This 20th of November marked the hundredth birthday of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, one of the greatest Urdu writers of the 20th century. Since much has already been – and no doubt will be – written about him, I want to devote attention to his lone novella or short novel Aik Rewar Aik Amboh (“A Flock, A Multitude”), whose publication history is as interesting as the book itself. It was first published in Qasmi’s lifetime in the journal Funoon in the 1950s in installments, but did not generate much fanfare or critical acclaim. Then, it was posthumously included in a volume of his last fictional works, brought out in 2007, yet again unable to garner the attention it so richly deserves. This year, the novella has finally been published by Sang-e-Meel Publications as a separate volume as part of Qasmi’s centenary celebrations, with a beautiful cover done by Qasmi’s artist-granddaughter and a new title: Us Rastay Par (On That Path). Although this scribe still prefers the original title, let that not detain us here from a discussion of its considerable literary merits.
At about barely forty pages, the novella is a remarkable achievement when compared to its more known and considerably voluminous counterparts, namely Aag Ka Darya by Quratulain Hyder; Udas Naslein by Abdullah Hussain and Basti by Intizar Hussain. The achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the novel manages to capture the anti-colonial struggle, the dilemma of the partition of the subcontinent and the failure of the postcolonial moment in Pakistan in less than fifty pages, whereas the novels described above do not even provide closure after several hundred pages. Could this novella then be a candidate for the ‘Great Pakistani Novel(la)’?
The novella is also a pithy reflection on class-conflict, conflict-resolution and nation-building: problems which were brewing in Pakistan in the 1950s prior to the first military coup – still largely unresolved – and reflected in parliamentary and popular debates of the period about the form of government, the role of religion, the contribution or threat posed by the communist left, etc. in the nascent country. It can also be read as a startlingly accurate parable for the state of the Pakistani nation’s transformation from a flock to a multitude on the eve of its 70th independence anniversary.
Could this be a candidate for the ‘Great Pakistani Novel(la)’?
The novella begins with the impoverished youth of the village waiting to be recruited by the British rulers for the war (World War II) effort, what Qasmi playfully calls the politics of ‘suit and boot’. After a torrid encounter with a local boy who has risen to become a captain in the British army, the protagonist Janbaz is among those who is recruited for the upcoming War. Qasmi describes how on being captured by the Japanese, they were tortured and subjected to inhuman treatment. Conditions in which our hero Janbaz “had become so devout in those days and then so mean. I had made saliva in my dry mouth while reciting prayers and then had swallowed Gul Khan’s lone biscuit by picking it from where he slept. I spent the nights remembering Allah and then early morning wandered around every sleeping comrade to steal his week’s ration by any means. And one day when I was pulling out a worn out piece of soap from a comrade’s pocket, he awoke. He went into a shocked silence and then started crying and while sobbing, said, “Take it Janbaz, take half the soap. Take it bhai”…and carrying half a piece of soap I came out in the verandah and putting it aside began to clear my throat of whatever was blocking it; a crow flew away with this piece of soap and I thought someone had removed the Union Jack from India’s head.”
This was the first instance where the youth had experimented with being part of a flock, every man for himself. They returned to their village, their hopes and expectations dashed, amid the collapse of the old world. As Janbaz’s savings and the stories he has saved from the War itself whittle away, he begins to question the orderof things.
The Muslim League campaign for a separate homeland intervenes at the right moment for Janbaz who enthusiastically joins it along with his comrades from the War. We are informed in the informative preface written by Qasmi’s daughter Dr. Naheed Qasmi that the figure of Janbaz is autobiographical, based on Qasmi’s own days spent in his beloved Soan-Sakesar valley as a youth of 24-25 following the heart-rending failure of a love affair. Soon the efforts to raise the standard of the League in the village leadto opposition from the village grandees, notably the zaildar, who was an old and trusted British lackey.
The confrontation between the dedicated Janbaz and the crusty zaildar provide some of the best and most riveting scenes in the novella. From highlighting the confrontation between the zaildar and the youth over Pakistan, Qasmi skillfully pitches the battle over Pakistan to be not just about religious affiliation or as described in the novella, ‘If you are Muslim, join the Muslim League’; it also turned into a class war between the privileged zamindar and the landless peasants.
