The Dawn: Sep 5, 2014

Punjab Notes: Books: stories of said and unsaid

Mushtaq Soofi 

Anger and angst are, it appears, what inspires Afzal Rajput to write. He is one of our well-known poets living in Bahawalnagar, a small city sandwiched between the river Sutlej and the Cholistan desert. He already has two books of poetry to his credit.

Recently he has come out with his first book of short stories titled ‘Do Mintaan Di Gall’ (A Matter of Two Minutes) published by Suchet Kitab Ghar, Lahore, that establishes his credentials as a sensitive fiction writer who has the ability to grasp the complex contemporary social life with its glaring and subdued contradictions.

Afzal Rajput’s strength lies in the psycho-social landscape he paints that reflects the diversity of human experience; palatable and unpalatable. In his stories we see the oppressive landlords in their insatiable sexual lust and quietly defiant peasant women in their desperate struggle to retain their sense of honour at the risk of being ejected from their homes.

We come across bureaucrats who with all the display of civility are in fact ruthlessly devious in the pursuit of their personal gains protected by opaque shield of law.

He effortlessly lays bare the tools of oppression; social and legal that are an inseparable part of the power dynamics underlying the socio-economic structure the people are condemned to cope with in their daily life.

Afzal’s repertoire seems impressive. He not only explores minds of the powerful but also knows intimately the psychic make-up of druggies, expats and middleclass characters that are perpetually weighed down in their unending effort to keep up appearances and to ‘prepare the face to meet the faces that you meet’.

Fragility of existence in the face of irresistible forces that shapes the individual’s destiny is the theme that underpins most of his stories. His use of the language though thoughtfully constructed has an air of spontaneity.

In some of the stories, written in 1980s, he employs beautiful local dialect of Nili Bar but gradually evolves an idiom that is closer to the literary language used in the central region of the Punjab.

At times he loses his restrain and his tone becomes bitter and blunt, giving us a feeling that the experience he delves in defies the language. In one or two stories his excessive use of simile sounds jarring.

Having said that one can safely assert that his is one of the best books that has come out in recent years. Three of his stories ‘Shala Musafar Koi Na Theewe’, ‘Akhri Mulaqaat’ and ‘Zarfishan’ are simply outstanding that may stand the test of time.

Our literary scene is awash with poetry which is most of the time a rehash of what has already been expressed. It’s a sign of robust change that some of the poets are turning to prose, especially to fiction.

Sabir Ali Sabir like Afzal Rajput is a poet though younger who has made his debut as a fiction writer with his book of short stories ‘Parchhawen’ (shadows) published by Sanjh Publications, Lahore.

Sabir has no pretensions of being a magician who can pull out of his hat something hitherto unseen or unheard of. He has his lens focused on the crowd, ordinary mortals seen everywhere and anywhere but rarely noticed simply because their very existence, seemly prosaic and devoid of any heroic act, is taken for granted.

He like an intelligent cameraman opens with a wide angle shot of a crowd and slowly but steadily starts zooming in on some characters that do not appear to be capable of offering anything other than what is mundane. But mundane is in fact what concrete life is made of.

Small earthly things if put in perspective appear as linchpin that holds the chain reflecting the continuity of life. Sabir takes small things, explores their interconnections and thus creates significant meanings in what is apparently insignificant.

He makes us look at what we usually ignore because of its ubiquitous presence. So the physiognomy of his characters is not outlandish. On the contrary it’s intimately inviting and compels us to share what is unusually usual in its disarming simplicity.

The characters, he creates, are dowered with human strength that in their tales of woes emit a ray of hope which keeps their unrealized dreams alive. Menagerie, he puts on display, shows us the other side of life, the life that carries the dust and sweat of day to day struggle in a social structure that is designed to treat the ordinary whether persons or things as cannon fodder to sustain what is falsely made out to be extraordinary.

In his stories he portrays how the insignificant, if understood humanly, becomes significant, hinting at incredibly vast but ignored human world. If you can hear a drop telling its story, it will carry you to some ocean. —

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