By Farooq Sulehria
May 03, 2014
The first edition of Bano Qudsia’s novel highly canonised novel ‘Raja Gidh’ (The Vulture King), dedicated to Qudratullah Shahab, hit the stalls in 1981. Since then, on average, a new edition has come out every year. That this novel continues to hold sway over popular imagination deserves comment.
The novel’s plot revolves around four central characters: Professor Sohail and three of his students: Seemi Shah, Qayyum and Aftab Butt. Seemi Shah, westernised in her mannerism and attire, is a product of Lahore’s elitist culture of Gulberg. A not-so-handsome Qayyum hails from a village in Sheikhupura while ethnically-Kashmiri Aftab Butt belongs to an elite Lahori family from the ‘walled city’.
The three young students at Government College Lahore’s MA Sociology course are tied into a love-triangle while Professor Sohail is the geometrician behind the triangle. As happens in Bollywood productions, during Professor Sohail’s very first lecture Seemi falls for Aftab – a series of ‘chance’ happenings carry forward the plot.
In the meantime, Qayyum is also madly in love with Seemi. Incidentally, Aftab and Qayyum are also roommates at the hostel. Qayyum sees a chance for himself when Aftab marries his cousin and leaves for London. Seemi, heartbroken and dejected, moves to Rawalpindi but keeps travelling to Lahore so that she can meet Qayyum to talk about Aftab. Such is her passion that she establishes a physical relationship with Qayyum thinking that Aftab and Qayyum, being roommates, might have had a sexual relationship.
Finally, Seemi commits suicide while Qayyum starts a relationship with a distant relative, Abida, who wants a divorce because her husband is not capable of fathering a child. He later also starts seeing Amtal, a woman from the red light area. While Abida returns to her husband, Amtal is killed. Qayyum, lonely and upset, finally agrees to marry a girl of his family’s choice. However, his only condition is that the girl should be a Baqira (virgin). His wife, Roshan, however, tells him on the wedding night that she is already pregnant.
He sends Roshan to Saudi Arabia where her lover lives while he himself begins to visit ‘Sain Jee’ in the company of Professor Sohail. Sain Jee helps him understand his problem: behind all the ‘chance’ happenings, there is a grand scheme. The grand scheme is in turn neatly seated in a grand theory: the theory of Halal-o-Haram (the kosher and the forbidden)!
Lavishly described (pp 274-281), the ‘theory’ wants us to believe that Haram and Halal acts literally penetrate the genes of future generations. ‘Pagalpan’ (madness) is caused by haram genes. Once one is condemned to carry haram genes, s/he is destined to live the life of a ‘vulture’ – a bird that lives on dead meat. ‘Dead meat’, according to Shariah, is not Halal. What is fascinating is the attempt by the author to lend her ‘theory’ of Halal and haram a ‘scientific’ aura.
Bano Qudsia Islamifies eugenics and presses this racist science into the service of her anti-science theory. When wrapped in Islamified-eugenics, the characterisation of Qayyum is justified.
Qayyum’s mother eloped with his father, Maqsood. Qayyum is, we are implicitly told, a ‘bastard’ child fathered by this cousin-uncle. On top of that, Qayyum is a Rajput by caste. Warriors from Rajasthan, in the business of plunder and massacre for centuries, Rajputs carry haram genes. Such haram genes determine Qayyum’s vulture-like nature/destiny. Hence, he is condemned to a life of preying upon ‘dead meat’ (Seemi, Abida, Amtal). However, when he attempts to go kosher (Roshan), fate denies him the pleasure.
This theory of Halal and Haram was marketed at a time when the country was suffering under the jackboots of a puritan military ruler, in the habit of offering highly-publicised istikhara prayers.
The publication of Raja Gidh, if viewed in the context of the Zia dictatorship, assumes a highly political character. In fact, Raja Gidh, along with state-sponsored/state-patronised cultural production under the Zia dictatorship rationalised reactionary right-wing politics (that led to present-day Talibanisation). Unsurprisingly, Raja Gidh’s discourse on, for instance, women and communists neatly sits with Zia-era politics.
The demonisation of communists begins from page 18. However, instead of questioning the tenets of communism, the author resorts to familiar Jamaat-e-Islami tactics. First she points out the contradictions (‘hypocrisies’) marking the lives of communists. Professor Tanvir, Qayyum’s BA teacher, personifies Bano Qudsia’s demonised ‘communist’. Qayyum describes Tanvir: “He staunchly believed in socialism. Theoretically, he would assign every problem to an unequal distribution of wealth…However; he was only a bookish socialist. His lifestyle, even in its minute details, mirrored feudalistic style. The real problem was his lack of tolerance for any criticism either on his creed or his lifestyle”.
At the same time, Professor Sohail is also a self-styled ‘communist, an atheist, a lover of the Prophet, all at the same time’ (p240). But he is a communist who by the end of the novel sees the light and owes allegiance to Sain Jee. At one point, even Qayyum (the ‘vulture’) is described as a socialist. Another ‘socialist’, briefly introduced, is Haider. As usual, “Haider and his ideology-fellows (Hum Khayal) rebels… are socialist in talk, bourgeois in their lifestyles”.
One really wonders if it is a metaphysical coincidence that every ‘Red’ in Raja Gidh is a (petty) bourgeois hypocrite. At the time Raja Gidh was published, thousands of students and activists, inspired by Marxist ideas, were heroically resisting the Zia dictatorship. Some of them courageously embraced martyrdom. Razak Jharna, for instance, walked to the gallows chanting, ‘Long Live Socialism’. Nazir Abbasi was tortured to death in a dungeon. Comrade Jam Saqi became a household name by virtue of his heroic struggle. Professor Jamil Umar, teaching at the Quaid-e-Azam University, spent half a dozen years in Zia-era dungeons.
But godless communism is not the only problem in the story. The immoral ‘west’ is equally hopeless, being morally corrupt and lacking authentic spirituality. The real villain, however, besides the Reds of course, is our own ‘westernised woman’. Seemi, delineating the ‘westernised’ woman, does not only meet a bad end – not even blessed with a ritualistic funeral and grave – she is a woman with questionable morals. Her body is a commodity she can trade on many questionable pretexts.
She is sexually frustrated (p48). ‘In fact, westernised education had taught her a unique form of Wafa (fidelity) which is engraved in her Ruh (spirit). She did not mind about bodily relations’ (p112). She is belligerent, scantily dressed, and fashionable and can deliver speeches at student union elections and wave flags (p 120). “Sometimes, modern girls like Seemi do not even realise that they are cursing themselves” (by becoming a man’s keep).
“Educated girls can destroy themselves in the pursuit of their Zidd” (belligerence) (p183) Highly educated women are liars (p59). An educated girl, once out (of the four walls of her home) proves very Zalim (cruel) (p187). And to deal with such women, nature has a solution. The ‘vulture kings’ sort them out (p191). The entire text is studded with such feminist gems.
In short, do not challenge the status quo since everything is predetermined. It is in our genes. Those (Marxists) questioning the status quo are mere hypocrites. Any redemption? Yes, it lies in saintly individuals such as ‘Sain Jee’ in Raja Gidh, Wasif Ali Wasif in real life.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.