Hammad Rind deftly intertwines cultural elements to create prose transcending geography and other identity markers
our people gather around in a graveyard to tell stories on a night during a power cut. Sounds all too familiar? Except that they meet in a mystery land where magic excites and terrifies all witnesses.
If someone had told me that one day I’d be reading about the rise of vampires in Balkan states during the month of Savan; or I’d become a devotee of the Pak-Nak Khatun or Our Lady of the Sacred Nose whose beauty was in the same vein as Ava Gardener, Nahid Akhtar and the Queen of Sheba; or I’d find myself reading about Karbala only to leave me coveting for a title like the Verdi of Woe not so much for the Faberge egg but to come across manuals such as Bury Your Own Dead For Dummies; or that – and this I found brilliant – that knees were the new cleavage, I would not have believed it.
All this, and more, happens in Four Dervishes as Hammad Rind weaves various strands from across the globe seamlessly to create beautiful prose that leaves one wondering how he does it. Adopting a technique similar to the traditional daastaan and a Chaucerian style, he deftly intertwines cultural elements, transcending geography and other identity markers. Take for example: huqqa, qalyan, narguile, argile, Karim Khan, lula, hubble-bubble, pleasure-pipe – by whatever name it is mentioned, it’s the first choice of all connoisseurs; men, women, caterpillars, princes and of course, lovers (pg 60).
It is as if all man-made boundaries and differences melt away leaving behind a spellbinding universality. For example: “she would be wolfing down sweetmeats – Multani Sohan, Dehlavi qalaqand, Khushabi dhodha, Shahpuri patisa, Gazaintep baklava, Bengali rosho-gulla, Yorkshire parkin, Isfahani gaz, Occitan nougat, Florida key lime pie, Mesopotamian carasucia, Manila halo-halo, Eton mess – throughout the day”. One could point out that that’s a journey through time and across the world but it’s more of an afterthought when one is simply dying for something sweet. And that’s the beauty of Four Dervishes.
It’s not an easy read as it commands full focus given the fantastical creation of land where the ancient meets the mundane – such as Mrs Kennedy and the Camel-Man. But there in the company of Freddy, Leila and Zoltan, the dazzling array of characters who entertain and fascinate, one almost forgets the power cuts of daily life.
One wonders what caused Rind to write a novel packed with references spanning different regions, cultures and periods. Was this a product of nostalgia or a marriage between his past and present? “There is definitely nostalgia; it has its role there,” he says. “For example, I open the novel with an episode on load-shedding, an experience shared by all Pakistanis, followed by a detailed description of a character inspired by many PTV dramas I watched as a child. Also, I have always been a voracious reader and my reading interests are quite eclectic. So it just felt natural to write something with a wide variety of references. Moreover, I personally like books packed with references and foreign words that open a window for you to look out for or urge you to look them up or find out about them. That way you also establish a personal link with the work.”
They say that when authors write their first book they tend to put themselves in it, some even mine their lives to put in. Rind seems to agree. “We cannot escape ourselves so there is indeed some of me in my book, for example, my passion for languages turns up every now and then. There are also some observations or a few anecdotes, for example, the story of the marsiya-khwan, which my grandmother used to tell us about her grandfather, who was a Zakir-i-Ahle Bait. However, I wouldn’t call Four Dervishes a biographical work as I didn’t heavily rely on my personal experiences in my writing.”
Rind writes in the style of oral history or dastaan. And yet there is something of Chaucer about his storytelling. He apparently takes what is primarily Eastern-inspired culture and narrates it in a different style. He thinks the two traditions of story-telling have links that are sometimes not very obvious. “The dastaan, that had Indian and Persian roots, entered the Arabic literary tradition in the Abassid era. It later influenced European literature – for example, the Renaissance cycle of stories Decameron by Boccaccio and the Spanish epic novel Don Quixote by Cervantes, widely considered the first novel in European literature, both show clear influences from the various Eastern dastaans such as One Thousand and One Nights. In fact, Cervantes attributes the novel to a fictional Arab Muslim, Cide Hemete, which could be a Spanish form of Seedi or Sayyid Hamid.”
Magic realism and satire are two genres many can only dream of writing. It’s clear that Rind relishes taking on elements of certain cultures and parodying them. Knees! Who knew that knees could bring forth such passion! Or that tree-hugging could be taken to a literal level. He says that it was a long process and these observations and thoughts had been cooking in his mind before he picked up the pen to put them down. “I’ve always loved satire and found it a very effective device to deliver social critique. Rabelais says that to laugh is proper to the man (and woman, I should add). During my formative years, I read quite a bit of satire in Urdu, English and French by Swift, Insha and Voltaire and absurd humour by the likes of Monty Python is my favourite type of comedy personally. All that may have influenced my writing style.”
In this day and age where commercial literature is in demand, there is very little room for detailed prose. Yet, Rind focuses on the smallest of details weaving them together to create a beautiful tapestry that leaves one in awe. “My focus was to be sincere to my writing style and to what I felt was true to me or to my craft. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, going down with details. I love reading stories that go off on tangents. Arabian Nights is one example of that type of story. Tristram Shandy is another. It is so full of digressions that the novel ends before it actually starts... I knew that I was also telling a story and although you may add colours, references and asides to it, you have to come back to the actual story.”
Rind is currently working on the Urdu translation of the debut poetry collection Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore for Zuka Books. He is also “very slowly working on my second novel”, which discusses issues about Diaspora and identity. In addition, he is running a few creative writing workshops for refugees and other vulnerable groups for a charity in Wales.
Author: Hammad Rind
Publisher: Seren Books, 2021
The reviewer is an author and publisher based in Lahore