Riffat Abbas’s newly translated novel is about an imaginary city without kings, suppression or wars
Can you imagine a city where there is no religion? As there is no religion, the inhabitants of the city have no idea of any supreme metaphysical authority. In absence of belief in such an authority, they haven’t built a political system that entrusts all powers to a single authoritarian figure. They have no king, nor any other authority enjoying absolute power over people. As there is no king, there is no accumulation of wealth, nor palaces, huge mansions and castles. Of course, there are no armies. Moreover, there are no conflicts, no wars – within and without. As there are no wars and no bloodshed, there are no violent deaths. Dwellers of the city, though mortal human beings, have succeeded in fending off death. They live a free, vigorous, creative life.
The story of this ideal city is narrated by Rifat Abbas, veteran Saraiki poet, in his debut novel Namak ka Jeevan Ghar (Life House of Salt), recently translated by Munawar Akash into Urdu. What ordinary minds fail to imagine, the genre of fiction easily does. Poetics of modern fiction daringly bust the notions of ordinary reality nestled in our subconscious minds in a bid to refresh, refurbish and enrich our experiences of reality. A good novel unlocks doors to novel worlds and to the realms of our existence we keep disregarding under pressure of our society and daily, busy routines.
At first sight the conception of a city without religion, war and death appears to be the work of a utopian mind. We know that a utopian world is invented as a remedy to an unbearable desperation mostly caused by our failure to endure pressures of our present. But as we go through the novel, we come to realise its raison d’être is less psychological and more historical. Abbas seeks to reclaim maqami saqafti rooh (the indigenous cultural soul) ravaged by foreign invaders, left floundering under the colonisers’ oppressive narratives. Though the thrust of his Seraiki poetry is charged with the retrieval of indigeneity, he has found the genre of novel more powerful in this regard. The resonance of a similar theme can be traced in his poetry.
Foujan apni barkin do ich wapas wanjin Rifat
Sakoon apni jhummar keetay ja lurendi pai ae
[Armies must retreat to their barracks for we need our soil (occupied by the armies) to dance a jhummar].
The novel is set in Loonri Shahr (The City of Salt), which is an imagined city but bears strong resemblance to Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus valley. Many waves of invaders have ravaged the life, society, economy, cultures and languages of the Indus valley over the last six thousand years. Abbas seeks to retrieve and reclaim the original-indigenous cultural soul of this region through this novel. Hence, this is essentially a postcolonial novel.
Though frequently used in postcolonial studies the term original remains problematic. In most cases it is a construct and an interpretation open to contestation. So the acts of retrieval and reclamation are essentially acts of reading, though done with the conscious purpose of decolonisation. Abbas as a postcolonial writer and a son of the soil believes in his right to speak to colonising powers and to offer his own interpretation and version of indigeneity.
He employs the word namak (salt) instead of commonly used matti (clay) to signify the indigeneity. Clearly no overt or covert effort has been made to belittle or diminish the significance of earthly traits of the culture portrayed in the novel. He seeks to narrate the story of ‘salt of the earth’. Salt signifies sensuality of taste and creative vigour, radiance and a sort of dynamism. Hence, art occupies a central place in the grand narrative of the novel.
At first sight the conception of a ‘city without religion, war and death’ appears as the work of a utopian mind… But as we go through the novel, we come to realise its raison d’être is less psychological and more historical.
There is a Natak Ghar (theatre) in the city which is not only an open place for all sorts of artistic activities but where all social and political issues are debated by resorting to a specific theatrical logic. Theatrical logic is a subspecies of narrative logic which stands opposite to the cold-mechanical-abstract-beyond-common-experience-elitist-philosophical logic. As narrative logic is embedded in and extracted from the warmth of real, common, collective experiences of life, it stays closer to the common man and is absolutely non-elitist in nature. Likewise, theatre is a non-elitist place providing an open space to every Tom, Dick and Harry. Not surprisingly, the Natak Ghar in the novel functions like a parliament but without the treasury or opposition benches. Each citizen of the City of Salt enjoys equality of status and rights. None of them is privileged to lead others. They have come to realise that belief in the charisma of a leader lays the foundation of inequality based on a horrendous system of hierarchies, dividing society into an elite class of rulers and underprivileged classes of subjects.
In absence of all kinds of divisions and hierarchies, inhabitants of the City of Salt never experience any sort of exploitation – economic, social, cultural, gender-based or discursive. The novel revolves around the search for Lonrka, an artist, who has gone missing for unknown reasons. Inhabitants of the city have not been able to forget him. They desperately look for him in every nook and corner of the city. However, they never let their imagination eulogise him as a hero, god or an entity blessed with metaphysical powers. They have invented several art forms but none of them has yielded to metaphysical themes. Whatever they write, make, sing, paint or act is unambiguously related to their life. They design a calendar calculating time since the disappearance of Lonrka. Names of days, months and years are taken from the people and local birds and animals of their land, not from stars or god-like entities. “Duniya ki saari kala jeevan hae agar isay devta saazi, dharam aur jang say alag rakha jaiy.” (All arts spring from life if they keep gods, religions and wars at bay).
Citizens of the City of Salt have developed a unique way to understand, negotiate and tackle their collective issues. First, they give their full, uninterrupted attention (dhian) to the issue. Then they take it to the theatre – their Lok Nagar or parliament. This way they address all issues at deeply personal and social-collective levels. For instance, when Muhammad Bin Qasim’s envoy puts three options before them: embrace Islam, pay jiziya (capitation) or go to war with them, they decide to decline all three. This happens because they have unflinching faith in the freedom of speech. They let each person of their city and the people of distant lands blurt their hearts out. In the end they believe that all wars wreak bloodbaths, deaths and miseries on people and environment and that only political power is wielded in the name of religion.
The idea that indigenous, common people of the world share the same language of empathy and have the same unequivocal faith against making gods out of the miseries of the world resonates throughout the novel. The common man believes in celebrating life and detests efforts leading to death and narratives eulogising killings. As their love for art is entrenched in their love for life, their art leaves no room for gods, kings, wars and death. When the citizens of the City of Salt come across the Brahminic holy scriptures, they notice that these great books scorn common masses of pre-Vedic periods by calling them rakshasa. “It is customary that all invaders abuse those people whose land they grab”, reads a line in the novel. Blaming victims is an inverse psychological strategy the colonisers and victimisers usually adopt to suppress the qualms about their crimes.
Actors and clowns from the City of Salt and from England appear on the stage together. They create a semblance of war, though without bloodshed and death. As art never ends, the negotiation through art never draws to a close, so clowns from both sides keep appearing on stage with new ideas and new stories. This way the novel offers an overture to decolonise minds entrenched in past colonial formations. That it is the art where all kinds of binaries, hierarchies and boundaries begin to melt and where we come across timelessness. Art defeats time and death.
Divided in sixteen chapters and each chapter starting with a diary-like narration by the writer juxtaposing the present with remote past, Namak ka Jeevan Ghar is an outstanding novel. A must-read indeed.
Namak ka Jeevan Ghar
Author: Riffat Abbas
Publisher: Fiction House, Lahore
Price: Rs 600
The reviewer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of Punjab, Lahore. His book Jadeediat Aur Naubadaiyat was recently published by the Oxford University Press