Diary of a city

January 12, 2020

Asghar Nadeem Sayyad’s narrative style can make a reader fall in love with the art of inspired storytelling all over again

He doesn’t claim to be a historian, yet what he divulges through his stories falls squarely in the category of history. He purports to challenge the idea that trained historians have the sole prerogative to preserve and narrate history. A commoner is often equipped quite naturally to let the trajectory of his land, streets, houses, bazaars and coffee houses speak through his stories, some of them improvised and others weaved out of known facts and happenings.

History is not only what is preserved in their texts by acknowledged experts, rather all that is stored in the memories of indigenous people qualifies to be called history. Here is a storyteller of his City — and he seems to follow an African proverb, quoted by Chinua Achebe: “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.

He is Allama Imam Bakhsh, the narrator of Asghar Nadeem Sayyad’s recently published novel Tooti Hui Tanab Udhar. The novel reveals a city that has gone through many changes since its inception. It has been invaded and ruined more than once by foreigners and its inhabitants have had to suffer death, displacement and marginalisation.

The narrator has carved out a style that not only blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction but also makes the readers believe that a story can take everything in its fold. The name of the book has been borrowed from Iqbal’s oft-quoted couplet from his long poem, Zauq-o-Shouq (Ecstacy):

The remains of burnt-out fire are scattered here and an abandoned piece of tent rope there/ Nobody can count the number of caravans that have passed this tract.]

Sayyad’s novel narrates what the City was like before — culturally and politically and how it all morphed into pursuit of money to the point of absurdity and superficiality. He has not mentioned the name of the City, but the events, characters and their depiction point towards Multan, the birthplace of the author.

Nevertheless, the story has been told in such an artistically generalised way that it seems to be the story of all those metropolises of the world that have had to lose their cultural peculiarities and specificities first at the hands of invaders, then under the influence of economic globalisation which aims at homogenisation of cultures. Though the narrator of the novel is conscious of the fact that the ‘story’ itself — classical trinity of plot: beginning, middle and ending — impresses upon us the hard reality of impermanence and transience, he has a strong sense of nostalgia about people, houses, customs, values, institutions and amenities of everyday life.

Time and again Imam Bakhsh emphasises the magical and paradoxical power of a story. On one hand, the very process of making a story reveals how things are mortal and on the other whatever finds a way into the story attains a certain immortality. Riding on his bicycle, Imam Bakhsh visits qahwa khanay, tea houses, coffee shops and other social places of the City to share stories of the City with its people. He has innumerable stories of places, people and customs and values of the City.

Sayyad’s novel narrates what the City was like before — culturally and politically and how it all morphed into pursuit of money to the point of absurdity and superficiality. He has not mentioned the name of the City, but the events, characters and their depiction point towards Multan.

The narrator tells how tea houses and coffee shops emerged roughly around the 1930s in the City, how they would be the places where every idea could be discussed, every story shared. Imam Bakhsh, occupying centre stage, reminds people of forgotten, erased history of the City through his stories. On one occasion he mentions that though the women of the City are now fond of wearing the Afghan veil, things were different once. He tells writers of the City tales about how the restaurant was once inundated with dancers, vocalists, singers and alluring girls, that there was a time in the history of his City when in its temples thousands of dancers would dance routinely. Imam Baksh stresses how dance, which is now maligned in the City, was an art form that used to be an integral part of its cultural-religious life.

Dynamism and diversity are designated as the main features of the cultural life of the City. Imam Baksh narrates how there was an uninterrupted inflow of invaders (mostly Afghan) and migrants (during partition) with a multi-ethnic background into the City. However, they let themselves assimilate customs of indigenous populace of the City and learnt their language.

Novels are usually like rivers that allow a host of streams to drift into them. A novel is thus many small stories told together. But Sayyad’s novel doesn’t follow this usual path. It is not about a person or a family but the story of a city, assembled into a collage. The protagonist of the novel is none other than the City itself. As the protagonist, the City has its own self, imagination and language. There are multiple stories, some long and others brief, narrated by Imam Bakhsh, originating in the self and imagination of the City.

The City reveals itself through its typical characters, unfolds its imagination through distinctive stories and expresses its language through an idiosyncratic style of narration. There are stories of Riaz Gavera, Tashna Turabi, Sakoon Siddiqui, Faraz Arfi, Inqlabi, Manthar Pardesi, Mansoor Mahan, Makhdoom Shah Quran Ali, Zaitoon Bano, Walaiti Bibi and Jamal Zadi — all typical, though not stale, characters of the City.

Like most of the great cities of the world, our City also undergoes a number of historical tribulations in the novel; not only does it suffer foreign invasions, but also witnesses displacement of indigenous populace soon after partition. The contemporary culture of the City is on one hand an upshot of displacement of non-Muslim population and settlement of a Muslim populace and on the other, commodification of old history by globalised market forces.

The uninterrupted wave of economic globalisation installs a kind of global monolithic culture which manifests itself in sky-high buildings, cuisines, branded items and English language. As for indigenous culture, globalisation either goes to appropriate it or see no harm in erasing it. After the appropriation of culture and histories of old cities, they are put on sale, Imam Bakhsh laments in the last chapter of the novel.

Among multiple modes of fiction-writing, narrative and descriptive are the ones writers of fiction mostly resort to. Sayyad seems to be fond of the narrative mode, yet the novel has some memorable descriptive pieces too, mostly related to the psychological states of its characters. Though the narrator is male, female characters of the novel are assertive and defiant.

Most male characters are conformist or coward or greedy or vindictive like Moni Shah but Zaitoon Bano and Jamal Zadi, both prostitutes, are courageous enough to subvert all nefarious designs against them. So much so, that the siblings of these female characters, after getting an education in western universities, adopt the profession of singing and film making in a bid to adjust in the society on their own terms.

Tooti Hui Tanab Udhar

Author: Asghar Nadeem Sayyad

Publisher: Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore

Pages: 216

Price: Rs600

(The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of    Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid, Nazm Kaisay Parhain   (criticism) and   Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab    (short stories) . He teaches Urdu at Punjab University.)

Tooti Hui Tanab Udhar: Diary of a city in narrative style of Asghar Nadeem Sayyad