“In the interim, several people expressed the doubt that while we were transporting the non-Muslims in our protection towards the village, the zaildar and the landlord had entered the former’s homes and looted them. Upon my return, I approached the zaildar alongwith a few comrades and said by way of a threat to present us with the loot. The zaildar returned from his house with a huge pot and uncovering the lid, said, “Divide it amongst yourselves.” These were a lot of gold and silver ornaments which we divided up without a thought that we were partaking in the cruelty of the zaildar and the landlord. Two earrings fell to my lot. I was returning home with these in my pocket, when suddenly I recalled the sick comrade from my captive days, beneath whose pillow I had tried to steal soap. My conscience reprimanded me but I regarded these ornaments as spoils of war, which is not illegitimate. I gifted these earrings to my sister. She was about to wear one, when my mother pounced on her and snatching the earring, threw it down at the floor and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I said, “Mother! This gold is ours, shaped from our own blood.”
Mother began to thunder, “And what shaped the gold which is now lying in the safes of the landlord. If this gold belonging to the Sikhs and Hindus is legitimate for you, why isn’t that gold which possesses the glow of your blood and sweat and the warmth of your homeland.”Mother had slapped me hard after saying this. I seized both earrings in my fist and reached straight for the zaildar’s place. Many people joined me upon witnessing my mood and when I knocked hard on his door, he opened it and said, “Do you need more ornaments?”
I threw the earrings at his belly and said, “I have come merely to tell you this that the gold which you have accumulated in your safes, will be divided one day and I will be the one to do it. Understand?”
The zaildar slammed the door shut in anger and I paid attention to the crowd. “How blind we are friends that we consider looting the Sikhs and Hindus as legitimate but a crime to loot the landlord’s house, since he is a Muslim like us. Why? Oppression does not have another name whether practiced by a non-Muslim or a Muslim and to combat it and remove it is a noble deed.””
Following the creation of Pakistan, the disillusionment of the post-colonial moment quickly sets in for Janbaz and his comrades, one of whom, Begu, had earlier been arrested on the trumped-up charge of hiding a pistol in his home. Following an unsuccessful attempt to plead the latter’s with the minister, Janbaz becomes a part of a demonstration demanding an end to hunger, increase in worker’s salaries, end to privatisation and police rule, and supporting nationalisation and land reforms. The leader of the demonstration inspires Janbaz with his call to arms and appeal for unity. Thus the novella’s protagonists Janbaz and Begu speak for a whole generation who entertained notions of an alternative to the monolithic nation-building project espoused by the postcolonial Pakistani state: where conflict-resolution would be people-centered in the form of increase in workers’ wages; cessation of privatisation; end to police rule; nationalisation of public enterprises; and land reforms, in short, a welfare state inspired by the socialist model. As can be witnessed by the latest waves of strikes by the Pakistan International Airlines a few months ago, the legacies of these projects still remain in 21st century Pakistan and perhaps they need to be recovered.
Nowhere in the novel does Qasmi moralise or propagandise the virtues of communism or revolution
Thereafter, armed with the weapon of ‘the unity of the hard-working and loving poor to fight against tyrants and usurpers’. Janbaz returns to the village. In a beautiful passage signifying his own transformation from one in a flock to one who is part of a multitude, Qasmi writes:
“I returned to the village in a very transformed state…when I had left the village I was so alone…and today while returning it seemed that a whole world was accompanying me; and the sound of my footsteps is the sound of the footsteps of a whole world. I entered the British army because I was poor and since I was literate, I had hoped to earn a lot of money. Upon my return I realized that the British had left me to be ravaged. I joined the (Muslim) League with a desire for vengeance; to avenge the British and that’s it! But when the British departed I found out that I am again passing through a horrifying silence. So alone…and those (leaders) who wore malaysia and began praying on the very stage; they were just interested in filling up their hoards. After the British, they were now the custodians of the treasure key.”
