Indigenous voices from the literary landscape of Pakistan have been frequently ignored by the literary connoisseurs having impact upon the global recognition in the form of prizes like the Booker, Pulitzer or Nobel. Does it mean that they lag behind the writers like Jon Fosse in presenting, through their works, themes that are of universal nature or they are inferior in terms of style? Settling this question was the initial impetus for Muhammad Safeer Awan when he undertook this daring task of evaluating Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s novels from the perspectives that are generally used in the literary researches across the globe. Tarar’s Fragile Times: The Work of Mustansar Hussain Tarar, recently published by Sang-e-Meel Publishers, is a collection of critical essays about Tarar’s novels. Through these essays, Awan foregrounds the literary merits of Tarar as a novelist having deep insight into social history of Pakistanis represented through different characters in his novels.
Although, in this book, the main focus of his analysis are the four novels; Bahao, Raakh, Ay Ghazal-e-Shab and Khas o Khashak Zamanay, but Awan does present a wider perspective about some of his other works of fiction in the introductory chapter wherein he, extensively covers the landscape of Tarar’s world of fiction using different theories of literary criticism. He also explains the necessity to write this book as he feels that there is a dearth of critical approaches towards understanding the merits of Tarar’s works, in particular, and of the indigenous writings, in general. Therefore, this book provides a much-needed reference source to the young researchers for whom Tarar’s philosophy and art of fiction has been elaborated using the references of the critics whose ideas about theories, text-based as well as context-based, are considered to be of primary importance in contemporary literary research.
Having earlier translated Tarar’s Bahao into English with the assistance of Saleem Khan, Awan is, of course, in a better position to see the undercurrents shown in the flow of history in this novel and, rightly, draws its relevance for our society and culture. From the use of language in this novel to the traditions of the characters, he is quick to identify the resemblance of Dravidian culture in the lifestyle of the people in southern Punjab. Using references of the historiographers like Arnold J. Toynbee, he also cogitates upon the factors that led to the extinction of a civilisation in the context of Bahao. Awan sees the passive acceptance of the fate being chiefly responsible for the extinction of this civilisation.
Ay Ghazal-e-Shab (translated as Lenin for Sale by Durdana Soomro) has been critically examined by Awan from post-Marxist perspective. This novel, set in the post-Soviet Russia is a dirge upon the failure of Marxism in Eastern Europe and the onslaught of capitalism and neo-imperialism after the disintegration of the USSR. Through a number of characters of Pakistani origin, the novelist has created a requiem for the ideals of Marxism wherein some succumb to despondency while others learn to exploit, ironically, the Marxist ideas and artefacts like the statues of Lenin using capitalist means. The representation of this metamorphosis is quite relatable for the leftists having attachment with the ideals of Lenin and who experienced pessimism after the failure of communism in the USSR.
One of the essays is about the themes of love and death in Tarar’s novels. If on one hand, these two themes are universal in literature of all times and climes, then, on the other hand, their representation in the literary texts carries paradoxical meanings depending upon the tendency of the writers towards these two themes. Awan is well aware of the ways in which western writers have covered these themes and, that is why, he talks first of the ways in which Hermann Hesse and Hemingway have represented the philosophical dimensions of love and death before reverting his attention to their representation in Tarar’s fiction. He aptly describes the paradoxical nature of death in its being certain as well as in its uncertainty; certain because of its happening and uncertain because of its ‘mode, space and time of happening’. He subtly links the theme of love with that of death as these two are invariably inseparable. Awan highlights this intertwining of love and death as, in his view, “love stories develop in the inexorable presence of death”. According to him, the uniqueness of Tarar lies in the fact that although love is the most selfish human emotion as it leads to capturing the time, attention and body of the object of love but, in Tarar’s works, it is a selfless phenomenon as his lovers believe in letting their beloveds go if doing so is what they want.
Environmental perspectives in the works of Tarar have also been analysed in one of the essays titled “Ecosophy and Environmental Consciousness”. Tarar’s treatment of the rivers Sarasvati, Indus and Ravi as symbols of life helps to view the strand of ecosophy from the perspective of the continuity of time and life in the region. The references to ecorcritical voices like Lawrence Buell provide a validation of the ecocritical concerns in these works. For example, Buell’s observation that instead of the migration of the people from rural centres to the urban ones, urban ones are now migrating to the rural landscapes to take away the proximity to nature from them. While tracing the influence of nature upon the lives of the protagonists in Bahao, Awan calls it (nature) a sentient entity. It is an acute way of feeling the ubiquitous presence and influence of the nature in our lives. Awan appreciates Tarar’s realisation about the reality of the phenomena like global warming, climate change and environmental degradation/ pollution and their inherent harms for the humanity on this planet.
