Over the last few weeks I have been seeing a lot of “best of 2015” book lists, and of course I only focus on the ones that include translated fiction, not be swayed by others opinions I only started reading others favourite lists since I put together my own personal list. The majority of the listings featuring translated fiction have a number of similar works, but today’s book, my second favourite work, does not feature that prominently in the debate, why it has slipped under the radar I don’t know.
I originally attempted to source this book purely because it was translated from the Urdu and comes from a region where I have had little exposure to the literature. Fortunately after troubles downloading the eBook in Australia, getting quoted astronomical postage prices for a copy from overseas, the publisher New Directions came to the rescue and sent me a copy. I’m forever grateful that I have now been exposed to an amazing writer from the area bordering India and Pakistan.
Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, born in 1923, is a highly respected businessman as well as a multi awarded writer. From General Manager at the Muslim Commercial Bank in 1950 to the President of the United Bank in 1977 onto Chairman of the Pakistan Banking Council, following his father’s footsteps (his father the Speaker of the Jaipur Legislative Assembly). In January 1950 his family migrated to Pakistan after the Urdu language was replaced by Hindi in India, so four years after the partition of India and the creation of East (later to be known as Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (later to become simply Pakistan).
“Mirages of the Mind” opens with an explanatory, uncredited, “introduction” where a “reading guide” is presented on the “encyclopaedic culture”, the “Poetic punning”, “narrative digressions”, and “cultural nostalgia”. Whilst handy at assisting with the reading, these instructions are not mandatory and a reading of the book would not be diminished without the assistance,it does contain some memorable material, including a quote from Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself:
You cannot write humour until you love your target or subject of attack. Love is the foremost condition. In satire it’s not necessary.
Yes, this is a humour filled story, whilst containing lashings of satire, it is primarily a funny tale, one with a unique structure.
Our work is split into five sections, each containing chapters, those containing subheadings and within them quotes of world poetry (with a bent towards the Urdu poets of course). So rather than a linear plot, we have vignettes, different story tellers, flash backs, oral tales and interpretations. Yes it does sound “challenging”....
I spent a significant portion of this work thinking “Don Quixote, Don Quixote” and although the parallels are at times obvious, this is not simply the tales of a “Man of Karachi”. Let’s have Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself describe the plot (this appears in the “Author’s Afterword”):
‘The Mansion’ tells the story of a dilapidated, abandoned mansion and its hot-tempered owner. ‘A Schoolteacher’s Dream’ is about a depressed horse, a barber, and a secretary. ‘Two Tales of the City’ is the story of a small room and the eccentric man who lived there for seventy-five years. ‘The First Memorable Poetry Festival of Dhiraj Ganj’ presents caricatures of one teacher and the founder of an infamous country school. ‘The Car, The Man from Kabul, and The Lampless Aladdin’ is a long-winded series of anecdotal sketches about a ramshackle car, an illiterate Pathan lumber merchant, and a lying braggart of a driver. In all, the characters, whether they be central, secondary, or merely to fill out the scenes, are all by definition ‘common’, and when it comes to social status, ordinary; for this reason, they deserve extra attention and consideration. All that I’ve seen, learned, and loved about life has come through such people. It’s been my bad luck that the ‘great’ or ‘successful’ people I’ve happened to run across have been entirely second-rate, rancorous, and superficial.
Our storyteller, narrator, is two fold, our scribe, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself who add his notes and Basharat, who tells the oral stories, which are scribed. This can make for confusing reading, however it is the stories of the minor people which is the key here, whether from the mouth of Basharat or the quill of Yousufi the richness of these low social class players is what you are enjoying.
To start with we have Bashara Ali Farooqui’s father-in-law, Qibla, who once a feared wood merchant in Kanput, moves to Karachi and loses his “kingdom’, although reduced to living with his daughter and son-in-law in Pakistand he spends his time looking back to better times.
With digressions and meanderings a feature, the path you follow with Yousufi as your guide, is never dull. I felt slightly reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers”, however it is not only the travelling and the rich characterisation or humour that comes into play in our work, we have the biting satire of Pakistani society, even a criticism of the quality of historical Urdu prose:
Sometimes words are dressed up in angarkha gowns, sometimes in floor-length cloaks, sometimes in scholarly turbans, sometimes in dinner jackets, and sometimes in fool’s caps. Sometimes words wear anklets, and sometimes they wear fetters. And sometimes they are like trained monkeys that dance on a showman’s command.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote about his birth like this: ‘I, alien to time itself, born into the wrong era, a stranger amidst my own people, raised pious folk, ruined by desire, named Ahmad, called Kalam, can from the world of non-being into the world of being in 1888 (1305 Hijra), and thus was accused of living.’
People don’t write like that anymore. People aren’t born like that anymore. Not even a C-section takes that long and causes that much suffering.