The fifth and final chapter opens to a dramatic scene of confrontation as Janbaz rallies the peasants to unite against the zamindar and refuse to pay the customary tribute. Confronted with the collective wrath of the multitude, the zamindar calls the village maulvi sahib to his defence, who duly produces a few Quranic verses to justify his patron’s extractive policies. The entire passage deserves to be reproduced here in full:
“The landlord looked behind him and then stood to one side. The village maulvi sahib came forward. He wore the same neat and clean dress which he apparently wore on Fridays. There was a green handkerchief on his shoulder and a small book in his hand. He stood on the bed and clearing his throat, said, “I seek refuge in Him from the accursed Satan, in the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful. Friends! It is my duty to bring you on the right path when you stray and to reprimand you when you disobey Allah’s commands. You are Muslims and fools! It is said in the Koran, it is Allah Who has made you each other’s successor on the land and to give a position to some over others and then commanded that Allah has give some among you greater status in livelihood over others and friends! Allah has given the respected landlord greater status in livelihood over you peasants, and when all this is granted by Him why do you complain? And… ”
He was about to say further when I said, “But maulviji! You are talking about greater status in livelihood and the main issue too is livelihood, the question of status is only created when we also possess livelihood, but whatever livelihood Allah grants us, it is looted by the landlord. Instead of admonishing him, you are talking in his favour. It was mentioned in your own sermon that the entire land belongs to God. Maulviji! We too are servants of the same God. We should also be entitled to the reward from our hard work on His land.”
Gul Khan called out from somewhere afar, “And maulviji! Pray tell us how much gold seized from the Sikhs did the landlord give you?”
Another said, “Maulvis are not peasants. Had there been even a tiny match, there would be some force in the argument.”
Maulviji inquired, “So you won’t accept?”
Without waiting for my signal, all the peasants cried out in unison: “We will not give the tributes. We will also not give the crop-shares and one day will come when we will not give even the land.”
Maulvi sahib began to read the surah of ‘The Elephant’ when I called out, “Why don’t the pebbles held by the beaks of these heavenly birds ever fall on the plundering landlordsmaulviji?”
And maulviji in his anger gave us the fatwa declaring all of us as infidels.”
It is to Qasmi’s credit that despite the fact that in the 1950s – when the novella was originally written an when Qasmi was in his acute Progressive phase – nowhere in the novel does he moralise or propagandise the virtues of communism or revolution. The final scene of the novella is ambiguous and it is left to the reader to make the obvious conclusion from the determined resolve displayed by the newly-empowered multitude.
“And now six years on, we were again sitting since long in the shadow of the same clump of mulberries, waiting today for yet another sahib bahadur, who wants to say a few words before we go to jail. Who knows who is this sahib bahadur? I am not thinking about him…I am actually thinking of how so alone we appeared six years ago when we had assembled under the same clump of mulberries. We were so greedy and worried at that time.
Looking at the other young men approaching from all around we were in a quandary why they too had come there? We were being assessed, evaluated and frisked like sheep and goats and at that time everyone present in that flock wanted to be the one to be recruited, even if all the others were rejected…but today every person sitting in the crowd around us is sitting in close proximity to the other and much more than themselves, is thinking about the others. The sun on our backs is rolling towards the western summit and right in front of us every young lad of the village is looking at us with the glow of respect and determination on their dawning faces. Here being present at the moment in this multitude it is as if all our hearts are beating together and today there is complete solace in our hearts.’
Humour is also deployed beautifully throughout the book. Consider:
“One day maulvi sahib was cursing the devil. I said, “Mianji! Do also consider the other side of his personality. To swagger before God is not for the faint-hearted. For this, I have heard, the strong-hearted have performed the ‘chilla’ for upto twenty years.””
The only weakness in the novella is perhaps the absence of a strong female character(s), with the exception of Begu’s courageous wife, who makes a worthy cameo appearance at crucial moments in the novella, most importantly when she enables Janbaz to grasp that the government and the landlords were in fact the same party.
Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi is widely regarded as the preeminent Urdu writer of the second half of the 20th century after the hallowed quartet of Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. He was certainly the greatest Urdu writer when he was alive, in a period in which (compared to him) junior writers like Intizar Husain, Abdullah Hussain and Mustansar HussainTarar were also writing. But his enduring legacy has been forgotten by critics just a decade after his death, which is surprising for a writer who gave to Urdu letters as much as he nurtured budding writers who went on to achieve much public prominence themselves, in Qasmi’s own lifetime. Perhaps one major reason for this is the fact that his vast oeuvre of both poetry and fiction has not been as much translated into English or picked up by a major Western publisher, unlike the work of Intizar Hussein. At the time of writing, only two volumes of his translated stories exist, a gross injustice to a writer of Qasmi’s stature. The timely republication of Us Rastay Par as a separate volume and some more translations of his other works into English in his centenary year will hopefully change that. With 2017 set to be celebrated as the 70th anniversary year of Pakistan’s creation, the relevance and timeliness of the novel and of popular and critical interest in it will only increase.
The writer is an academic and translator based in Lahore. He is the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. All the translations from Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi are his own. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979