 16, 2023

Classification is tricky as it tends to compartmentalize concepts that are hard to define. Any attempt to classify fiction is even more challenging. Take, for instance, novels in world literature and try to classify them; one will see boundaries overlapping.

‘A piece of the moon’ by Mushir Anwar presents a similar challenge. With its brilliant prose and remarkable style, it is difficult to classify it as a novel or an antinovel. But before responding to this, a brief intro to Mushir Anwar’s personality is in order.

Hailing from Moradabad in India, he was 10 years old when his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947. From Deny’s High School to Gordon College in Rawalpindi, Mushir Anwar remained immersed in literature and ended up as a journalist with the ‘Pakistan Times’. His forte was writing about arts and culture and in his career spanning nearly 50 years he contributed articles and essays to a majority of Pakistan’s English language dailies.

When I moved to Islamabad in 2006, Mushir Anwar was approaching 70, still with a childlike innocence on his face and in his demeanour. His open arms and curious eyes were always welcoming; his home became our own. Long conversations with him about topics ranging from art and culture to fiction from across the world kept us engaged for hours, especially on weekends with his generous servings of food and drinks. He was one of the most caring and loving persons I have ever met; with his ever-smiling face he showered his love on my daughters.

As it happens with most editors and journalists, he also wanted to spend more time on creative writing and translating world literature into Urdu and Urdu fiction into English, but editing consumed most of his energies. During the last years of his life, he managed to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘A young man in search of love’ into Urdu. The translation demonstrated that Mushir Anwar was as comfortable in Urdu prose as he was in English.

The translation was received well and attracted good reviews. He wanted to translate more of Singer’s books but then started working on his novel. Mushir Anwar worked for many years on ‘A piece of the moon’ and completed the novel just before his death in 2015; it took another seven years for his son Khayyam Mushir and friend Peter Coughlin to bring it out in a book form. The novel defies classification but undoubtedly it is one of the best pieces of South Asian English literature to appear in the past many decades. It is semi-autobiographical with a series of anecdotes and a narrative that is nonlinear and absorbing.

To me, it reads more like an antinovel as it disregards traditional conventions of novel-writing. Mushir Anwar tries to push the limits of what a novel can be and produces a marvellous work of fiction. The writer does not follow a traditional plot structure that is so common in fiction writing. His use of characters is fairly unusual as events flow outside of chronological order. The characters experience the world in different ways from what is common in other novel formats.

Normally, an antinovel has a couple of features that make it distinct from a novel. While novels have a cohesive plot, an antinovel does not have one. Character development does not take place in a usual manner and many characters in an antinovel lack proper development. Events occur out of order and it poses a challenge for the reader to connect the dots. An antinovel is an exercise in experimentation, and Mushir Anwar makes his experiment a success. This antinovel stands out in an unfamiliar way that the reader finds interesting and absorbing.

In a way, Mushir Anwar shows us that there are a myriad of ways writers can explore while telling their tales. Experiments in antinovels are not new as I remember reading ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne decades ago. But Mushir Anwar’s piece is an exceptional one as it begins with self-portraits in which characters tell us how they want the reader to see them. Dillan is a sort of protagonist who at times narrates the story and at others becomes a character in the narrative. He has his familial bonds that influence his understanding of the world around him.

Dillan is inwardly a man of science who clarifies that “I only mean I am somewhat tentative, vulnerable. I want to understand things. Time and space fascinate me. I wish to travel through a black hole and arrive in a different universe, not necessarily an idyllic world where there is no sorrow, but just an alien world.” He is quite satisfied to be left alone and not bothered. He had ample artistic abilities which due to “lack of perseverance he could not develop, but enjoys the pride of being a failure”.

Then there is Uncle Ghafoor to whom relationships matter much more than anything else in life. The world intrigues him and he keeps wondering about things that others do not pay attention to. For example he wonders why humans at various places speak different languages while dogs and cats everywhere in the world bark and mew in the same manner even if they live in two distant continents. Uncle Ghafoor wonders why the world is full of incomplete tales and abrupt ends, and utterly unsatisfying conclusions. And the novel – or the antinovel for that matter – is full of such conclusions and ends.

Grandma Apa is a towering personality who was married off at the age of 15, becoming a mother and divorcee at 16. She is then married to a much older man and becomes the focus of her new husband’s ‘ardour fuelled by expensive aphrodisiacs’. In her self-portrait she says “one should know such things about the past to give context to one’s life. We should tell our children about our lives to deepen their past and broaden their base thus giving them more space to build their lives.” She cherishes her hookah and takes long soft drags to her heart’s content.

Shaukat uncle is the humblest of the family whose company women enjoyed, but they were mostly “deep sighing spinsters or what you may call state-of-the-art widows”. He is proud that his life “has been remarkably unsuccessful”. He opposed the idea of Pakistan as “it would force a momentous change in our lives”. But he couldn’t do much about it. “Our journey to a new setting had begun. A hollowness filled the centre of my being into which my heart had sunk. I made a last round to the places I would never see again. I went to the butcher’s and the grocer’s shops and sat on the steps of the mosque, where most of my evenings were spent.”

Perhaps Mushir Anwar is the first fiction writer in English who has introduced a major female character belonging to the Ahmadi community. Shammo laments that “there is no place for minor dissidence even in peripheral matters”. She migrates to England “where being able to breathe freely has softened or eroded my attachment to the dogma.” But there she pities the self-consuming concerns of her elders. This results in her lack of proper adjustment in her immediate milieu. But still she must admit that “despite the loose cord that shepherds me, no price could entice me to stray from the flock”.

Finally, there is the character of Chhiddan who has no memory of home or parents and thinks “like other creatures of the earth, the insects and plants”. He thinks that families “are the rich people’s humbug”.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: