When The Sun Sets On Cities: Osama Siddique’s Urdu Novel

The novel, like all layered and multi-textured writing, has the power of casting a different kind of spell on different readers

When The Sun Sets On Cities: Osama Siddique’s Urdu Novel

Osama Siddique’s debut Urdu novel Ghuroob e Shehr Ka Waqt is an exquisite addition to Urdu literature. It is a celebration of all the finer things that make human existence worthwhile, and also of a language and diction that we are so bent upon dismissing and neglecting. An exploration of an array of emotions; a celebration of ruins; a discourse on philosophy; and a sensitive documentation of the lives of so many faceless and nameless characters in life that pass by us unacknowledged, but not exactly unnoticed. The narrative is like an intricate tapestry woven with darkness and light and glimmers of gold, enthralled by beauty and yet also giving due weightage to the realities of decay and death.

Each chapter opens a different portal in time and space and then shuts it down before things begin to fully unravel. In the beginning, the reader can only catch glimpses of particular moods and locales before the scene shifts to another realm and a new subject. This unique style of writing seems to be opposite to what James Joyce employs in Ulysses, where the entire plot revolves around a single day; and yet it still resonates with and reminds us of that masterpiece in some mysterious way. The non-adoption of a conventional structure & a wholly linear storyline bestows upon the text an almost dreamlike feeling; lucid yet not stark or conclusive. It is as if the author is as eager, as surprised, and as thrilled by what comes next as his reader, and thus the story writes itself.

An added thrill was the sense of Déjà vu caused by the writer’s occasional usage of that sweet little colloquial jargon many Lahoris may have heard from their grandmothers

From a poignant day spent in the disarray of a graveyard to an extensive account of a seemingly typical but eventful day spent at one of the well-known institutions of Lahore, to the description of certain pushy and entitled post-colonial gora-visitors, to a mischievous spirit dwelling at a deserted rest-house and much more — it seems that the writer doesn’t want to get stuck in or ponder any single scene or emotion for too long. Hence one is treated to a colourful medley of diverse and contrasting explorations. The novel also offers vivid and endearing descriptions of the local flora and fauna; the evocative impact heightened by usage of their glorious indigenous names. And then there is of course lots of Lahore — one can always hear the hum of the bustling metropolis as one turns the pages.

Title: Ghuroob e Shehr Ka Waqt 

Author: Osama Siddique

Publisher: Book Corner Jhelum

Year: 2023

Price: Rs 1,500

The memories, fears, and mischief of childhood, with all their colours and textures, as excavated in the novel, seem universally relatable, despite the diversity of human experience. And then there are also those faint, grey and receding memories of yesterday’s city, enveloped in the growing mist that shrouds the story and the city itself: a haze, a fog, or more appropriately, smog. For me, reading this novel was like navigating through a maze of intriguing themes, yet with the ease and comfort of familiarity with the times and the place that it is about. An added thrill was the sense of Déjà vu caused by the writer’s occasional usage of that sweet little colloquial jargon many Lahoris may have heard from their grandmothers – such as the saying munh chuhi tay dhid khuee, used to describe diminutive characters having great appetite for food and/or intrigue.

Unlike the protagonists in exhaustive and rather exhausting biopics, Khalid, the protagonist of this novel, hardly talks about himself. This makes him rather mysterious and leaves us readers rather intrigued and wanting to know more and more. Yet much as we want to know more about him, he is reticent in his disclosures. We do learn that he has fallen in love (at least) nine times, like a cat’s nine lives. While he may not dwell much on himself there’s great fluidity, flow and generosity with which Khalid introduces us to several other characters and makes them so believable as if they are standing right in front of us.

There is for instance the endearing, tragic and strangely familiar visually impaired Baba Shafi and his story of Partition; someone who lost his loved ones to the riots and has nowhere to go and yet somehow keeps on going. A charming central character is that of Tayyaba Khala. She is someone who both evokes a tremendous sense of nostalgia, solace and calm, and also showcases and belabours the eternal question of existence, explored equally in the realm of metaphysics as well as that of quantum physics. And then there’s also the memorably mischievous supernatural entity with a great sense of humour; a lazy, disdainful and incurable romantic.

While Khalid is also essentially a romantic and an empath, every now and then his journey also takes us through the grey zones of human existence. We come across the shifty, conceited and likely hallucinating Qazi-e-Awwal; the conniving Mirza Afqar-ul-Hassan Commodvi; the gluttonous missionary schoolteacher Miss Salma Joseph who intimidates children and eats their lunch; and, the sinister Nasir Kuttiyan Walla (apparently someone with special needs but also with an unbridled violent streak causing him to strangle stray dogs). So along with characters one might instantly fall in love with we also have those that are clearly unwholesome — a vast and disparate array. At the same time, there are none that Khalid persuades us to truly loathe. Hence, there’s actually no antagonist or real villain in this story. Despite all those populating the novel who are irksome, malicious or even infuriating, one is meant to consider the idea that people mostly exist somewhere along the spectrum and not at the extremes of good and evil. One wonders whether Khalid subscribes to this philosophy because he has gotten used to the ashen hues that in his experience largely colour life or is it because of the smoke-filled air that he breathes and that truly is now the colour that defines his gasping and gagging city. The colour that goes with the words retrocede, abate, and a quiet and insignificant demise. The colour of the death of his city and of all that was good, cherished and wholesome about it.

The novel, like all layered and multi-textured writing, has the power of casting a different kind of spell on different readers. Some may get swept off their feet by the unhurried and intricate scenic narrations or the detailed and uninhibited descriptions of the characters, while others may be deeply intrigued by and attracted to the recurring philosophical abstractions and scientific insights. Yet others may succumb to the romance of old architecture and habitations, the rich imagery and metaphors and the subtle and refined taste, texture and music of the language.

For those like me, however, in addition to be above it is the rueful nostalgia that permeates the novel. The poignant reminders of what all we once were and of all that we have lost in the dense and grim haze of time — a city, a lifetime, and the comfort and solace of familiarity with a certain place that is no more. It is the tale of our beloved Lahore that slipped out of our hands like softly drifting sand and metamorphosed beyond recognition. It is the story of our generation that stands empty handed and bereaved at the crossroads of time. A story of yearning and sense of loss.

And yet it is also the story of every city and all generations.

The author is an academic and a freelance journalist