Traces of techniques being employed by the eminent novelists of the 20th and 21st centuries are also present in Tarar’s fiction. The global techniques/ art forms, that to Awan’s understanding, have been imbibed by Tarar in his novels are: intertextuality, authorial intrusion, modernist motifs, metafiction and magical-realism. For the convenience of the readers, Awan gives a brief but comprehensive introduction of each one of these elements. For instance, Awan defines the elements of intertextuality (from Julia Kristeva’s perspective which is influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin’s diaglossia and dialogic characteristic of the texts to speak to one another), Baudrillard’s concept of simulation. TS Eliot’s argument of the mutual connectedness of the all the poets belonging to various eras is used to emphasise the debt of a text to the previous ones for getting the allusion of historical and cultural facets. By tracing these cosmopolitan elements in Tarar’s works, one can see the formation of his sensibility out of a combination of multiple literary traditions.
An element of trauma in the wake of the 9/11 has been used by Tarar in his novels Khas-o-Khashak Zamanay and Qala Jungi. Awan carries out a comparative study of the representation of 9/11 trauma in the novels of American writers like Foer, DeLillo and Jay McInerny and Pakistani novelists, Mohsin Hamid and Tarar. First, he views 9/11 as an incident that shook the collective memory of American nation as it had never before witnessed an assault of this scale on their soil, before their very eyes. Then, he elaborates the initial inability to write about this shock. This is explained through Hyder’s ‘refusal to engage with the trauma of Partition’ in The River of Fire and Adorno’s assertion that ‘it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz’. He finds this expression of inability in the similar views of Baudrillard and McInerny immediately after 9/11. Awan also explains the trauma theory from the perspectives of Freudian concept of hysteria involving melancholia (acting out) and mourning (working through). Through a comparative study of the selected texts, Awan concludes that the trauma in western texts is perpetuated whereas Tarar, through employing eastern mystical thought, seeks to put a closure to traumatic suffering. Awan’s assertion that western media has turned the traumatic memory of terror into a terror of traumatic memory by turning the incidents like the Holocaust and 9/11 into the motivations/ excuses for perpetrating asymmetric acts of cruelty towards people of Palestine (as the world is currently witnessing), Iraq and Afghanistan highlights propagandistic nature of the usage of soft power by the West.
The relevance of Khas-o-Khashak Zamanay, in Awan’s view, for the Pakistani society is reflected in his in-depth analysis of this novel from the angle of postmodernism. In this analysis, he covers all the aspects of the novel including themes, narrative style, language, Tarar hero and the relevance of Farid-ud-Din Attar’s epic Conference of the Birds at the beginning as well as towards the end of the novel. This novel covers a wide range of themes i.e. pre-Partition Punjab, Jatt fraternity, social impact of the events like 1971 war, tussle between Bhutto and religious groups/ parties, Zia’s authoritarian regime of Islamisation in addition to the impact of the more recent events like 9/11. Awan’s analysis of the construction of hero in Tarar’s body of works focuses upon the singularity of his concept of hero. To him, all of Tarar’s heroes have shared sensibilities. They are liberal in the sense that they trace their history in ancient era and not from 712 AD. They are humane. Attar’s epic provides that concept of oneness in all that helps Inam Ullah, the protagonist of the novel, in grappling with his urge of taking revenge for the marginalisation that Muslims had to undergo in the US after 9/11. Awan’s understanding of Tarar’s construction of the narrative is based upon Oesterheld’s view that “the narrative does not follow a simple linear motion, instead it progresses in circles that keep expanding in size and meaning till the writer picks up some other circle for the same purpose (167)”.
Critical works like this one by Awan can fill the lacunae of literary criticism of indigenous writings from cosmopolitan perspectives. This is beneficial for the readers in helping them evolve their way of looking at a literary text as well as for the indigenous writers whose writings remain absent on global literary platforms because of the dearth of translation and vibrant critiques.