A feast for the soul

February 4, 2024

A powerful work of fiction with a blend of dark humour and literary criticism

A feast for the soul

The novel is an important genre in fiction. It is often said that to understand the trends and traditions in a nation, one must read its literature, especially novels. As Edward Said, one of the greatest critics of the 20th Century, mentions in his critically acclaimed book Culture and Imperialism: “Novels are pictures of reality at the very early or the very late stage in the reader’s experience of them: in fact, they elaborate and maintain a reality they inherit from other novels.”

Said mentions that: “the novel is an incorporative quasi-encyclopaedic cultural form. Packed into it are both a highly regulated plot and mechanism and an entire system of social reference that depends on the existing institutions of bourgeois society, their authority and power.”

Reading Akhtar Hafeez’s Sindhi novel Café Adab, published in 2023 by Samroti Publications, Tharparkar, gave me a new perspective on Sindhi society, its literary culture and the hegemony of senior writers. Akhtar Hafeez is not a new name for Sindhi readers. He is a short-story writer, a blogger, a journalist, a translator and a novelist. With his two brilliant novels, COVID-19 (2021) and Café Adab (2023), he has made a remarkable mark for himself in Sindhi literature.

His short story Katchi Maseet (The Mud Walled Mosque) is considered a milestone in post-9/11 Sindhi fiction. It has won several awards and been translated into several languages, including English and Urdu. His first novel, COVID-19, received fair reviews from most critics. However, in my opinion, his recent novel Café Adab redefines him as a fiction writer. The plot is unique and his writing style marvellous.

The novel is set in Hyderabad, the second largest city of Sindh. Aadrish, the protagonist, is a fiction writer and a critic who contributes to a Sindhi language daily newspaper. This is his sole source of income. The protagonist is a typical example of a Sindhi writer. He lives in a rented room in a building constructed in 1932. It is owned by a war veteran, a widower called Chacha ABC. An analysis of Aadrish’s character throws up absurdity, loneliness and helplessness. There is a huge void in his character. Aadrish is haunted by his past. Many readers will find the character relatable. He is affected by the linguistic riots in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As boys, he and his brother were attacked by a lunch mob chanting political slogans. Realising the precariousness of their situation, his elder brother had told him to flee which he did. His brother, however, was killed. Aadrish remains haunted by the trauma.

Akhtar’s description of the episode is realistic and effective.

One the good things in Aadrish’s life is his association with his friend, Dilbar. Dilbar was always there for him and gave him moral support, besides helping him financially. He pays for Aadrish’s drinking and smoking habits and sometimes paid his rent.

As a writer, Aadrish is unhappy with the hegemony of certain senior writers, who sometimes dishonestly praise average work to high heaven. He criticises their behaviour and loses his job for criticising an influential writer, who happens to be a close friend of the editor. Aadrish spends most of his time at Café Adab, a place frequented by writers. During his visits to the café, he meets various writers and critics, including Bahar Bagicho, Dr Rajib Gulab and Ms Lajawab. This café is situated at Besant Hall, which is a pre-partition building once owned by the Theosophical Society. Some of the writers he meets at the café taunt him for being so blunt and fixed in his views on fiction.

Akhtar has dealt with several themes such as self-publishing, flash fiction, literary criticism and the hegemony in literary circles. He has beautifully employed dark humour, which adds another dimension to the story. He has also used stream-of-consciousness, absurdity and self-reflexive narrative techniques.

Akhtar masterfully uses the surrealist technique in the story, introducing Muneer Ahmed Manik, a modernist fiction writer. There is a clear resemblance between the protagonist and his favourite fiction writer. Both of them see themselves as alien to their surroundings. There are historical references and references to great literature.

The novel is crafted beautifully with nested stories and characters that make us laugh and cry. One such character is Chacha ABC, who keeps repeating himself. Another interesting character is Ms Lajawab, a writer and a regular visitor to the café. She has many stories to tell, but most of the people appear to be less interested in her stories and more interested in her.

When having lost his job, Aadrish receives news of his mother’s illness, he becomes desperate for money. He is then ready to allow publication of his stories in someone else’s name.

Café Adab is a real treat. It will be remembered for years for its unique themes, plot and its narrative style.

Café Adab

Author: Akhtar Hafeez

Publisher: Samroti Publication, Tharparkar, 2023

The reviewer is a freelance writer

A feast for the soul