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Welcome to a Pakistani ‘wonderlogue’

This boldly experimental Urdu novel in translation is set in a dictatorial Pakistan in a time alluding to Zia-ul-Haq’s rule

Baig’s novel is set in a dictatorial Pakistan, at a time alluding to General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule.
Baig’s novel is set in a dictatorial Pakistan, at a time alluding to General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mirza Athar Baig is a philosopher’s writer. He isn’t necessarily out to create new schools of thought himself, but to upturn various intellectual traditions of the Western canon on terrain that is closer home. By challenging them with a world that has been both marred and shaped by colonization, he attempts to give these philosophies flesh—it is an intellectual challenge but also a historical and political one.

Hassan’s State Of Affairs (a translation of the renowned Pakistani writer’s 2014 novel, Hassan Ki Surat-e-Haal) is an explosion built upon the legacies of thinkers like Marcel Proust and Aristotle and Jacques Derrida. But the ideas of such men aren’t rendered as a university lesson. Instead, they inspire a mad (and often funny) literary world that refuses to define itself by any school of thought. The plot is barely plot-like, and the chapters are neither linear nor fragmentary.

Hassan’s State Of Affairs: By Mirza Athar Baig, Translated by Haider Shahbaz, HarperCollins India, 640 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Hassan’s State Of Affairs: By Mirza Athar Baig, Translated by Haider Shahbaz, HarperCollins India, 640 pages, 699.

Formally and conceptually so off-kilter is Baig’s novel that it seems he has spent a little too much time in Jorge Luis Borges’ library—the surreal and the mundane ram into each other at every turn, perhaps once too often. Translated impeccably from Urdu by Haider Shahbaz, the novel is, admittedly, difficult to keep up with. The task of trying to understand what it is trying to do, however, proves more engaging—more than the story itself; idiosyncrasy isn’t always remarkable because of its strangeness.

Set in a dictatorial Pakistan, in a time alluding to Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, Hassan’s State Of Affairs tells the story of an accountant, Hassan, who sees strange visions on his daily commute to work. Whether or not Hassan’s visions are real is not the point, for this is a tale about the wonder that such sights inspire, or are themselves produced by. In fact, the entire adventure is called a “wonderlogue"—an accumulation of characters and sights and tangential stories—that we discover as we travel with him. In Baig’s surreal world, “the probable tends to be more important than the possible".

At its core, Hassan’s State Of Affairs bears the framework of an epic. A male protagonist journeys into new, unknown territories, where he lives out marvellous episodes that challenge and change him. But Hassan’s journey is not straightforward and it isn’t the only one in the book. Each different wondrous thing that Hassan sees leads to a digression—another person or object’s story. In Baig’s spiralling way of storytelling, it would be unfair to call these subplots. Indeed, the story of the junkyard owner, the departure to Moscow, or the personal history of the Japanese-manufactured megaphone all add to a pastiche of characters and ideas that, somewhere, feed into the processes through which Hassan interprets the world. The logic is somewhat reminiscent of Proust and his madeleines, where a single object triggers an outpouring of memory, history and existential questioning.

Parallel to Hassan’s journey is that of the Masquerade Films crew, which has set out to make a surrealist film called “This Film Cannot Be Made". As the crew tries to make sense of its script (and their lives), the text moves in and out of screenplay, and prose is intercut with scripted dialogue. Life, cinema and fiction seem to make a map of their own, while the country awaits “salvation from the Great Saviour". The Masquerade strand in the narrative intersects Hassan’s but also erupts further away into the histories of its own band of characters, like Bubbly, the expert who is brought in to lure a rich man into funding the film. Bubbly, however, has her own ambitions of becoming a stuntwoman.

Distinctive to Baig’s way of assembling the text are the self-reflexive “editorial pitstops" the reader is asked to make as she travels with the characters. These stops are essentially editorial notes that make the reader step back and evaluate the nature, authenticity and relevance of the narrative that just preceded it.

“We know these editorial notes are irritating," the narrator admits early on, “but they are necessary." Unfortunately, these interventions do feel excessive. They make the pace lag and at times end up being an intellectual indulgence rather than a meaningful lens through which to engage with the text.

While making the journey that is the book, the task of the reader is to confront the idea of wonder in its full potential. Wonder as a way to interrogate the world, to find joy in it, and to counter the restrictions of expression that are inherent to despotic political rule. In a sense, imagination—an exercise that is both cerebral and emotive—becomes a medium of resistance. At one point in the story, while discussing the nature of the film that is being made, a character asks, “Wouldn’t straightforward social realism be better?" Later, he reasons, “If everything you want to say, everything you to show…if you say it clearly, show it, you will be killed."

Of course, Baig wrote this book decades after Zia’s reign, which had been marked by several progressive writers creating explicitly political, Marxist works. Baig’s covert critique through surrealism, then, seems to be a more complex narrative argument than an immediate political necessity. Moreover, he posits surrealism as a practice rather than an aesthetic ploy—periodically, we are urged to delve into a situation we can’t understand in order to break free from our own rote ways of thinking about the world. Baig writes, “Alternatives are only possible for someone who displaces himself from one absent moment to the next." If anything, this is a novel that continually displaces the reader and what she assumes has been the truth of the story.

But as much as surrealism encourages imagination to live out its most disjunctive and bizarre possibilities, in Baig’s book, the surreal world is as male as the one it departs from. The few female characters like Anila, even if given space on the page, barely transcend their purpose as objects of attraction. At one point, Baig attempts to address this problem, if only superficially. A character named Jabbar begins, “Ladies and gentleman", and then stops—“Sorry, there is no lady here." Saifi replies, “We only include women in one activity, happily." Of course, the men laugh. As far away as this novel is from reality, it seems to embrace a patriarchal vision of the world that is all too real.

While Baig’s novel is intriguing to dissect and make meaning of as a literary exercise, the real success of this book is its translation. Haider Shahbaz is a gift to contemporary South Asian publishing. His language is precise and his ability to move registers, between terse abstraction and more tender descriptions, gives us a book that is anything but one-toned. For a text as ruptured as Hassan’s State Of Affairs, this is a triumph.

Poorna Swami is a poet, writer and dancer based in Bengaluru.

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