By Moazzam Sheikh

March 12, 2023

Nain Sukh’s latest novel explores the melancholy of modern life in the absence of nostalgia and is dedicated to healthcare workers

Description: Exploring an evolving culture through humour


ain Sukh’s latest offering is a short novel. The author has dedicated it to nurses, doctors and other health workers for not shying away from sticking their necks out during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a chronicle of a death foretold. Paradoxically, the novel is also an X-ray image of the mental illness in the upper crust of the society in Lahore.

The narrative revolves around a middle-aged man, Akram, who lives in one of the many gated communities that have sprung up throughout Lahore. Such growth is comparable to a cancer affecting the body. Akram’s character can be seen as a city hiding beneath layers of its past and present. A bleak or uncertain future awaits the inhabitants, whose identity has been shaped by superfluous notions of things and ideas. Through looking at Akram the reader is led into the lives of others who are or have been in Akram’s life.

The non-linear narrative opens as Coronavirus begins to shut down everyday life in Lahore and beyond. Nain Sukh has brilliantly used the Covid-19 device to probe and expose social inequities, inequalities and hypocrisy. Chapter after chapter, the author shows that the double-edged sword of modernity cannot be avoided. Even the puritanism of Punjabi language activists cannot hold off mingling with English and Urdu. Access to education and economic opportunities, or the lack thereof, ushers strange bedfellows.

In concise chapters that are easy on the eye, Nain Sukh adds comic touches to the absurdities of modern life in a country that is a hodgepodge of modern and pre-modern ways of thinking and getting things done. In one scene, there’s a tragi-comic exchange between Akram and his Christian neighbour during one of their routine strolls.

Akram admits his ignorance when saying he didn’t know Christians could belong to the Jatt caste. The neighbour jokingly remarks that Akram could still call him a chuhra if it pleased him. Several instances of similar comedic brilliance counterbalance the oppressiveness of death lurking on the other side of the fence. His humour allows readers to digest the overall unfairness of life.

Nain Sukh fully uses the erotic, virtual or real side of modern life thanks to smartphone technology’s connectivity, often resulting in humiliating situations. The emotional or physical need for intimacy is stronger than most people realise. Nain Sukh has been experimenting with such ideas in his fiction. However, it is only in this book that he begins to execute those successfully. To Nain Sukh’s credit, he does not seem to judge his characters when he displays their flirtatious traits or moral weaknesses.

Description: Exploring an evolving culture through humour
Using a satirical register, a new development in his writing style, Nain Sukh explores the relationship between disease and community, but the word community does not fully express the weight of the Punjabi word wasayb, which, according to the author, encompasses people, land and ways of living. In a smart move, Nain Sukh has scaled back from going too deep into the history of words, traditions and rituals, castes and people. He has employed humour to detail the good and the bad of Akram’swasayb, which rises to the surface under the pressure of a disease bigger than the combined power of every nation on earth and more stubborn than long-held religious or social beliefs. It has the power to make a fool out of everyone.

From a textual point of view, also, it’s a multi-layered work, with modern Punjabi engaging with bigger forces like English, Urdu, texting, grammar breakdown, syntax, foreign news and social media. His language has acquired a newfound musicality, as is evident in this excerpt:

More remarkable is Nain Sukh’s ability to stay in tune with the fast-moving world outside Akram’s immediate confines.

Description: Exploring an evolving culture through humour
Of course, Akram is the closest to the author’s moral extension, but he has inserted enough distance between the narrator and the protagonist, with the aid of humour, that the novella’s roving eye sees far and wide using over a dozen side characters. After the roving, the narrative returns to Akram for more humour. Look at this exchange, for example:

Yet throughout the mood that carries the narrative forward and backwards, a layer of sadness lingers about modern life without nostalgia. One of the things that Nain Sukh wants his readers to realise is the widening distance between human beings despite hundreds of electronic gadgets promising just a fleeting sense of fulfilment and a bogus purpose of connectivity. I highly recommend Nain Sukh’s latest offering.