Djinns, a dentist and a goat
Bilal Tanweer's genius in translating Muhammad Khalid Akhtar helps place this wickedly funny Urdu writer on the global map
In a world that seems hell-bent on upsetting all known paradigms, the past is a seductive place. Oh, the good old days, sigh the nostalgists, when order reigned, everyone knew where they belonged and what they didn’t know didn’t really matter. Well, then, here’s more fuel for those daydreams: a window into the mid-century neighbourhood of Chakiwara, Karachi, in the still newish country of Pakistan.
Love In Chakiwara And Other Misadventures, the translation of Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s 1964 Urdu book Chakiwara Mein Visaal, is authentic to its time and place in the way narratives can be only when the writer speaks the same language as his readers, when he lives in their milieu and, perhaps most importantly, shares a belief system that accommodates djinns and gigolos with equal aplomb.
Half a century is a long time to expect a literary locale to retain its appeal, but Chakiwara is curiously enduring, even timeless, much in the manner of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi. Add a dash of bromance (The Association of Chakiwara Bachelors imposes an oath of fidelity on its hapless members) and a touch of magic realism that would do Salman Rushdie proud, and one might just begin to get an inkling of the joyous, boisterous, mysterious neighbourhood that plays the starring role in the three short stories and single novella that make up this anthology.
Chakiwara is the kind of place that our great subcontinental cities still nurture in their hearts, using labyrinthine lanes and faded signboards to shun the droves of tourists drawn by glowing “Old Town" descriptors. They are strictly insider-access, not unfriendly but definitely a bit stiff in the welcome, wary of judgement. That bakery there makes the best bread in town, but it may hold other secrets, and why should you know them? Or that park with the soapbox? Why are you so interested in the speaker, oddly attired in a graduation gown and Oxford cap?
Akhtar—a longtime fan of Saadat Hasan Manto, incidentally, who edited Khoya Huwa Ufaq, one of the young author’s early stories, to half its original length—knows only too well that a star is only as good as his supporting cast. Chakiwara would be no good if it were peopled by regulars and, in that sense, while Chakiwara is not flawless, it is pretty much perfect. There, that’s Ah Fung, the Chinese dentist with a hair-raising backstory and a sinister Buddha statue. And Dr Ghareeb Muhammad, who, when he is not curing physical and spiritual maladies, invents devices to do the impossible. Down the lane is novelist Qurban Ali Kattar, sometimes in the grip of a creative dry spell and sometimes so inspired even the extraction of all his teeth cannot affect his output.
Then there’s Chakori, one-time actor of cinema across the border, an assortment of sassy streetwalkers—incidentally, the only women characters with any degree of agency—successful, if star-struck, baker Iqbal Changezi and Shahsawar Khan, who has on leash a monkey, a goat and a bear. There’s shape-shifter Muhammad Deen Asp, sometimes a baker, sometimes a doctor. Oh, and there’s also a dog named Musafir, who comes and goes as he pleases, and assorted djinns, whose hithering-dithering are as unpredictable.
Not all these characters feature in all the stories but, such is Akhtar’s skill, they all inform the context. Critically speaking, the short stories—The Smiling Buddha, The Love Meter and The Downfall Of Seth Tanwari—work better than the flabby novella that gives the book its name. All three begin in the humdrumness of Chakiwara and climax sensationally in blood and gore, but they are also humane, wry and wickedly funny.
In fact, the humour—dry, sly and frequently self-deprecatory (consider the fact that the stories are narrated by Changezi and Asp while Kattar wallows in successive writers’ blocks or unrequited love or dental trauma)—is Akhtar’s signature and also the showcase for his translator Bilal Tanweer’s genius.
Tanweer is himself the author of the well-regarded novel The Scatter Here Is Too Great, but it calls for a different skill set to convey so effectively the ethos and subtleties of another era. The fact that Akhtar and his Chakiwara live and breathe in these pages can be attributed wholly to Tanweer and, for his placing of this quintessentially Urdu writer on the global map, we are grateful.