Back to Qibla, his move to Karachi came about as “Pakistan came into being” and all of Qibla’s enemy’s had moved there, he “couldn’t live without hating them” and the large scale migration had caused his income to be non-existent. He had no other option but to “cut the cord’. Of course Qibla finds the migration difficult. To adapt to change you need “tolerance, patience, gentleness, and flexibility.” Attributes that Qibla, as a tyrant, does not possess, “the fact was that these qualities weren’t considered attributes in feudal society. Strictness, wilfulness, haughtiness, harshness, and a bad temper were all thought to be the strengths – and true qualities – of a feudal character.”
Our second section follows QIbla’s son-in-law Basharat’s time as a dreamer and a schoolteacher, a wood trader and a horse and cart owner (and all the tribulations that go with that). In this section we get to see the poverty in Karachi:
In front of the bank, a man was selling fish from a platform raised four feet off the ground. His undershirt had countless holes in it. His undershirt and lungi were covered in fish blood and guts. When his hands got dirty, he wiped them on his lungi so that the old gunk absorbed the new gunk. From time to time, when he splashed water over the fish, a swarm of flies flew up, and only then could you see how small the fish were, and which type. The filthy water and cast off fish parts flowed down a drain and collected in a canister. When he sold a big fish, he used a cleaver to hack at it, and the blood and guts flowed into this canister. When the canister filled up, he set it to the side and started using another. Standing on their hind legs, cats would dart their mouths forward to catch the discarded meat parts as the refuse slid toward the canister. Those watching were terrified that the cleaver might suddenly clip one of the cat’s heads and then – POP! When a young woman came by to buy fish, the fish-seller would make a fist and shout curses longingly at the cats. In one hour, he sold two full canisters for one anna each. A man told me that the poor would cook their rice in it to give it a fishy aroma. Three households shared one canister. Among the poor, only those that were relatively better off cold afford this luxury!
Although the narrative vividly displays a warts-and-all picture of Karachi and the lower social class inhabitants, it is also a work richly filled with nostalgia, dreaming, talking of times that were better. Our book’s title refers to nostalgia; “The river of memories flowed on, but it descended into the mirages of the mind”. Even our author gets nostalgic, one of the many footnotes:
It’s sad that we’re quickly losing track of the old and beautiful names of colours. Tomorrow who will be able to recognize them? Vermillion, nut brown, aloeswood, jujube, cotton, azure, camel, emerald, red onion, scarlet, grass, dark purple, chicory, nacre, pearl, lotus, light green, pale yellow, falso-berry purple, jumun-fruit mauve, tobacco, golden, watermelon, earthen, ochre, mung dal, mulberry, orange, grape, raisin, dove, deep purple, pistachio, peach, peacock, ebony, ambergris, henna, violet, saffron, pale purple, as well as mystical and vulgar. If we’ve buried our word-hoards in the earth, then that’s one thing. But we’ve also buried the rainbows that sprang from the womb of our land.
Khan Sahib is a wood merchant and broker, he comes to Karachi to retrieve a bad debt from Basharat, as is custom whilst in Karachi he stays at Basharat’s home and we then enter into a plethora of tales about this larger than life character. Our book is bursting with cultural gems:
Khan Sahib’s frequent visits to Karachi to recover his arrears made him fluent in seven languages. I mean, he could curse in Urdu, Persian, Gujarati, and four local languages. As far as possible, he cursed out the objects of his displeasure in their mother tongue. But if he happened to run short of swearwords, or felt like they weren’t having any impact, or if the person was really shameless, then he hammered the last nails into his coffin with some choice Pashto phrases, which cursed out several generations of his ancestors. There’s no doubt that the Koka_Shastra – curse words that are in vogue here make English curses (and those of all other languages) seem like feather pillow for a pillow fight, or the gurgling of babies burping up breast milk.
The gradual loss of Urdu language, the cultural impact is a subject that also crops up throughout. Remember, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself moved to Pakistan when Hindi replaced Urdu as the official language in their area, these events, trickling through to our novel:
How could it possibly be that your beloved tongue is cut off at the root, the flag of sincere tolerance is lowered, and yet the culture left over would flourish?
Basharat often says that he will never forget how and illiterate Pathan from Peshawar made him give up his stilted style of greeting, which has been nurtured in his family for four generations.
In the section “Two Tales of the City” (of course a play on Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”) we suddenly learn of Basharat’s wife’s death and he himself starts to suffer from nostalgia. There is a wonderful quote to describe this, however our “Introduction” uses such so I’ll move on.
You know you are in for a ride when the introduction to your book says it’s “a challenging book. It is challenging because of its length but more so due to its erudition.” Never one to shirk a challenge, and given I was looking forward to reading some Urdu fiction in translation, I dived straight in. And what a wonderfully colourful and rich world we have.
Personally this is one of my highlights of 2015, yes a difficult book, but not as daunting as our introduction leads you to believe, a journey into a different world, a cultural gem and one that will surely be included in debates when the Best Translated Book Award nominees are being discussed.