The lost river found

October 30, 2022

Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Sorrows of Sarasvati is a study of the meaning of existence

The lost river found


ustansar Hussain Tarar’s Sorrows of Sarasvati is a miraculous example of his art and craft. Like a prehistoric archaeologist, he excavates a lost river from under sand dunes and builds a museum that echoes Parushni’s “hoo ... dham ... dham ... hoo”. Like a magical transporter, he travels some four millennia back in time to land us in an unnamed village flanked by the River Ghaghara (Vedic Sarasvati) and marshland. It’s a village where floods foster life; a village where existence is replete with angst from falling birds, falling water levels, invading foreigners; and a river drying up. Sorrows of Sarasvati is a dark narrative about this village populated by bright beings, who ask all kinds of intelligent questions but struggle to reach any convincing conclusions.

Like all great works of art, Sorrows of Sarasvati offers multiple interpretations accessible through a variety of lenses. As a historical novel, it’s a peep into our Dravidian past. Dravidians are being abandoned by Mother Nature and taken over by Aryans. Virchan – a helpless son of the soil – witnessing Ghaghara’s withdrawal and “sharp-nosed” Puran’s arrival with that clichéd colonial excuse: “We came here ... because you were sluggish and worthless. You were neither beautiful nor wise. You were dull-witted out and out … You do not believe in any gods and goddesses.”

As an environmental narrative, it warns us of the horrors of heat and the destruction of climate change. At the same time, it preaches peaceful co-existence since, in Parushni’s words: “We – human beings, animals, trees, and plants – are more alive when we stay closer to each other. When one of us departs, it enervates the others. We are all… like measuring weights that remain constant when we stay together; otherwise, we lose our weight.” In Safeer Awan’s words: “Reading Parushni’s… fate in the closing scene of the novel, one cannot resist feeling that ultimately it is all Nada – nothingness, as far as individual destiny is concerned. The collective, civilisational destiny is more likely to survive if humans live in harmony with nature and their cultural others.”

It brings to life the agency of Dravidian matriarchs: Mati, a mother of three grown-up sons: “She was an earthly incarnation of the supreme mother goddess and they were simply her servants”; Pakli, an artist who believes that “as rivers contain water and seeds contain plants, the artists have these shapes in their bones and these shapes emerge on their own”; Gagri, “the only consummate bird hunter”, whom the whole village “would beg … to hunt [birds] for them, with the promise of a bowlful of wheat for her at the harvest time”; and Parushni, “who would always remain divided in her choice, “‘Virchan or Samroo? Samroo or Virchan?’ She could never determine whose sight aroused her more and made her melt from within. Any other girl would never bother to choose between them; she would go for both and both would be her husbands.”

As a pantheistic story, it sermonises surrender “to the body that includes everything… Everything around us, everything that breathes and moves between the sky and the soil, the rivers and the stars form this all-encompassing body….” In a post-sandstorm scene in the woods, Masa transforms into a tree: “It was Masa or some withered branch who smiled, ‘I’m one among the trees; I won’t go anywhere.’”

As a magical realist work, its narrators – places, people, ants, birds, trees, dogs – narrate a series of events building a realistic depiction of the apocalypse.

A tale of a community confronted with the question of existence, it initiates a philosophical debate among its members: faithful Dhurva – on his “duty to protect the Zebu, the sacred bulls”— the sceptic Dorga – who found some mightiness in the bull of the woods: “I’m the only one who hears his call … I’ve no fear of him … He summons me, and I’ll go again” - , rational Parushni, whose wisdom the whole village follows: “I suggest digging the seeds of wheat, sesame and saloo from the fields to preserve them for the next year lest it should decay like that of millet…,” asking questions such as: “Where are we? ... Why are we? ... And what are the riddles of our existence that perplex us for generations?”

As a reflection of a world that fails to sustain itself despite the division of labour that remains functional till the end and despite the absence of private ownership, Sorrows of Sarasvati also invites a Marxist reading. “It was Parushni’s communal duty to fetch water for all the households in the village as they had divided daily chores among them.”

As a magical realist work, its narrators – places, people, ants, birds, trees, dogs – narrate a series of events building a realistic depiction of the apocalypse.

The acclaimed novelist Mohammed Hanif, rightly terms the “translation of [Tarar’s] magnum opus, Bahao, as Sorrows of Sarasvati, “a momentous occasion”. Pakistan’s leading literary critic, Muneeza Shamsie, expresses her delight at reading “a fluid and evocative translation of … [the] celebrated Urdu novel Bahao”. One of the best fiction writers of our times, Aamer Hussein, states that Tarar’s Bahao “which interweaves speculative anthropology and reconstructed history with the fantasies and myths of the Indus delta, has long been a favourite among fans of Urdu. Now a new generation of Anglophone readers can discover this renowned novel in translation.”

At the 14th Aalmi Urdu Conference, on a panel - Aitraf-i-Kamal: Mustansar Hussain Tarar - along with Zia ul Hassan, Safeer Awan and Mustansar Hussain Tarar, the award-winning author of Home Boy and The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, HM Naqvi, said: “It’s difficult to translate novels written in a high stylistic register. I must commend [Awan] for a very faithful translation.”

The translation is “fluid” and “faithful” because the translators – Muhammad Safeer Awan and Saleem Khan – have done it with a literary and historical consciousness. It comes with Awan’s brilliant introduction, which functions not only as a reader’s manual to understand the novel better but also speaks about its writer as a cultural critic. I particularly like how the indigenousness of the language has been successfully preserved in the English translation. Dravidian lexical items for local flora and fauna, and the seasons they flourish in, add the flavour and the music of the village Tarar rebuilds on the banks of the Ghaghara – the lost river he finds.

Sorrows of Sarasvati is for anyone interested in fiction, history, archaeology, anthropology or linguistics and anyone pondering the meaning of existence. Most of the questions it addresses are universal. It belongs everywhere. It should be published in other cultural and geographical contexts for wider circulation of this vital contribution to world literature.

The reviewer is the head of the Centre for Language Teaching at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. His most recent publication is Lisaniyat: Aik Jame’ Ta’aruf

The lost river found