Stories from another era

Muhammad Hameed Shahid’s new novel explores violence from the victim’s point of view

Stories from another era

Many narratives are available on the East Pakistan crisis. The most popular among them have been the eyewitness accounts of the tragic incidents produced by the military officers who served in East Pakistan during or before the 1971 war. These works include Lt-Gen Kamal Matinuddin’s Tragedy of Errors: East Pakistan Crisis 1968-1971 (which I translated as Naslon nay Saza Pai: Bohran-i-Dhaka 1968-1971), Brig Siddique Salik’s Witness to Surrender (Maen nay Dhaka Doobtay Dekha in Urdu), Maj-Gen Rao Farman Ali’s How Pakistan Got Divided, Maj-Gen Khadim Hussain Raja’s A Stranger in My Own Country, and most importantly, Lt-Gen AAK Niazi’s The Betrayal of East Pakistan, to name a few. While some of these (such as Matinuddin’s Tragedy of Errors) have been seen as academically sound and free from emotionalism. Many of the ‘factual’ accounts of the fall of Dhaka are either self-contradictory or reject one another’s claims.

What cannot be rejected as untrue, however, is Muhammad Hameed Shahid’s novel Mitti Adam Khati Hae (literally, “soil eats man”) which recounts the 1971 war and does what no factual account can ever do: it humanises the victims of war, no matter which side of the theatre they belonged to. And while most of the historical works of the 1971 war (or any war for that matter) rationalise violence as an inevitable option, and sometimes even glorify it, Shahid’s novel condemns all forms of violence.

Ironically, asserting anthropocentrism, and exploring violence from the victim’s point of view, the novel suggests that humans are responsible for all the misery in human societies as they have institutionalised violence. In doing so, it also suggests that one of the reasons for planned aggression has been human’s lust to possess mitti (soil) which, is never loyal to anyone as instead of letting us claim it, at the end of the day, the earth claims us. The novel also educates us on how ideologies of violence can devalue human life: “A sacred duty before which even a living human being is worthless. Human beings whose image they used to put on a board for us to practice shooting and learn marksmanship.”

Mitti Adam Khati Hae also educates us on the strategy and psychology of the Bengali resistance by stating that East Pakistanis were culturally different from West Pakistanis. They did not idolise their ruling elite and they did not worship their Khan Jis. They analysed the smells and semiotics of the roads of Islamabad, pointed out economic disparities, and after their demands went unheard, they raised their voice, and finally engaged in violence. That said, Shahid does not attempt to make room for any excuse to resort to bloodshed (unlike many other writers and intellectuals who believe that armed resistance is a natural outcome in such circumstances and is therefore justified). His account of the killing of Muneeba’s father by Mukti Bahni, for instance, makes readers abhor the brutal treatment of pro-Pakistan Bengalis and non-Bengalis living across East Pakistan.

It [the book] also suggests that one of the reasons for planned aggression has been humans’ lust to possess mitti (soil) which, in fact, is never loyal to anyone as instead of letting us claim it, at the end of the day, the earth claims us.

One important lesson we learn from Mitti Adam Khati Hae is how a troubled past can be memorialised in fiction. The author neither claims access to a vantage point like most of the 1971 war historians would do nor does he over-emphasise the intellectual ownership of his theories of violence-free humanism that exhibits itself even as a war is on as we see in the novel.

To keep the memory of the 1971 war alive, he employs two innovative techniques. First, on one hand he deploys multiple narrators – the editor for the earthquake frame story, the Amanuensis who listens to the protagonist and writes his reflections, and Capt Saleem, who narrates the main story – and on the other, he invites the readers to develop the missing links and participate in an ongoing conversation to create an engaging interactive story. Second, the writer includes a lot of meta-fictional commentary on how this story is going to be different and why. Both these techniques democratise the process of story-telling and hint upon the writer’s anti-clash beliefs suggesting that just like this story, the story of life (of a family, a society, a nation, a region or the world at large) can be based on a conversation instead of a conflict.

Like Shamsur Rahman Faruqi – one of the most prominent figures of Urdu literature – has rightly pointed out in his blurb to the book, Shahid’s concern is politics. Mitti Adam Khati Hae is a passionate lament about the absence of principled politics in the world. The patriarch, Khan Ji, can be read as a metaphorical character that symbolises the exploiters (or colonisers), local as well as international. Does Khan Ji’s innocently romantic and straightforward younger brother Shehroz Khan also symbolise some concept, ideology or territory? If so, what does Saleem represent? Who does Muneeba portray? Who is Maj Jaleel? What is the Note-taker? In order to figure out answers to these and other such questions, you have to read Mitti Adam Khati Hae and situate it in our past and present political contexts.

Mitti Adam   Khati Hae

Author: Muhammad Hameed Shahid

Publisher: Akadami Bazyaft

Pages: 122

Price: Rs 150

The reviewer is the Head of the Centre for Language Teaching at the    International Islamic    University Islamabad and the author of Urdu novel, Sasa.   His most recent   publication is   Razm Nama-i-Gilgamesh

Stories from another era