In his new novella, Mudassar Bashir tests the limits of love and sacrifice in a deceptively simple story
Prolific Mudassar Bashir’s latest novella, Rekh, revolves around a character named Ashi, short for Ayesha, who’s on her way to becoming a medical doctor and is in love with her maternal cousin Khalid. In general, the cousins in her family are close to one another and a lot of relatives congregate during wedding ceremonies in the family.
The patriarch Hashim Ali enjoys the love and respect of his four sons and a daughter, who’s the mother of Ashi. Ashi resists her beloved Khalid’s suggestion that they let their parents know about their mutual attraction for each other because she wants to finish her MBBS without distraction. Circumstances, then, force Khalid to marry Ashi’s sister. As more tragedies pile up, Ashi appears to be the worst loser.
Although the title Rekh may suggest that the author intends to explore the concept of predestination and how it shapes our view of our lives, it is also a character study of a strong-willed person. While Bashir studies the character by situating the narrative within an educated, modern, middle-class milieu, he also does so by invoking the price traditional values exact from a person.
Bashir tests the limits of love and sacrifice in a deceptively simple story. Ashi has a chance to marry Khalid again when her sister dies in childbirth but cannot bring herself to share the bed with Khalid after her sister. Ashi chooses instead to remain unmarried while becoming a stand-in mother to her sister’s daughter, Saima. She also becomes a surrogate mother to a nephew, Sachal, who grows up being in love with Saima, who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings and marries someone else. In the next round of tragedies, Saima’s husband and her father, Khalid, die in a car crash. That’s when the novel begins with Ashi – who has been living in the Middle East – and other cousins living overseas, return to mourn together as a family. As per Ashi’s arrangement, several cousins are travelling to Lahore via train which Bashir incorporates as a metaphor for Ashi’s life. Saima is already the mother of a baby when she loses her husband. In an interesting twist, Ashi is able to convince Saima to marry Sachal, thus discouraging her niece from following the example she set a generation ago.
Mudassar Bashir has also written on local history. He has a sense of what Lahore could’ve been today if the dictator Zia hadn’t unleashed intolerance on the indigenous, semi-secular, syncretic culture enriched by the poets of the Punjabi language. Reacting to the deterioration of the cultural fabric which many sensible citizens continue to lament, Bashir goes on the overdrive in order to create a narrative environment that is devoid of evil. The only evil that reaches the characters is in the form of events beyond anyone’s control. Or if you want to stretch the point, then, tradition also, which is patriarchal in nature. But Bashir’s patriarchs are kind and benevolent.
The overall effect is that most characters are two-dimensional, except for Ashi, whose faults Bashir seems to be examining even if he’s not aware of it. Is Ashi stubborn? Is she prone to self-sacrifice? Her stubbornness and tendency to sacrifice catapults her to a saintly sphere. By lending a character a saintly aura, we risk taking away their human complexity. Is he saying that when patriarchy puts on a gentle mask, women still pay a high price? It seems he leaves some of those questions unanswered on purpose for the reader to chew on.
Bashir kills the patriarch in a symbolic gesture and Ashi emerges as the moral figurehead of the family. Matriarchy replaces patriarchy and Saima heeds Ashi’s advice as she acquiesces to her marriage with Sachal. I may be stretching several points here but that’s how a textual analysis of fiction should work, so we can see how the minds of our writers operate, how they react to the changes and injustices in our society and what remedies their vision may offer.
Bashir has packed a lot in a slim volume. From references to Buddhism’s link to Pakistan’s history to the tradition of kite flying, from Mughal history to local archaeology. The prose at times is a pleasure to read. Dialogues are heartwarming. It’s also good to hear the voices of several characters. That brings us back to the title of the novella, Rekh, which refers to luck or destiny. Since the title is tied to the events in Ashi’s life, one wonders if it is primarily predestination or decisions taken by Ashi that are under scrutiny. The author remains ambivalent about where he stands on the issue. But I feel the novella tilts towards Ashi’s agency to make her decisions and stand by them regardless of the cost. Even if the novella insists on the male-centric virgin-whore dichotomy, the text slides towards a feminist scale. If the novella had skirted the saint trap, it would’ve been a more complex character study. Rekh is still a book that Punjabi readers should reach out to.
Author: Mudassar Bashir
Price: Rs 250
The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com