Nain Sukh’s new collection of stories is full of interesting themes bubbling with layers of history
Nain Sukh, one of foremost Punjabi writers in Pakistan, has published a collection of stories full of interesting characters, situations and themes with layers of history that often become the most dominant part of his stories. He is not alone in thinking that the language is being throttled and that the younger Punjabis are growing up cut off from the rich and complex history of their land. Many Punjabi writers, some more clearly than others, see these generations entering an epoch of amnesia - culturally, politically and historically. The disconnect was ushered in by the British colonial policies. Unlike most languages of former colonies, the Punjabi language continues to suffer.
Punjabi is perhaps the only major language in the world today that is not the medium of instruction for its speakers despite having a formal administrative unit. This results in a severe form of devaluation of the self, and by extension of what’s associated with oneself - mother, family, traditions and land. These are the psychological burdens many Pakistani Punjabi writers carry, when they write fiction. In Nain Sukh’s fiction, especially the book under review, Jogi, Sap, Trah, the burden rises off the pages like smoke from a house on fire.
Nain Sukh’s stories read like a people’s history of the Punjab and Punjabis. They speak of catastrophic changes that have left indelible marks on the people’s psyche. The book includes stories that explore irreverence - as in Dhum and Chairman tay Rail Gaddi. Dhum plays with context and juxtaposition of two words fauji and bandar. It is up to the reader to conclude whether it is the monkey who’s a soldier or vice versa. It’s a very short story that succeeds nonetheless in showing the reader an irreverent space within language that can destabilise authority. Chairman tay Rail Gaddi uses a dog named chairman as a symbol of what the poor of a particular district have suffered for ages in the name of political change and progress. In Hathi, an elephant haunts a dreamer even when he’s awake. In the dream, the elephant occupies the inner courtyard of a house. The dreamer wonders whether the elephant had already existed before the structure was built around it. The story expands the lexicon of Punjabi fiction by using words that are considered taboo. While Sog Sahai explores human yearning to reclaim lost traditions, the title story, Jogi, Sap, Trah, explores dying traditions on a complex level via its main character Baba Jogi, who explains the moral fall of a person from a jogi to a chogi, the latter being one who lives off handouts. Both Pani Pani and Colony Kahani (which could also be read as Kalu ni Kahani) directly deal with issues of history; the latter story reminds one of Prem Chand’s Shatranj kay Khilari. Nani Chawani Labhdi Aye is similar to Chairman but has less historical baggage. It is more endearing because it relates to a person meditating her own memories rather than handing over her agency to the author. Morni Nun Cutti Ho Gayi and Kurlat share their mood with the title story because of the central figures being artists who suffer at the hands of a society unappreciative of them for one reason or another. The player tries to break the class barrier via sex and sexual politics using imagery that is jittery and hilarious at the same time.
The book contains almost thirty stories, which makes it difficult to do justice to the review. Nain Sukh is a master at offering dense text, yet at the same time, applying subtle touches such as a passing reference to the protagonist’s memory of having been a victim of child-rape by a maulvi at a mosque in the story Hathi. For the purpose of a more engaging review, I would’ve preferred that the book did not have more than ten or twelve stories, primarily, because Nain Sukh’s prose doesn’t allow for a light reading. Also, his prose can easily be reduced to what can look like a lesson in history that can make one overlook the main characters and the central point of the story. Even in his most humanistic story Kharyali, de Vakhali, the agency of the main character yields to the author’s tremendous desire to flesh out the contours of history. In essence, it is a story about an innocent man, a Pakistani Hindu, accused of being an Indian agent, now freed from a Pakistani jail after several decades, heading to meet his friend Mahna Mussali.
Nain Sukh’s stories reflect a deep concern for the suffering of the downtrodden and those with a sensitive soul. In his stories one detects an underlying thesis that most of the suffering in the lives of his characters is because of cultural and historical ignorance that has been imposed on them by a corrupt ruling elite. He has a point, but by giving too much weight to this way of thinking, he risks overloading most of the stories with historical details. That cuts the characters to a much smaller size than the historical facts being cited. Also by not giving his characters the opportunity to find more subtle ways to talk about those historical facts, their voices are drowned out by that of the narrator/author. Kurlat makes a good attempt to let the protagonist do the talking and by the end of the story the reader can understand how the narrator’s personal pain compliments the nohas he recites during Muharram, even though he is not of the Shia faith.
My advice to Nain Sukh is to let the characters take charge. The reader craves to experience more of a character’s interiority, the kind Nain Sukh allows the protagonist of Hathi. Stories in this collection seem to be striking a balance between a qissa and a stream of consciousness, the mixing of medieval and post-modernism, so to speak, with mixed results. Having said that, these stories are a delight to read and while reading these one cannot but feel one’s Punjabi soul arising. That’s not a small feat to accomplish. I hope that many among those who speak and love the Punjabi language will pick up this book and relish the uniquely rich language Nain Sukh has recreated.
Jogi, Sap, Trah
Author: Nain Sukh
Publisher: Kitab Trinjan, Lahore
Price: Rs 400
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