Tales of Machiavellian deceit

Raza Naeem pays tribute to literary giant Abdullah Hussain on the occasion of his first death anniversary

Tales of Machiavellian deceit
I have a confession to make. Four years ago, the editor of a leading Pakistani literary review approached me with the proposition as to whether I would be interested in reviewing the latest offering from one of Pakistan’s greatest writers, Abdullah Hussain. At that point, without ever having read a word of Hussain’s (but having enough knowledge of his stature), and not really keen on reading or reviewing short fiction, I promptly sent my answer in the affirmative. A copy of the slim volume duly arrived shortly thereafter and it remained on my bookshelf, unread and still unopened. The editor stopped insisting on the review when I told her that I would try to locate Hussain for an interview the next time I visited Islamabad (where I thought Hussain lived), and that I would submit the review along with the interview then. I had said this because I was more interested in meeting someone our press had dubbed as the ‘famously reclusive author’ than reviewing his book(s).

Of course Hussain had been living in my own native city of Lahore, just a few blocks away from my then-residence all this time; I neither located him nor interviewed him and the poor volume remained unread.

'Faraib' by Abdullah Hussain (short stories) Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore 192 pp. Price: Rs 700
'Faraib' by Abdullah Hussain
(short stories)
Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore
192 pp. Price: Rs 700

Until of course earlier last year in July, when Hussain passed away and as tributes and obituaries about his eventful life and legacy started pouring in from around the world, I instinctively reached for the unopened parcel enclosing Hussain’s then-latest - and now sadly, the last-published in his own life - offering a collection of six short stories, Faraib (Deceit), the volume which is under review here, as a tribute to him on the occasion of the first anniversary of his passing.

It’s interesting to note that in almost all the obituaries and tributes to Hussain since his death, most of the commentary has not been about his short stories, rather his first novel Udas Naslein (The Weary Generations), which catapulted Hussain to worldwide fame and was to be the yardstick on which his subsequent work was going to be repeatedly evaluated; despite the fact that he began his literary career by publishing some short stories prior to the novel, on the advice of his publisher in order to generate advance publicity for the budding writer. This was a successful experiment, for it not only launched Abdullah Hussain into the world of Urdu letters, but paved the way for his subsequent oeuvre. Hussain went on to compile these earlier short stories into a volume Nashaib (Downfall by Degrees), and a few more in another volume, Raat (Night). However prior to the publication of Faraib he had concentrated on the long form, Udas Naslein being followed by three more novels across a span of nearly 50 years.
Abdullah Hussain's stories are social histories of Pakistan

So the publication of the volume under review represented perhaps a sort of ‘homecoming’ for Hussain after his very successful and creative years as one of Urdu’s great novelists, to the genre of the short story at the tail-end of his literary career (he was by no means done, working furiously to complete the third part of his novelistic trilogy). It is therefore not very surprising that not much attention has been lavished by literary critics and reviewers alike on Faraib since the collection came out, with the same pattern continuing in obituaries and tributes on him published since his death.

There are six stories here, three of them short: ‘Bewa’ (Widow), ‘Bahar’ (Spring) and ‘Maskharay’ (Jesters); and three slightly longer than the average afsana: ‘Ankhein’ (Eyes), ‘Azdawaj’ (Conjugation) and the eponymous ‘Faraib’.

Interestingly though named after the last story in the collection, each of the constituent stories in the collection has its protagonists being the victims of deceit. In ‘Bewa’ (Widow) for example, a couple fleeing rural poverty and battling hunger in the city, comes to terms with the deceit which city life offers; the deceit is particularly bitter for the wife Zuhra, who has to part with the symbol of her eternal love given to her by her lover in the past in order to satisfy the pangs of hunger in the present. She becomes a ‘widow’ the minute she gives the lover’s ring to her husband to barter for some fresh bread and meat curry, paying with her life in the process. Hussain sensitively shows that rural deprivation is often linked with the institution of arranged marriages in the countryside and that deprivation and oppression continues even after migration to the city.

