July Issue 2013
Tales of Yore
The late journalist Murtaza Razvi’s book Pittho’s World borrows its central conceit from The Arabian Nights. However, here the storyteller is not Scheherazade, but a Lahori man now settled in Karachi named Sheikhu. And instead of a Persian king who has made a habit of slaying his brides the morning after the wedding, we have Sheikhu’s lover Rani, whose sardonic interjections at the end of each story hint at a discontentment with the relationship, if not men altogether. While The Arabian Nights clearly establishes Scheherazade’s reasons for telling stories to her new husband — to rouse his curiosity enough to keep her alive for one more night — Sheikhu’s reasons are more abstruse. It may be that Rani casually asks him to narrate his family history to her in the opening chapter, but are the stories a way to bring the unmarried couple closer to each other or does that act of storytelling serve a more personal purpose, allowing Sheikhu to reflect on his history and thereby himself?
But Pittho’s World, which could be viewed as both a novel or a collection of inter-related short stories, is not just about Sheikhu and Rani. Every chapter consists of a story from Sheikhu’s family history, beginning in mid-nineteenth century Iran and making its way around the subcontinent to finally arrive in present-day Pakistan. His stories about various ancestors and relatives are no less fantastical and epic than the ones told by Scheherazade about jinns and princesses. In the chapter titled ‘Pittho’s World,’ Sheikhu relates the story of his great-aunt Pittho who claimed to be hounded by a goblin called Brum-brum Chawk and who he believes poisoned the father of her illegitimate son. And instead of the tale of ‘The Seven Viziers,’ a popular story from The Arabian Nights, we have the story of seven sisters, distant cousins of Sheikhu who he remembers for both their beauty and their promiscuous ways. From hapless orphans to firebrand aunts, the motley of relatives all come together to create a vast, colourful tapestry.
However, as fascinating as these family tales are, the frame story — that of Sheikhu and Rani — seems undeveloped. The first half of the book follows a pattern in which Sheikhu narrates a story and upon its completion, Rani makes a comment either in approval of the outspoken female relatives or in disapproval of men in general, if not both. Pittho’s World is very much a modern novel and does not need an epic plot for a frame story, but it does require more than Sheikhu’s musings to hold the novel together. Rani, with her predictible refrains at the end of each chapter, comes across as one-dimensional and distant. While the family stories become increasingly captivating as the book progresses, Rani’s responses become more puzzling for the reader, and often for Sheikhu as well. For instance, halfway through the novel, Razvi writes:
“Rani’s had a go at me, and she alone knows for what. She’s been doing it of late, off and on, well most days to be precise. She won’t tell me why she’s upset. I think she’s upset. I think she gets a kick out of keeping me guessing. But now she sits up and looks all set to listen to my next story.”
This extract suggests that Sheikhu may be telling these stories in order to stall a foreseeable break-up, or perhaps even that Rani might be hiding her reasons for being upset with him to make Sheikhu feel guilty and to keep him on his best behaviour. But with such little context provided in the book, these are just shots in the dark and towards the end of the novel, after many hints of restlessness in the relationship, Rani finally leaves Sheikhu, citing that she needs some space from both him and his stories. Not knowing if and when Rani will return, Sheikhu continues to reflect on his past, and the final chapters provide an informal history of life in Pakistan during Zia’s regime. In fact, while there are many eccentric characters and peculiar anecdotes to keep readers entertained, almost all events are closely tied with history, be it Partition or the birth of Bangladesh. Some of the passages, particularly those in the opening and final chapters are almost journalistic in tone, and while that would be expected of a writer who was an acclaimed journalist at Dawn before his untimely death, the historical trivia could have been toned down in favour of character development. Another caveat about the novel is that since it is structured around the idea of oral storytelling, the prose is simple — as it should be — but also littered with trite phrases such as “kicked the bucket” and “dressed to kill.” There is no place for florid, overwrought language in the world of this novel but the occasional poetic turn of phrase or evocative description would have certainly elevated the story.
That is not to say Razvi is not a good storyteller. The family stories, as outrageous as they may be, are engaging and do not succumb to predictable, neat endings. In fact, one of the stories about his grandfather’s brother Baba and his unconsummated marriage with Bibi, with its mix of wit and melancholy, is reminiscent of Ismat Chugtai’s famous short story ‘Gorey Bi and Kaley Mian.’
Published posthumously by Harper Collins, Pittho’s World is a well-paced and compelling read, boasting characters that bewilder yet endear the reader. Had Razvi been alive today, readers would certainly have hoped for more works of fiction from him.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.