A riddle of binaries

September 11, 2022

In his latest anthology of short stories, Columeau dives deep into the cultural, psychical and existential realms of region

A riddle of binaries


ulian Columeau is French by birth, a vagabond by chance and an Urdu writer by choice. Choices are usually taken as a springboard for our desire to live a free, independent, out-of-the-box life. But ultimately, almost all choices turn into an act of mapping and traversing socio-politico-cultural limits and latitudes, rather than cutting across them. So, Columeau’s choices of becoming an itinerant person and an Urdu writer seem to have been spurred by his explorative and quasi-nomadic spirit the French and the modern Western culture are infused with and which accounts for the “blend of knowledge and power” that each modern Western society is characterised with. Columeau’s peripatetic yearnings are pegged to the exploring-knowing modern Western spirit. Besides French and English, he learnt Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali – obviously to explore and know South Asia in line with his precursor Orientalists. Columeau’s PhD dissertation on Pakistani Punjabi literature also testifies to his scholarly interest in exploring the region’s history, politics and culture. However, what he has brought out as a result of his explorative endeavours is Urdu fiction. This means that he has employed both intellectual and imaginative faculties to go deep into the cultural-psychical-existential realms of our region. Following Orientalists, Columeau has an interest in knowing the people and culture of ‘other regions’ through archives and documents. His fiction is not just a blend of intellect and imagination, but also an amalgamation of archival facts and fantasy. He has based most of his stories on the lives of Urdu writers and artists like Saghar Siddiqui, Meeraji, Mohsin Naqvi, Intezar Hussain, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and others. Facts about their lives, endeavours, achievements and their dominant instincts have been carefully researched and then fictionalised. In fictionalising the facts about writers’ lives, Columeau consciously or unconsciously resorts to the modern Western gaze that involves a complex set of binaries and hierarchies.

One can discern this complex set of binaries and hierarchies running through five out of the seven stories, the book Dareeda Haraamda Aur Doosari Kahanian (Derrida, the bastard and other stories) contains. From choosing the theme of the stories to entwining the destiny of local characters to that of Western protagonists, we find hierarchical binaries in place. Can it be a coincidence that in each of the five stories, the West comes to be subtly juxtaposed with the non-West? In Dareeda Haraamda, the titular story, for instance, Sheikhupura-based teacher of philosophy, Sheeda’s destiny is inextricably intertwined with Paris-based philosopher Jacques Derrida. The second story, Mutarjima (Translator) bills Faiz Ahmad Faiz as the protagonist, yet the portrayal of his person, doings and poetic endeavours absolutely hinge upon the preferences of the narrator of the story who happens to be his Russian translator, a white woman. While the title of the third story, Manhoos Angraiz (The Cursed Englishman), seems to suggest that some English man is slated as a cursed white man, the narrator, a student of fine arts, discovers that that the white man leaves no stone unturned to lambast Pakistani people.

The fourth story in the book narrates how Feroz Iqbal, a London-based Pakistani musician plagiarises the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s oratorio Mysterium which Scriabin couldn’t complete in his life. Early in the story, Feroz Iqbal fails to create something original like the oratorio of Heer Ranjha and is portrayed as incapable of even completing an unfinished project of a European oratorio. He lacks originality and ingenuity. He is so ambitious that he unabashedly rips off a composition by a young European visiting northern Pakistan to look for a sufi.

In the fifth story (translated from the Punjabi by Shahid Shaidai), the protagonist, Qari Zafar, is as a serial killer of prostitutes and westernised women. Here the infamous binaries of religion and secularism and Islam and West have been brought into play. The story shows Islamists as not only hating Western symbols and westernised people but also trying to eliminate them with a religious zeal. Qari Zafar calls himself a soldier in God’s army.

He has based most of his stories on the lives of Urdu writers and artists like Saghar Siddiqui, Meeraji, Mohsin Naqvi, Intezar Hussain, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. 

This reviewer believes that there is nothing wrong in juxtaposing something bright with something dark in fiction. Also, a great part of the best fiction has been created out of the conflict between two opposing forces. Notwithstanding the juxtaposition, Columeau’s stories lack conflictual situations. Conflict is played out when an opposing force unflinchingly challenges its counterpart’s actual political or moral authority and seeks to subvert it. In Columeau’s stories, local characters are portrayed as either too passive and ineligible to controvert white people’s hubris (Manhoos Angariz), or their epistemological power (Dareeda Haramda) or have harboured indecisive, ambivalent attitudes towards the West and its modernity, or are shown carrying out violence against their own people (Qari Zafar). Fiction does not require a conflict to be staged externally; it can be at some deep down psychological plane and still rip through a character’s existence. Columeau’s stories do not much explore the inner psychic regions of his characters. In some places, the local characters appear to be quite non-reflective people.

