Fear and imagination

January 26, 2020

Ahmad’s powerful narration brings to life the Lahore of the bygone era, all over again

Since the day I read Zubair Ahmad’s story, which I translated as Door is Open for A Letter from India, an anthology I edited for Penguin, India, Ahmad’s primary concern in fiction has not budged: Fear! It permeates not only the main characters of his stories but the milieu of the majority of his text.

Ahmad’s latest collection, Paani Di Kandh, further consolidates that notion. But fear from whom? Is it from those who are supposed to protect you? Or is it from life itself because of its unpredictability? Does it stem from a sense of loss? Or does it owe its salience to a person’s innate personality? Or is it a stand-in for a people in a particular time traumatised, say, by the tragedy and betrayal of partition? Is it something the constant grind of poverty and powerlessness has hammered into our souls? Does it reflect an awareness that a person is insignificant within a family set up?

What separates this collection from his earlier ones is that Ahmad seems more at ease probing the sources of the fear that haunts his predominantly male protagonists. In the collection under review, the author has gone autobiographical, perhaps a bit more than his earlier stories, which lends a disturbing yet intoxicating intimacy to the sense of fear the reader begins to inhale. A set of motifs appear repeatedly in these stories allowing further familiarity to the reader, who finds herself shadowing the protagonist of each story through the alleys and streets of Krishan Nagar, Purani Anarkali, and enclaves around western end of The Mall.

Several relatives, friends, friends’ wives, and haunts and stairs recur. Though this runs the risk of turning fiction redundant, Ahmad manages to skirt it, partly by adding a new dimension: the trauma of partition. The rhythm of his prose is reminiscent of poetry. Yet most stories often skid from the road of fiction on to that of memoirs and that inadvertently make them appear like an extension of the author’s personal experience. There is a subtle difference between reading fiction and listening to a relative recounting an earlier event.

That’s why I am glad that apart from the pain and sorrow of partition, he adds the reign of terror unleashed by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq. In one of the more poignant stories, the thugs of Jamiat, the student wing of Jamaat-i-Islami come under scrutiny. It’s due to the roughing the protagonist of this story gets from the Jamiat gangsters that he quits the university and the woman he loves. In a way, Ahmad’s psychological canvass, charting the contours of fear, is wider in this collection but he does himself harm by holding short the leash of imagination, as almost all the stories follow a strict trajectory of autofiction.

The pitfall of such writing is that while the narrative has appeal for the author and those who can detect the personal references of people and places which appear in the text, for others they run the risk of appearing as weak substitute for a fleshed-out story. It is, perhaps, for this reason that most stories seem unable to unstick themselves from a fog of reminiscences and nostalgia, which, no doubt, Ahmad executes well. But at a cost. It is like watching a kite flying high and yet the viewer continues to spot the hands and face of the kite-flyer next to the kite.

In the story ObaR hoya Shehr, the reader can sense the struggle between the real protagonist(s) and ‘I/eye’ of the narrator, who, after a walk from YMCA on The Mall, ends up near the legendary Tollinton Market, near National College of Arts and Old Anarkali. There the narrator, as he contemplates drinking a glass of juice, encounters a man on a chair he seems to recognise from his earlier days of activism and idealism, the man’s eyes full of pain and accusation of betrayal. The man relays the message that he is not just one but a million more, scattered throughout Pakistan.

The encounter leads the narrator to remember another unfortunate character, Munawar, who too fell through the cracks. That memory leads to another memory of the narrator’s time spent in Istanbul’s metro stations where those hoping to cross into Europe spent their nights. Included among those was one named Shauki, gone half crazy, and just as the narrator is done recalling the haunting image of Shauki spouting madness, he realizes that the man sitting near Tollinton Market was nothing but a spectre. It’s an enchanting story and allows the reader a peek into a bygone era, but the fact that it starts and ends with the narrator restricts the development of the story and hardly brings any transformation to the narrator’s life.

Memory, fear and loss are deeply intertwined in stories like Sahwan di Valgan and Ag Lagay Darya. Both stories offer different explorations of fear but barely manage to escape beyond being mood pieces or ruminations. That fact that Ahmad’s protagonists, in almost all the stories, are passive viewers, could be read as a subconscious protest to the patriarchy’s failure. His protagonists, then, seem to stand outside the realm of the toxic male world. He should overcome the fear of letting his protagonists commit blunders and sins so there’s a chance of atonement. One sees a hint of that in the title story.

The title story is important, not only in that it excavates a source of the author’s obsession with fear, but also as it examines a real consequence of bitterness, enmity, and distrust. That is only made possible by making the protagonist cross the border into India and revisit ancestral places with the help of Indian friends and friends of friends. It is in this story that Ahmad’s narrator breaks the law by visiting a city he doesn’t have a visa for. Ahmad sets up a scene where the issue of trust in an environment of fear is brought up. In a foreign landscape, whether emotional or physical, one cannot be certain of the next moment, yet what separates two people from two different narratives of their respective sufferings, the title story posits, is often a wall of water, which derives its power from the fear we fail to overcome. Yet it is so easy – as the Sikh guard at the rest house demonstrates – to muster up the courage to cross that wall and sit down, talk, eat and drink. Though I would’ve preferred to see the narrator cross the wall instead of the security guard.

My issues with the stories are of minor importance as the reader gets lost in the spell of Ahmad’s narration bringing Lahore of the bygone era, its tragedies and resilience, alive. Ahmad doubtlessly is one of the finest Punjabi prose writers of his generation. In his future writing, I’d like to see him nudge his protagonists and other characters into uncharted territories. Let them wander where fear dare not tread.

Paani di Kandh

By Zubair Ahmad

Publisher: Kitab Trinjan

Price: Rs300

Pages: 123

Zubair Ahmad's Paani di Kandh revives Lahore of the bygone era