The season of love, bitter almonds and delayed rains
[ bookreviews ]
Part Poe, part Borges, part bong hit. Throw in some Khwaja Farid and Saadat Hasan Manto. This mix of dark psyche, philosophical riddle and doors of perception - plus Persian lyric and audience connection - form the essence of Season of Love, Bitter Almonds and Delayed Rains, by Pakistan's Mazhar ul Islam. This collection is a unique example of how literary talent can find its way between minds, and prove that the republic of letters is truly global.
The author is a camel-load of anomalies, beginning with his name - first, middle and last rolled into one, meaning altogether, 'Manifestation of Islam'. You cannot split it up and call him 'Mr ul Islam'. But, in a very formal culture, if you're quite acquainted, you may address him casually as 'Manifestation' (Mazhar). Arguably one of the least known authors in the English speaking world, Mazhar ul Islam has, nonetheless, a cult following among the Urdu speaking Sindhis of Baluchistan, as well as the ancient mix of religions, sects, and castes of Tharparkar, most of whom are nomadic speakers of Sindhi, with Urdu as a second language. That's obscure.
The Season of Love is not available through the usual channels, so you will have to contact the publisher in Karachi and work out your own deal in pounds, euros or rupees. They might send you the book first - as they did in my case - and figure out payment later, an astonishing level of trust I am not used to in my part of world.
Christopher Shackle's excellent translation of these short fictions should provide a welcome manifestation of rare talent outside the boundaries of Pakistan. Themes in Season of Love often come from the region's ancient oral tradition, and are products of Mazhar ul Islam's field research at the Lok Virsa Institute in Islamabad, where he is now director. They are philosophical legends honed and solidified by many minds and lodged so deeply in memory that they would rather be heard than read. The short stories, however, are not simple 'ethnic' tales or cultural whitewash, but profound human dilemmas standing next to Sophoclean tragedy and Homeric epic. In one of the rare three or four reviews of his work in English, critic Waqas Ahmad Khwaja describes Mazhar ul Islam's writing as an "act of collective ego", giving way to "dark, mysterious passages into the unknown". Like the ancient Mariner who holds you with his glittering eye, Mazhar ul Islam lures you with his glittering words into a time-distorted world of Punjabi bookworms, ominous dreams, unopened love letters, snakes, wastelands and chasms of death.
Here and there you may notice a slightly awkward phrase or stumbling word order and wonder if it was there in the original Urdu, but given Christopher Shackle's credentials as Professor of South Asian Languages at the University of London, and world authority on authors as diverse as Farid al-Din 'Attar and Guru Gabind Singh, these lexical imperfections are best viewed as so many clouds and bubbles in a trove of gems.
When the narrator of 'The sand's edge' realizes it will take him years to cross a small heap of sand on a sidewalk, the image expands, like a cloud of exhaled opium, into what Shackle has described as "the simultaneous compression of parallel realities." The sand patch becomes the Cholistan Desert, where a nomad woman's face displays "the same sort of ecstasy and delight as must have been on the face of God when He was creating the universe." When she twirls her skirt to pick up a water jug, "the whole universe twirls with it." This remote desert, virtually synonymous with her body, is a place where "heaven doesn't seem so distant," and we can only guess why she is "totally immersed in ecstasy." We do know, however, that "the sound of a hookah gurgling could be heard from miles away."
Eventually this unattainable beauty (a frequent theme) turns into what she most identifies with, and what she can never be separated from - dunes of "breathing sand," stretching to "the distant edge of heaven". There's no fluff to Mazhar ul Islam. No dead-end surrealistic riffs. No plastic bag in a mezzanine.
Experiencing a Mazhar ul Islam story can be profound, but explicating it can be maddening. There are so many levels to penetrate. Try glossing the connection between a thief stealing metaphors from a holy man in 'I dance', and the sound of "a dog's bark dying on the threshold of silence." Or the loss of one's idealized past in 'City of refuge' with "the peace of a day that didn't sit with its hood spread like a snake." If you try to reduce his stories down to an easy linear summary, the results can be "knowledge that will roam the earth carrying your dead body on it shoulders."