Dareeda Haramada’s Shahid alias Sheeda first indulges in philosophy and then falls in love with Jacques Derrida, one of the stalwarts of 20th Century French philosophy. After a wrangle with a religious clique among university students, Sheeda’s life is at stake. Though a big landholder, legislator and influential person, his father yields to the threat from the religious fanatics and suggests that he leave the country. Sheeda chooses to go to Paris where Derrida is set to give a series of seminars. The important thing to note is that, for Sheeda, Derrida is not just a philosopher but a murshid, a revered and loved person. Sheeda is more intent thus on showing reverence for Derrida’s person than reflecting on his philosophical ideas. Derrida’s logocentrism, deconstruction, aporia, differance etc get a scant mention and are mostly kept outside Sheeda’s mental world. Derrida was a critic of logo-centrism that privileges speech over writing and bestows all power to the speaker and author in the process of formation of meaning. So, the notion of murshid, a transcendental source of inspiration and guidance, has no place in Derrida’s philosophy. Sheeda is depicted in oblivion of this simple fact about Derrida’s philosophy. Can we insinuate that Sheeda, representing a Pakistani breed of intellectuals, is incapable of fathoming the depth of post-modern Western philosophy?

Sheeda’s life is full of paradoxes. He loves a giant of the post-modern intellectual world but fails to begin a life as even an intellectual, employing his own power of intellect to unravel societal problems and then take a position. Instead, he wants, Derrida – as his murshid – to provide him the answers to questions bearing existentialist significance. Derrida who is shown visiting Lahore in 1997 (the year he visited India) in Sheeda’s fantasy, pays no heeds to his questions. This angers Sheeda, a self-proclaimed diehard disciple of Derrida’s, who starts looking for Derrida to exact his revenge for the perceived insult. At the end of the story, it is revealed that Derrida never visited Lahore and that this was entirely a figment of Sheeda’s imagination. Sheeda then goes missing, leaving some important questions behind.

In Mutarjima (Translator), the second story of the book, the protagonist is Faiz Ahmad Faiz, though an effort has been made to disguise him. Narrated by a Russian female translator of his poetry, the story recounts Faiz’s visits to Russia and how he was awarded a peace prize and feted by the communist government. One can easily sense that the female European character is juxtaposed with a male Pakistani character. Though the male Pakistani character is a poet of international stature, he is eclipsed by her European female translator. As the story is narrated by a ‘female European translator’, a sort of silence is foisted on Faiz. The story suggests that the embracing of Western philosophy of Marxism was what made Faiz a global celebrity so that he was feted in Muslim states under the influence of the former USSR as a ‘success story’. It also suggests that Faiz was aware of the darker side of the great communist world power but preferred to close his eyes to it. This allowed him to go on basking in the luxury the Soviet government lavished on him. Further, throughout the story, Faiz’s health and poetry as well morality are in a constant, steep decline. Faiz, who had flirted with an earlier translator Asia (who later had to face indescribable hardship at the hands of secret agencies) failed to ravish her white-Western successor. The story suggest that she loved Faiz and revered his belongings – including the poems dedicated to her – she also feared the consequences of the disclosure of an intimate relationship. This story brings into question the iconic image of poet Faiz. In contrast, Nazim Hikmat’s character is portrayed as sober and strong. He insists that Faiz should treat his translator as a daughter and is at odds with Russians who expect Third World writers to adhere to a glorified image of Russia.

Most of the stories in the book are ‘character stories’, narrating decisive events in a protagonist’s life. Though there are brief episodes of fantasy, the stories overall follow candid, realistic and at places straight, unfeigned style. The plots are not as convoluted and intricate as in many modern and post-modern Urdu short stories. The stories are therefore easy to read, but not easy to consume. Once you have read them, you need to brace for gleaning the intricacies lying beneath the surface. Pleasure reading soon turns into intellectual musings. Each of the stories presents the reader with a riddle of the binaries and the hierarchies on one side and with the play of presence and absence on the other: the overpowering presence of white-Western and the faint absence of local, non-Western. In Derrida’s deconstruction, the absence or traces can put up a resistance against a staggering presence and subvert the presence. This is a rare occurrence in these stories.

Dareeda Haraamda Aur Doosari Kahanian

Author: Julian


Publisher: Maktaba-e-Danyal, 2022

Pages: 234

The reviewer is a Lahore-based critic and short story writer and a professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab. He is the author of dozens of books including the award winning Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid

A riddle of binaries