By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
05 Oct 2017
What makes us and sustains us as humans is our need and capacity to dream, to tell stories and live in mythic space and time.
One needs certain level of culture literacy to qualify as a human and, in our troubled times, it is poets/writers, especially of short story and novel that have been vouchsafed the task of keeping the most important question of any living culture – the question of the Being/Sacred – alive. What makes us and sustains us as humans is our need and capacity to dream, to tell stories and live in mythic space and time. As we find in Dostovesky: “But how could you live and have no story to tell?” And what is the key archetypal story – story of stories – that we find in all cultures? It is of Adam and Eve’s exile from and return to paradise, of frantic human effort to be, to mean, to escape the hell that life ordinarily is and be born again through love/gnosis. Dostoevsky’s answer to the question “What is hell?” is that it is “the suffering of being unable to love.” And what is literature’s key issue? It is, as has been remarked, loneliness. And as in the story of the Fall, the question of sex props up and we find lust and love as arguably the most pressing twin problems of literature. “Literature – creative literature – unconcerned with sex is inconceivable.” And we find in Akhtar Mohiuddin, the Master of Kashmiri short story, illustrations of these points. In his novella Zu ti Zolani (translated as Enmeshed Life by Dr Tasleem A War, the author of Vignettes: Short Stories from Kashmir) we find the primordial tale of Adam and Eve, of loneliness, sin, suffering and some kind of redemption worked or appropriated in Kashmiri idiom /experience.
For 75 year old widow living in a Dunga boat, Moghl Hanzen, Ramzan Raja is a savior who marries her two daughters off by selling his own property and works hard as a labourer to sustain her. Despite huge age gap, the people of Shilwat accuse them of illicit relationship and Ramzan Raja responds by wild flurry of choicest slangs against one and all and calling for evidence and trial in streets of Shilwat in North Kashmir. Ultimately he is forced to flee to Srinagar and it is Mulla Kubr, another rootless but strange figure with a history of adventurous life full of romance and tragedy, who, however, become his godfather, brings him back, marries Moghl Hanzen and adopts him as his son. Mulla Kubr recalling certain features of mythic heroes, in his search for love and identity, had eloped with baker’s daughter to neighbouring country where the self styled bride ends up in a prostitution cell and the self styled groom, for fear of persecution, walks back to his “home” after a lifetime of struggle and suffering, chastised, humbled, elated.
The story expresses the eternal human quest for a fulfilling relationship of care/love in a difficult world that denies these verities has been masterfully worked out and evokes something of primordial story of Adam and Eve, their quest for meaning in a fallen world, the difference between opinion and truth and the old damning battle with the Law. The central problem is dealt simultaneously in existential philosophical, religious and socio-economic terms and we find ourselves grappling with a profoundly provocative and tragically moving narrative that shocks us and ultimately lifts us to a higher plane where antimonies are reconciled and life/love affirmed. What an artist does is to turn a seemingly ordinary story of “disreputable” ordinary people in a disprivileged community into a work of art that speaks on many planes and retains significance for every reader, not just Kashmiri reader.
What is important to note is intertextuality in literary works – one finds oneself in the lap of whole Tradition that somehow speaks or summons us as readers sharing common humanity and forcing a response. I recalled such Masters as Dostovesky to better illuminate the horizons and depths that Akhtar explores. Reading how Ramzan Raja, Mulla Kubr and Mogel Henzen are judged, how the demands of innocence and love are trampled, how Christlly noble idealism is laughed away, I recall lines from Dostoevsky’s work: “Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime.” And “Forgive me... for my love -for ruining you with my love.” “Love a man, even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth.”
To appreciate flare of translation and Akhtar’s handling of more cosmic and symbolic dimensions of characters, I reproduce two quotations describing Mulla Kubr’s frantic quest to secure love against all the contingency in the lovelorn world :
“He kept staring at the village as if his eyes were fixed....on the wet soil, the smoke on it and on the top of it the clouded sky as if the whole universe was made up of the same material and had the same base. From the beginning to the end, there was only smoke and fog and in this smoke and fog there were muddy houses with thatched roofs. In this fog, cold and muddy houses Malla Kubr found himself in a strange world as if he had come into this world on his own like that of thunderous mushroom. He was scared when he thought of the angel of death as if the angel of death were a small child staring from a distance at this mushroom......Malla Kubr.......was running so as to make an identification mark by putting his cap on it....this little child will keep his cap on every mushroom and will cut every mushroom by and by.”
“The foundation of the whole world lies in this day, this fog and these clouds. Reclining under the Chinar tree and taking an imaginative flight he thought that it is possible that some pair of pigeons today will rise and fly straight to the skies and in their youthful state of bliss dance ecstatically around the clouds and in the same state from behind the clouds the falcon comes and hits the wing of any of the two pigeons....nothing can be trusted.”
Noticing the tragic landscape of Akhtar one may recall a verse from our bright contemporary poet Muhammad Yusuf Mashoor: “Yeno Bronth Gachee Nabi Chawaeyi Hound/Preth Wunli Chi Pat Pati Byakh Wunal.” (“Don’t be under the illusion of fair weather/As every fog is followed by another.”)
Writers are important as physicians of soul alerting us to the stink around and within. Like prophets whom people have generally laughed away, writers’ voices too are little heeded. Indeed we are not shocked – we don’t even take note – of the stink all around it for the reason Dostovesky presciently suggested “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!” The children of Adam and Eve have been struggling to keep living with dignity and freedom in a world they little know or control. Surrounded by or caught up in sin, suffering and darkness, asking questions for which no easy answers are forthcoming, condemned to loneliness that rarely dissolves in life giving solitude (alone with the Alone), failing to truly connect to the lager world, is hounded by Law though it is better not to ignore it. One is tricked by love (or more accurately desire) into dark woods. Akhtar’s cosmos is not absurdist though it might sound it is. Akhtar’s agony is Kashmir’s agony – this is especially evident in Jahanmuk Panun Panun Naar – and he is able to deploy it in more cosmic and even metaphysical terms elsewhere including the present novella. Man’s fragile existence symbolized by life in a boat surrounded by tumultuous waters (Samsara) may be redeemed by heroic sacrificial action illustrated in Zu ti Zolani.
The translation is quite lucid though less “poetic” and one can say that it succeeds in its aim and should be welcomed and the translator thanked for clearing a debt Kashmiris owed to Akhtar. The fact that this translation could have been marginally or significantly improved at very few places only shows overall success of the work.
What makes Akhtar more interesting and even compelling to troubled Kashmir today is his distinguishing himself by approximating to what Sartre called committed writer, taking strong political positions and showing deep, informed and passionate concern for such questions as our history, identity and resistance. He suffered for his concerns. He lost his son and son-in-law to the resistance movement. He returned Padamshri to protest hanging of Maqbool Bhat. The last word in this novella and in many other works is of affirmation and we find defiant and meliorist Akhtar succeeding in communicating, by the end, the insight pithily echoed in Dostovesky, “It's the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy.” Indeed it appears that God didn’t appoint only prophets whose job was to preach but also saint-poets like Rumi whose “job is to dance” and writers who write ourselves – our stories, our dreams, our laments. One of the writers appointed for modern Kashmir is arguably Akhtar Mohiuddin.