Knowledge for Mazhar ul Islam's characters can become a trap, like the curious trunk in 'What is a story', where the author unintentionally locks himself as a child (bringing another kid with him). In 'The unpublished kiss' a woman becomes so engrossed in her books - for endless years, in fact - that life itself is shut out. In 'The sound of a pot breaking at night' a bookseller falls in love with his housemaid, but each is locked within a separate, fixed caste of feudal destiny, one with knowledge and one without, such that there's no escape but death. A writer, as well as the characters he creates, can be an unintended strange attractor - as the author was for the kid he talked into the locked trunk. Or the real-life case of Sindhi poet, Irfan Mehdi, who became so enraptured by Mazhar ul Islam's themes of loss and madness, that he committed suicide on the writer's birthday.
With a moniker like 'Manifestation of Islam', it's hard not to avoid the topic of religion, but it's done in such a way as to inspire even a god-scoffer like myself. Mahzar ul Islam's deepest youthful impressions ('Making of the story') came from hanging around Sufi fakirs and malangs, known for centuries as vision seekers via tightly packed slabs of powerful hashish powder, and the cannabis drink known as bhang. Early in the collection he quotes a Sufi verse, "You have your mosques, pulpits, scriptures / We are our self-shown revelation", which echoes Emerson's lines of "when half-gods go, the gods arrive." It doesn't take too many tokes of that mountain hash to begin seeing "every grain of sand as a Pir Baba's tomb", or prayer as a shifting strip of shade where you "listen to the sound of the lovely journey which is printed on that shadow."
Mazhar ul Islam provides an under-appreciated example of Islamic ecumenism. His religious emphasis is on being mindfully conscious, rather than mindlessly present. His criticisms of religious non-enlightenment are exquisitely nuanced, even disguised, because in a country with a 50% illiteracy rate, much could be conflated from the rat-infested prayer mats in 'The clerk's dreams', or the berserk, mosque-trashing horse in 'A man in the City of Horses', or the dunking of a hafiz (Koran memorizer) in 'Gujrat and Shah Duala'. Someone got a little too unsubtle one time with religious criticism in The Frontier Post in Peshawar, where, until recently, the only two reviews of Mazhar ul Islam's work appeared in English. In response, a mob of religious fanatics burned it down.
In a dictatorship like Pakistan (what Shackle calls "the federal nightmare"), you have to watch not only the half-god bullies on one side, but police thugs on the other. In 'City of refuge' uniformed authority figures beat people with rifle butts and "make them dance like monkeys", driving the bewildered protagonist to look in vain for a lost city of "love, friendship, forgiveness, brotherhood and goodness." In 'A bit of life at the edge of the graveyard', a man enters a cafe with a sign reading, "Political discussion is forbidden", but says anyway, "We need a better political system, one that allows us all to breathe contentedly." Ironically, if you go to the personal web site of the Big Rooster himself, Pervez Musharraf, you'll find Mazhar ul Islam's name turning up as winner of the President's Award for Pride of Performance for his "creative empathy for the downtrodden", a modern example of the old saying that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and little statesmen.
Sitting atop a sand pile of anomaly and contradiction, Mazhar ul Islam is a solitary break in the syntax. A one man archaic revival. His stories move like caravans across a desert of imagination, crafted from the ancient struggles of Punjabi natives. He transforms these artifacts of the collective ego into high art, what Waqas Ahmad Khwaja called "forbidden thoughts... striving for the Absolute." What results is a world where archetypal characters old and young look at you with faces "bound tightly in a rope of wrinkles," or with "eyelids that flutter like birds caught in a net," and play out their universal human dramas in the implicit light of eternity.
And way off in the distance, if you are very quiet, you can hear, over the sands of time, the faint gurgling of hookahs.