Paving way for enlightenment

December 12, 2021

Peerzada Salman’s debut explores how deeply entwined art and ordinary life are with each other

Paving way for enlightenment

Peerzada Salman’s debut book of short stories, Ephemera, seems to negotiate the knotty yet clandestine relations between art and ordinary life, or between the sublime power of art and the lowly state of daily life. Modern and postmodern fiction is characterised by an investigation of perennial and ephemeral questions, dilemmas and ironic conditions of life, society and art. Simply narrated tales with entertaining details no longer fall under the category of literary fiction. The never-exhausted interrogative spirit forms the quintessential characteristic of poetics of fiction being written since the middle of the 20th Century. Salman not only explores how events and affairs of ordinary life can be turned into art but also delves into the possibility of how art as an essential can be entwined with real life. He explores and experiments with style and narrative techniques. He seems to believe that it is technique that carves out the course and destiny of the story. In Dialogue, he probes some of the existential problems humans have been facing since time immemorial, while experimenting with varied stylistic and narrative techniques. In this story, nameless voices are in conversation with each other: “What is it about living in bits and pieces, short bursts, in the moment, I just don’t get it, one minute it’s all hunky dory, the very next you find yourself muddling along, eking out, like a social pauper... that’s the way it is idiot... don’t call me idiot, I’m not... I’m just striking up a conversation”. The conversation continues in this manner. There is no final word, no final solution for the tribulations of our existence, ordained to be lived in bits and pieces.

The story, Numbness, is about “living in bits and pieces and about short bursts”. Numbed by the death of a colleague, the narrator of the story is at a gig to cover it for his story. The terrible reality of the death of a young friend has shattered him. On the stage, he sees Rosy with her husband. Despite being immersed in deep grief, he cannot help but be captivated by her beauty. The heart of the narrator is inundated with conflicting feelings of sorrow and desire. However, a close reading of the story discloses that the author also interrogates the problematic but surreal relationhip between death and sexual desire, which often comes to rescue humans from giving in to the overwhelming fear of annihilation stemming from a news of death. While, paradoxically, grief caused by death can spur our survival instinct to find out what is best in our deep psychic regions.

In Lizard, also a narration of a journalist’s routine life, the protagonist is described as pale as death due to his consistent battle with a lizard in his office. Yet he becomes more efficient in his work. The fear of death, though caused by a being as small as a lizard, is not necessarily fatal. Freudian principles of reality and pleasure can join hands, though in a surreal way.

A constant theme of Salman’s stories is how ordinariness of life can be transformed into art and how art can be inducted into the conglomerate of ‘everyday life’. At least six stories in the book are about art and artists. Shakespeare, Kafka, Marquez, Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera seem to be among the author’s favourites. He weaves a few stories around the life and works of these writers. If on a Winter’s Morning a Traveller is about the experience of reading Calvino’s If on a Winter’s night a traveller in the morning while having breakfast at a roadside restaurant, For the Love of Marquez deals with the sociology of literature.

The author seems to perceive and construe the overall scheme of existence and being in the world through the lens of art, not only in that he – following the romantic aphorism – seeks beauty or truth in ordinary events of life, but also in that art brings us closer to the full picture of reality. Art makes us not seek an escape from reality, no matter how terrible, how garish, how disintegrated into pieces and bits it is. This explains why most of the stories in Ephemera are set in a daily, ordinary routine the author, a journalist by profession, follows. This doesn’t mean that the author has just registered and recorded the whims, desires, worries his professional self has to undergo and experience while performing every day chores. Quite contrary to the common perception that only grand or metaphysical construction can give voice to our existential woes, anguishes and sufferings, existential artists believe that it is our essential mundane self that suffers. So, it is a cluster of our small, modest daily experiences which through unintended gestures, blinkering behaviours, shuts, bursts and slang-ridden language, exhibit how immensely we are suffering.

In Lizard, the fear of a tiny reptile is so powerful that it trickles deep down into the psyche of the narrator. As the fear is real, it nudges the instinct of survival in him. Though his face becomes pale out of fear, he becomes more productive in his professional endeavours. In Blue, the colour blue symbolises love, death, beauty and art. It is a story about an artist who frequently uses the colour blue in her paintings and the financier and aficionado of the paintings. He is so captivated by her blue art that he wishes for her to paint his grave blue when he dies. Baffled and a bit disoriented, she discloses that she just uses some software to sketch. Her modest revelation makes him numb and terribly disappointed. This story reminds the reader of Pablo Picasso’s blue series paintings which he made after the suicide of his friend Charles Casamegas in the early years of the 20th Century. The colour blue connotes death and grief.

The theme of Marx and Engels is the eerie, uncanny, dark and in some cases spine-chilling traits that some artists and writers demonstrate in their personal and social lives. Residing together in a plush apartment, Marx and Engels are shown to be living their own, distinct, individualised lives, although their ideological stance had been averse to individualism. Their lives are shockingly grim, ghostly and eerie. Marx is portrayed not as a philosopher but staggeringly as a terrorist, associated with a separatist group. He has also blown up a theatre where the play Timon and Athens is being played, killing 800 people. In this fantasy, Engels is depicted as a rival to Marx. He kills Marx and makes off with his wife. The story seems to convey the insight that absolute focus on intellectual endeavours can alienate us from our ordinary life, causing an intellectual and personal split in us. Our intellectual selves might be considered as a torch bearer of enlightenment for humanity while there is a strong probability that our personal selves are wrapped in unmanageable darkness. Instead of escaping, a negotiation with darkness paves the way for enlightenment. Such is the thrust of Ephemera.


Author: Peerzada Salman

Publisher: The Little Book Company, Karachi

Price: Rs 300

The reviewer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of Punjab, Lahore. His book Jadeediat Aur Naubadiyat was recently published by the Oxford University Press  

Paving way for enlightenment