October issue 2006
Potter of the Spirit
There is no brief way to describe Mazhar ul Islam’s stories. They are poetic, yearnful, nightmarish, passionate, sorrowful, spiritual, universal and Pakistani.
In The Season of Love, Bitter Almonds and Delayed Rains: Selected Stories and Other Pieces, Christopher Shackle, as editor and translator, assembles 35 varied short pieces by Mazhar to create an anthology that allows readers to experience Pakistan as a place where love and longing, oppression and horror all exist.
Shackle says a key aim of compiling these translations (from Urdu) is “to introduce an international audience to the work of one of the most significant prose writers of the first generation actually to be born with a Pakistani nationality, and one who is powerfully attached to the country in which his whole life has been spent.”
Born in 1949, Mazhar ul Islam started writing in his twenties, but has been a civil servant for most of his career, spending many years with the National Institute of Folk Heritage. His interest in Punjabi romantic legends and his belief that “Pakistani culture is defined primarily in terms of Sufism,” explain why his writings are filled with fantasy and symbolism.
Mazhar doesn’t use cultural references in such a detailed way that excludes foreign eyes from grasping meaning, though. He recreates the everyday reality of Pakistan in small vignettes to examine the emotional fallout. His stories carry themes of love, loneliness and injustice that transcend boundaries, gripping the reader with emotive dialogue and fertile imagery that focus on the struggle more than the specifics of place. In fact, Mazhar’s characters are so human that the simultaneous richness and delicacy of his prose rises from the page with a sort of ethereal yet weighty truth to envelop the reader fully, resonating deep within the soul.
Mazhar’s stories are so emotional, and he writes with such penetrating love and sorrow, it’s as if the plights of others were his own. ‘An Unpublished Kiss’ presents a marriage filled with disillusionment and distance. “The dying breaths in her little throat sounded like the beads scattering from a broken rosary. I cried out and embaced her,” recalls the hero. The death of a daughter would be heart wrenching enough, but the scene becomes horrifying as the hero’s wife (the girl’s mother) remains unmoved. The husband is tormented by the apathetic silence of his wife, who just sits on a sofa reading a book, unaffected by anything or anyone. Routine has overtaken communication and love has turned to contempt.
It’s the nightmares of everyday existence, like this, that Mazhar explores passionately. In fact, the author seems somewhat of a tortured soul: romantic and idealistic, yet lonely and disillusioned. ‘In Brief’ is a story frightening for its ordinary plausibility. The tale about class hierarchy and social prejudices follows two colleagues as they march into town to get change for a 100-rupee note. While they walk, Nura shares his life story. “It’s a whole bundle of sorrows. When you undo one knot, another appears,” he says. Tension builds as one shopkeeper after another rejects their request, and soon it appears Nura’s curse will ensnare his new friend.
This focus on injustice and horror is Kafkaesque. In fact, Mazhar asks to be judged against the likes of Kafka, Chekhov and Pakistan’s own Saadat Hasan Manto.
Mazhar, however, should not be considered to be a dark writer. Desperate for love and happiness, he is a romantic, a dreamer, and it’s easy to see the threads of hope lining his writings. In ‘A Handful of Waiting,’ a man travelling on a train listens to a stranger talk about his love who waits for him at his destination. “She is a garden with flowers blossoming on her lips.” Love of an utopian home is described in ‘The City of Refuge’ as a lost man searches for his city. “On rainy days people would meet each other instead of being separated.” He manages to recapture what is lost in the eyes of a woman. And in ‘The Sound of a Pot Breaking at Nightfall,’ the writer shows pure love, grown from respect and kindness, between a bookseller and his servant.
Still, tragedy seems to colour his romantic sensibilities. In a way it makes sense: commenting on the Pakistani experience requires exploring dashed hopes, learned helplessness and institutionalised injustices. Thus, Mazhar is more realist than cynic. Moreover, Shackle sheds light “on the literary persona” by describing him as someone who owns “a consciousness of a spiritual reality transcending the atomization of everyday social experience.”
Of course, the everyday social experience was essential in shaping the author, and in one of the preludes, Mazhar shares those key real life events with the reader. The resulting writer is what Shackle calls “The lonely potter of the spirit.”
With this well presented collection, many readers will have to consider the statement that Mazhar ul Islam is one of the most significant prose writers in Pakistan.
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