In the second story, ‘Ankhein’, the theme of deceit is framed in the story of two friends, where one of the latter looks back at his own life and his childhood friend in a confessional mode. The apparent security of an unchallenging government job coupled with the emptiness of what passes for an organized religious life in our society, gives way to sexual and professional corruption for our narrator; while his friend’s life is apparently wasted in the pursuit of a random pair of feminine eyes, a hopeless pursuit.

In ‘Azdawaj’, a seemingly innocuous story of marital tension masterfully gives way to one of marital oppression, lies and deceit, and the extent to which women can go in pursuing marital bliss, even if it means letting go of one marriage and contracting another. Thus life becomes an endless series of deceits, with one telling example being how the main character Nabila/Salima routinely fakes an orgasm during sexual intercourse in order to express her dissatisfaction with her married life.

In ‘Bahar’, the monotonous but predictable life of a retired army ‘general’ is interrupted by one last conversation he has with a random young man during a walk on the beach and serves as an ego-massaging catharsis of what the former had hoped to achieve in service: a two-star ‘generalship.’ The catharsis ends in a chilling resolution, a twist in the ending. It is hard not to come away from reading this particular story thinking how most of our ablest people who go on to serve in the army are similarly deceived; and how much better it would be for Pakistan’s democracy if as is the case with the ‘general’ of this story, our would-be coup-makers would also limit their day-and-wet dreams to becoming ‘three- and four-star and Chief’!

‘Maskharay’ is a tale of rural political squabbles and factional politics involving the naming of a village after the local grandee who has just won an election. As his ‘Working Committee’ gathers to settle the naming dispute, their ‘workings’ are interrupted by the news that the grandee’s lands are under threat from an invasion of ants bred by the local dung heap. To me, the story appeared to be a metaphor for the current state of Pakistan itself, where much energy is spent on importing foreign influences (symbolised in the story by the name of ‘Gulistan Bostan’ suggested for the village) and combating imagined foreign or external enemies (symbolized by the attention given to a rival landowner’s lands) rather than internal threats and division (symbolized by the dung heap which had persisted for a long time and the ants)

My favourite story in the collection is final story, ‘Faraib’. The protagonist Sultana is a precocious teenage girl growing up in a part of feudal Punjab. She is a bright, ambitious girl, who wants to improve her self and surroundings, and tries her best to do so, despite her situation, by acquiring as much of the education and requisite bare English skills as is afforded to her. In the process, she allows herself to be used and exploited, however sparingly, whether by her lesbian English teacher; or by the two scions of the dominant Mughal clan, Karam and Rehmat, who place her in a position of trust and authority inside the family mansion in return for sexual favours, cursed as the two men are by impotency and a fragmented married life, respectively. In the background of this sexual and feudal oppression, there is the wider canvas of the oppression of the village by the Mughal clan, whose continuous overuse of the potable water supply for their own lands has left only salt water in its wake, thus depriving the villagers of their livelihoods and the onslaught of an epidemic. Horror and revolt give way to mass emigration from the village. As Sultana too makes her way out of the village, her observations speak for much of the contradictions of contemporary Pakistan, “…of lies, depravity and other nonsense, I had no concern. All I knew was that my Kotli, my land has been deluded.”

Abdullah Hussain’s stories are social histories of Pakistan. Patriarchy, feudalism, sexual repression, oppression and frustration, the bankruptcy and hypocrisy of organised religion and rituals, alienation, it’s all here in a distinct Punjabi milieu. Yet, curiously it is the female characters of Hussain’s fiction in this volume who stand out and try to combat and resist their circumstances: whether it is Zuhra, the ‘widow’; Nabila/Salima in ‘Azdawaj’; or Sultana in ‘Faraib’. The men are either hangers-on or depraved souls too heavily invested in the prevailing status quo to resist or strive to help their women, even when they are not actively or passively exploiting them. The real Pakistan too is full of such women, both famous and obscure, who combat oppression on a daily basis - some make a compromise like Sultana or sacrifice themselves like Zuhra. But sometimes they do endure and break away like Nabila/Salima.

Many of the themes which Hussain has explored on a broader canvas in his novels especially Udas Naslein, Qaid and Nadar Log, exist in this volume. Therefore for someone new to Hussain’s magnificent oeuvre, this collection, though not his best work, serves as a good introduction.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979