Mustansar Hussain Tarar (b. 1939) is one of Pakistan’s most illustrious and important writers, and one of the greatest living Urdu writers. He made his name as a pathbreaking travelogue-writer in the 1950s, and then began writing novels in the early 1990s on themes as varied as the importance of rivers in the sustenance of ancient civilisations, the changing social and cultural fabric of Punjab over the years, forbidden romance, the downfall of the Soviet Union and how it affected a whole generation of idealists in South Asia, the Taliban phenomenon, days and nights of COVID–19, and even a Punjabi novel, acclaimed as the first modern one in the language.
In terms of sheer variety of topics, his closest associate is perhaps the equally iconic Urdu writer Quratulain Hyder. What has perhaps prevented the work of Tarar from receiving its due globally is a lack of translations into English. However, one of his novels Lenin for Sale: Ay Ghazaal-i-Shab has just been published in translation, and three others are in the process of being translated.
March 1 this year marked Tarar’s 82nd birthday while April 4 last month marked the 42nd anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution, and to mark the occasion, here is an exclusive translation of one of his earliest – and perhaps longest – stories, published as part of a short-story collection in the late 1970s or early ‘80s. The writer expressed a wish to have this story translated into English. Tarar told me in a recent conversation that this story was a metaphor for Pakistan’s worst military dictatorship, the Gen Zia-ul-Haq regime, which overthrew the democratically-elected government of Bhutto and executed him. As the reader will find out, the story offers a compelling argument against capital punishment. (RN)
Tarar’s story ‘Baba Bagloos,’ translated by Raza Naeem, follows the routine of an elderly prisoner incarcerated in a city prison and culminates in a public hanging. The description of the crowd’s eager, insatiable fascination with the spectacle is particularly brutal and grotesque. Based on Bhutto’s execution, it was one of the works that caused Tarar, a host of a popular show, to be banned from appearing on television during the Zia-ul-Haq era. Tarar’s adventurous spirit took him on unusual journeys, behind the Iron Curtain, across Europe by road and up remote mountains, resulted in travelogues that had an appeal across a broad spectrum of readers. His literary work explores critical political issues in Pakistan and the world.
On a blistering night in a city melting with summer, the hot lead of a scream, which leaves the body cold after squeezing it dry, entered the ears. Baba Bagloos turned over in bed. The scorching stone of another scream fell on his skull and cooled down. Then in quick succession the burning hail of several shrieks rained on his body. What the hell, why do the officials have to extract their confessions of crime only at night? Don’t they know that Baba Bagloos, Old Man Heron, wants to sleep? The evening was spent turning over in bed.
‘From the city?’
‘Yes, nowadays, the screams come only from there.’
‘Has a new prison opened up?’
‘Not just one….’ Inayat pushed the miswak in his mouth and went to his barrack
‘Inayat puttar! Bari Sarkar did not let me sleep all night.’ Before the sunshine pricked the earth with its initial spears, Baba Bagloos dragged his charpoy from the storeroom to the courtyard and spoke in a plaintive, aged tone to the soldier washing up at the tap.
Inayat took the miswak out of his mouth and with a long spit, said, ‘But Baba, Bari Sarkar is on a tour.’
‘But how can this be?’ Baba Bagloos shook his head in disbelief. ‘All night the screams could be heard. Such horrible screams which only the chittar, the arse-whipper of the Bari Sarkar can extract from the holes of men.’
Inayat poured the buk of water in his mouth, turning his face to the sky and sounds of grrr … grrr issued from his throat as if a motorcycle plug had short-circuited, and the engine resultantly ran haltingly.
‘I am speaking the truth, Inayat, all night…’ Baba Bagloos repeatedly nodded his head.
‘Those screams were not from this building baba. And besides, our special rooms are sound-proof.’
‘So you think I am lying?’ Baba Bagloos said, irritated.
‘Don’t be angry, baba. I am not contesting that you heard the screams….’ Inayat began to laugh and then winking an eye said, ‘Actually, you couldn’t figure out the direction, there were screams, but not from this building, rather from the city, outside.’
‘From the city?’
‘Yes, nowadays, the screams come only from there.’
‘Not just one….’ Inayat pushed the miswak in his mouth and went to his barrack. Baba Bagloos scratched his white paddy head and began trying to sleep.
This group of storerooms, barracks, offices, cellars and square courtyards surrounded by high walls – narrow like pigeon-houses – was hidden in such a corner of a historic building outside the city, that tourists and common residents crossing the road which lay alongside would not even suspect that it was there. But it was there. People carrying picnic baskets, cameras swinging, could only see the high walls and feeling the pressure of the greatness of past kings, would move forward. This building was not a regular type of prison, criminals were only brought here temporarily, and only those whose crimes could not be found in any law book of the world. The beginning would be made with the arse-whipper of the Bari Sarkar, which would level them, and then confessions would be extracted from them by fastening the latest imported equipment onto their bodies or fitting it into their orifices. Most of the prisoners would quickly sign the detail of the crime which had been sent by the big boss of the Bari Sarkar. But some dull-headed ones would die in this state, despite the sportsman-like spirit tied up in this equipment, and their corpses would be thrown off the high walls, with the announcement that they had committed suicide; and the truth is that the exhibition of such dull-headedness is suicide indeed, when all a man needed to stay alive was to sign.
This building had been here a long time. Whenever the political leaders of the opposition party were brought into these storerooms, they would determine with sincere hearts, while tied to ice slabs, that as soon as the reins of government would fall into their hands, they would demolish this accursed building to build a grand children’s park here. But whenever their backsides congealed on the seat of power rather than on the slabs of ice, another place was found for the children’s park and this building, as per the doctrine of necessity, would remain under the supervision of the Bari Sarkar; those who put obstacles in the path of every government were always present and this building’s existence would remain to straighten them out. That is to say, this building was present, is present and will be present until such a generation appears which will actually build a great children’s park for seven million, barefoot, starving children in rags. Yes, so criminals were only brought here temporarily and they would go out of here after remaining here for a few days either by spitting blood or after having made an organ or two useless or by almost dying – but Baba Bagloos had always lived here.
(to be continued)
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader living in Lahore, where he is the President of the Progressive Writers Association. His most recent work is a contribution to ‘Out of Print Ten Years: An Anthology’ edited by Indira Chandrasekhar (Context, Westland Books, 2020).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