Saturday July 20, 2024

A piece of the moon: Part - II

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
July 28, 2023

With six main characters, ‘A piece of the moon’ unfolds a story that flows from pre-partition days to the 1970s in a zigzag manner. It has a couple of epistolary chapters containing letters that characters wrote to each other.

In one of the letters, Ghafoor Uncle (Barray Mamoun) complains to his nephew Dillan: “I am afraid my independent, non-conformist behaviour has won me no marks from a society that confuses independence with rebellion.” How true for countries such as Pakistan that have nurtured people who are more conformists than anything else.

Such people are afraid of independence of any kind. Be it economic independence of women or educational independence of non-conformist teachers and learners, society calls independent people ‘rebels’ and tries to snuff them out. It is lines like these that make ‘A piece of the moon’ worth reading.

Ghafoor is fond of the ‘forces’ that emerge and remerge every now and then to control the lives of various characters. Though there is hardly any mention of gods, there are forces that seem to be operating at will. “The forces watch and let you indulge. In our trivialities, in the minutiae of our petty lives, the Supreme Power has only a bored interest… I often visualize and conceive Him as an Awesome Emptiness, without attributes that we humans can ever recognize. Therefore, I have great compassion for Him, for this extraordinary, inconceivable loneliness.”

Then Mushir Anwar takes you to a trip that starts with Dillan and Shammo stranded between Erzurum in Turkey and Trabzon, a small sleepy town on the Black Sea. Days before, Iranian authorities at the Bazargan border had refused them passage and sent them back to Trabzon to get a visa for travel through Iran – the country was celebrating the Shahenshah’s second millennium in power as King Cyrus’ successor. Selective border officials only gave visas to whites. All others had to go 400 miles to the Iranian consulate in Trabzon to get a visa. This episode reminds one that the treatment meted out to Pakistani travellers in the 21st century is not a new phenomenon.

In the book, the couple get the visa and take a bus from Erzurum for the Bazargan border. They travel past Ararat that presented a distant, unconcerned look. During the travel, Dillan and Shammo exchange stories of their past. Shammo says, “At heart you are still a conservative person, Dillan. You judge people.” Dillan responds, “I also judge distances, I don’t want to collide with undesirable objects.”

After entering Iran, Dillan finds “the lower, poorer classes of Iranians somewhat gruff and standoffish. They lacked the politeness that Turks, at all levels, seemed to possess in such abundance.” This was about Iran and Turkey in the early 1970s, one wonders if that statement is still valid. Here the writer beautifully presents his observations about Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. The passage is worth reproducing:

“In South Asia where strangers are shown special regard, which, though formal and superficial, works to lubricate relationships. This extra care and affected warmth is called takalluf. In practice, it requires you to refuse politely your host’s offer of tea because you know the offer is out of form and you should not embarrass him by accepting it. This is the prescribed etiquette. Both parties understand the requirements of this polite gesture.

“In the West, you will not be invited to tea or coffee unless the offer is meant to be implemented. Taklalluf also means that, whenever you meet an acquaintance, you ask them to visit you and they will promise to do so but will not come. And, the next time you meet, you do not complain that the promised visit was not paid. Takalluf is a delicate civility among the cultured. Perhaps, it reveals a hospitable spirit that wants to entertain but lacks the means, a spirit the guest understands very well. It creates goodwill and helps to keep up appearance.” (Page 61)

Then the story goes back to Barray Mamoun – Dillan’s grand uncle – and his theory of the forces that interfere in the affairs of people. This uncle was also involved in occult practices and did not like “life so logical, rational, systematic and predictable that instead of the composite beauty in things, one saw only cubes and triangles or squirming cells rather than man struggling with moral dilemmas. There are tales of haunted old mosques and rooms that children dread; and cats that roam the neighbourhood betraying their maleficent intentions.” All this in the smooth-flowing prose of Mushir Anwar keeps the reader engaged.

There are episodes of drinking wine with a python on a moonlit night and an apostasy punishable by death. The narrative reverts back to the trip from Tabriz to Tehran and then to Islam Qilla on the Afghan border. Dillan and Shammo are travelling with divergent aims. For Shammo it is a plunge into the unknown to avoid certain doom as she was being married off to a man she did not respect though he had converted to her faith. He tried to prove himself even more enthusiastic in his new faith to earn respect and a niche in his adopted community.

Dillan was Shamoo’s far relative through his mother. They were travelling from London to Pakistan by road and Shammo wanted to meet her lover in Lahore. Dillan’s family had stayed for two days at Shammo’s home in Lahore after migrating from India.

Now the story describes the ordeal of migration and how they arrived alive in Lahore through the jaws of death. “The dried blood of rival communities encrusted the Punjab’s winter landscape. More than revenge it had become a thirst for blood. Women’s bellies were slit open, and fetuses strung on spikes paraded through streets with the cinders of houses still smouldering on both sides.”

Mushir Anwar details the harrowing days of pre- and post-partition India, especially Punjab and while doing so he weaves one story with another flowing back and forth from the 1940s to 1970s. How the dream of a peaceful and prosperous life in Pakistan turns sour and leaves bitter memories for generations. While Dillan’s family migrates with hope in Pakistan, the host in Lahore tells Dillan’s father:

“You people of Uttar Pradesh are too simple. And we Punjabis are worse. The Muslims have been fooled. What are we celebrating? We have nothing that was not already ours. We had a Muslim government in Punjab, Frontier, Sindh, and Bengal, everywhere where Muslims were in majority. We had that already. No one could have taken that from us. Plus we had the whole of India to live and work in. But now we have pushed ourselves in a corner of the Subcontinent and instead of regretting it, we congratulate ourselves.”

Mushir Anwar has penned a unique piece of fiction that blends various stories together, but perhaps its greatest strength lies in various episodes that make the novel a pleasurable read. Anwar does not believe in a linear and coherent plot, and the anecdotes are strewn all across. Characters narrate their stories in parts. Dillan observes and wonders; Shamoo is left with an uncertain future, and at the end you crave for more. And perhaps that is the success of this antinovel.


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