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November 13, 2019

Literature, politics and resistance: Part - IV


November 13, 2019

In 1982, Mazharul Islam published his collection of short stories 'Ghoron ke Shehar Mein Akela Aadmi' (The man alone in the city of horses). It contained a short story titled 'Kandhey par kabutar' (later translated into English by Christopher Shackle as The pigeon on the shoulder; and by Masud Qureshi as The pigeon perched on the shoulder).

This is the story of a schoolboy who returns from his school to find his home locked. The guard of the house is missing and there is an obnoxious stench emanating from inside the house. He tries to open the lock but in vain. Then he scales the wall and finds a horrifying scene. Just read the last paragraph of the story by Mazharul Islam as translated by Christopher Shackle:

“Controlling himself, he looked into the courtyard. Amazement began to dance over his face. The watchman was sitting stiffly on a chair, with his body changed into the body of a wolf. Unable to believe what he saw, the boy passed his hand over his face and dried off the sweat. He rubbed his eyes and again looked into the courtyard. The watchman really had turned into a wolf. He was sitting on a chair.

"Right next to the chair a rat was gnawing something. ‘Watchman! Watchman!’ he called out in panic. The watchman roared. Mingled in his roar, the smell leapt towards him. Holding his breath, he stuffed his fingers into both ears. It felt as if the earth was quaking and the wall was impatient to collapse. He sat own on the wall and gazed steadily at the wolf. ‘Was the wolf already inside the watchman?’ he thought. ‘Or did one come and get into him from outside?’ He wanted to put this question to someone else. You, who are listening and reading this story, you tell him if you know the answer.”

It has been over four decades since this book appeared, but you see the watchman still sitting on the chair as a wolf and the stench is still hovering over the house, even with increased toxicity. Mazharul Islam was deputy director of Lok Virsa at that time, and he later became managing director of the National Book Foundation. His story remains a masterpiece of resistance literature even now.

Similarly, Naeem Arvi’s collection of short stories 'Gard Alood Shaam' (An evening full of dust) came out in 1984. It includes a short story titled 'Godhra Camp', depicting the plight of Bengalis and Beharis in Karachi after the fall of Dhaka. The story starts with a Bengali woman behind barbed wire calling for her husband: ‘Shamsuddin, Shamsuddin’. She has gone mad after her husband is killed while fighting with the Mukti Bahini. In Karachi’s Godhra Camp flats, Bengali soldiers have been grounded. They are under arrest and the gates are guarded by the soldiers from Jhelum and Mianwali.

After some time the camps are empty, and then some god-forsaken Biharis start populating it. Again, an old woman is there. Here is my translation of Naeem Arvi:

“Behind the barbed wires the woman is drawing lines in sand. Most Bihari women always cover their heads, but this woman is bareheaded. Her saree is dirty with patches all around. She lifted her head and looked at me. I can’t tell you what I saw in her empty eyes. She kept staring for a while, and then stood up abruptly. She came closer and asked, ‘Have you seen my Nihal? If you find my Nihal babva, just tell him that his mother is waiting.”

Another book published during General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship was by Saeeda Gazdar, 'Aag Gulsitan na Bani' (The flames didn’t turn into flowers). It appeared in 1980, just one year after Z A Bhutto was hanged on dubious charges after a controversial trial. In her stories, Saeeda Gazdar daringly delineates the barbarity of the military dictatorship of General Zia. That was the time when most other writers had embraced abstract and symbolic style of writing, but not Saeeda Gazdar. She was bravely unmasking the atrocities of General Zia regime. For example, two of her stories are titled 'Aag gulsitan na bani' and 'Koyal and general' (The cuckoo and the general).

I don’t remember if any other writer has ever directly targeted the designation of ‘general’ in the title of a story. This story was translated from Urdu to English by Tayyaba Akbar Bokhari and published by the Pakistan Academy of Letters in its special issue on Resistance Literature in 1995. Saeeda Gazdar begins her story 'Aag gulsitan na bani' with two characters from the Sumerian epic poem of Gilgamesh. Intizar Hussain had also used Gilgamesh in his story 'Kishti' (The Boat). Earlier, Syed Sibte Hasan had also discussed in detail the story of Gilgamesh in his book 'Mazi ke Mazaar' (The tombs of the past).

Gilgamesh is also like Prometheus, an outstanding piece of world resistance literature. If we compare Intizar Hussain’s story 'Kishti' with Saeeda Gazdar’s 'Aag gulsitan na bani', we see that Intizar Hussain pushes us into a jumbled crowd of metaphors and symbols, whereas Gazdar is crystal clear and depicts the circumstances using the following lines from Gilgamesh:

“Gilgamesh will spoil the city/ He orders that each new bride will spend the first night with him/ First the king, and then the lawful husband/ And all this is happening with due permission from gods/ Now the drums are beaten to select the bride/ The city moans/ After listening to this, Enkidu’s face turns pale/ I will go there, where Gilgamesh is persecuting the people/ I will challenge him.”

Since Saeeda Gazdar dedicated her book to all those who sacrificed their lives for democracy, and bore torture for the sake of human dignity, it is not difficult to decipher that Gilgamesh was General Zia and the bride was democracy that was ravaged with the assumed permission from gods. The narrator in Gazdar’s story is a girl who is being interrogated. Here is my translation:

“They came thrice to interrogate me. How did they come to know that I loved him? They ask me about which party he belonged to. ‘Tell us the truth, and reveal the conspiracy he was part of. Who else was planning with him?’

"I couldn’t control myself; pain and agony overcame me, and I burst into tears. They look at me as if a ripe and tasty fruit was in front of them. They consider my tears as my weakness and try to console me. ‘We know that you are innocent, you are not to blame. Just tell us the names and whereabouts of his friends. You are a simple girl’. They lick their lips and look at my beauty and youth with lustful naked eyes.”

When you read these lines today, and recall the treatment meted out to Benazir Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz, you realize that this resistance literature is timeless and triumphant. This resistance literature has imbibed the essence of history within it and has immortalized it. Henry James is said to have remarked that ‘a great deal of history produces a little literature’. The story collection by Saeeda Gazdar has the distinction that the General Zia regime banned it. Similarly, two poetry collections and two novels by Fakhar Zaman were also banned by the martial-law authorities.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]