A night at the museum

Sumaira Samad, former Director of the Lahore Museum, says it came to life for her when she read Osama Siddique's debut novel

A night at the museum
Snuffing Out the Moon is Osama Siddique’s first book; its scope embraces a vast landscape which he expertly brings to life. Having served as the Director of the Lahore Museum, it came to life for me when I read this book. Its various galleries – silent witnesses to objects from times immemorial – suddenly stirred and awoke. The pots, figurines, seals, and beads of pre and proto history became animated; the Gandhara section was transformed into a living culture; Mughal splendour was recreated; and, the British, who established the museum, were back again, embroiled as before in the paradox of rulers who never assimilated, and yet excavated our ancient past for us.

Different eras of history appear in the book’s revolving narrative like vibrant images in a kaleidoscope. Imaginatively connected events take place in Mohenjo-Daro, Takshasila, Mughal India, the British Raj, the present, and a point in the near future. It is structured such that the march of history starts from 2084 BCE and goes up to 2084 CE in the first section; the next section starts with the future and goes all the way back to 2084 BCE, and so on. This forward and backward movement lends the book a flow like the tide of time itself. Never has there been an ideal golden age – every period of history has its highs and lows. The book challenges our wishful nostalgia about one era or another. At the same time, it embarks on a profound search for identity. Digging deep into our collective past, Siddique tries to unfold layers of cultures and civilisations that remain half-discovered in our soil and in our minds. It is a timely reminder that if we do not embrace our history, we can neither embrace our present, nor shape a future that is authentic.

Fasting Buddha from the Gandhara period, Lahore museum

Different stories are interlinked through objects, characters, ideas and incidents. For instance, the Dancing Girl discovered under a mound of earth in the 20th century by a British archaeologist is the reflection of a girl who lived and danced, loved and was loved, and aspired to fame and honour in Mohenjo-Daro. The playing marbles of a kid in Takshasila catch the eye of a child in modern Pakistan, innocent playthings turning into dark crystal balls spelling doom. A contemporary advocate – very much the Devil’s advocate – has a treacherous ancestor in British times, who manufactures an exalted ancestry that never was. Thus, the narrative divulges a bloodline of characters that betray their own people. The grave in Miani Sahib, Lahore’s sprawling old graveyard, of a young freedom fighter who died nobly fighting the British, becomes the refuge of Rafiya Begum, an old woman hounded by convention. Thus are different souls in different eras connected to one another.

A primary theme characterising the various eras is that of degeneration and decay. The Mohenjo-Daro of 2084 BCE is a city in decline. The spirit that inspired its great civic planning, egalitarianism and vast trading networks has given way to narrow self-interest, hollow rituals, and intrigue. The Takshasila of 455 CE is also about to change forever; the reforming spirit of Buddhism is dwindling and both secular and religious authorities follow a myopic, self-serving path. Mughal India, meanwhile, is at the height of its splendour, a rich blend of various cultures and religions. But it too is eventually headed downwards. Colonial India, on the other hand, captures the British in their ascendant. But as Siddique says,  “in time’s realm the only constant is that of change.”

Digging deep into our collective past, Siddique tries to unfold layers of cultures and civilisations that remain half-discovered in our soil and in our minds

The author recreates scenes from history with incredible precision as well as empathy. The horrors of the captivity and massacre of the 26th Native Bengal Infantry Regiment by British officers is described in hair-raising detail. I was reminded of Abdullah Hussain’s “Udaas Naslain” and the British massacre of nationalists in Peshawar. While the latter is an account of a single event, in all its ominous build up and final butchery, Osama Siddique’s account is spread over days of mental torture, and desperation that unfolds inside the barracks. The author’s mastery, as a qualified lawyer, over Pakistan’s legal system can be seen in his portrayal of the judicial system – an institution meant to deliver justice but holding justice hostage. His sharp wit and biting sarcasm are at their best in his depiction of Ameerudin Ameerzada, a consummate thwarter of justice.

Archaeology has been called the most romantic of disciplines. With a fine sense of time and space, the author has ingeniously used different elements from archaeological discoveries to spin an authentic tale. The great gift of the book is that it vividly populates ruins – whether it is the Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro or the famous monastery of Jaulian. What has dwindled away reappears, as if through a time tunnel, in the parallel universe of one’s mind. It is as palpable, realistic and throbbing as if existing once more in actual physical time and space.

The book carries a grim warning about what happens when humans ignore nature. A turbulent land that has fed as well as starved civilisations, is now threatened by cataclysmic change due to global warming.

Snuffing Out the Moon is also distinct for its use of language, which is deployed creatively, evoking flavours, sights and sounds that recreate and animate epochs. The author seems to speak to us through sound waves travelling across time, and yet the characters we meet are not so different from us. The book also achieves a happy union of Urdu’s poetic texture with the precision of English.

The novel plays out before our eyes like a cinema reel, where the past, present and future co-exist.  It encompasses the forces that shape history, institutions of power and privilege, and also those who, though weighed down by the might of the powerful, search for meaning, reaching out for what is right and beautiful. It creates a world of the oppressed and the oppressors, of dreamers and schemers, adventurers and philosophers, of architects and priests, village folk and storytellers, courtiers and fortune seekers, soldiers and colonial administrators, freedom fighters and usurpers, futuristic ultra-rational technology-worshippers and also, the survivors of the old ways. Like the magical “Tilisim-e-Hoshruba” (portrayed so beautifully by Ustad Allah Bakhsh in a painting adorning the Lahore Museum), “Snuffing Out the Moon” casts a spell. A spell that restores the senses, inspires an honest reading of history, and breaks the silence imposed by fabrication and falsehood.