Arshad Waheed’s latest novel in English language, ‘Other Days’, is an eventful story from Pakistan, weaved around two woeful events in the lives of two Pakistani immigrants living in the UK, Daud and Sara. The novel explores how identities change and how people get entangled in wrong places just because of their not so familiar and not so conformist ways of life. It’s a story of alienation, anguish, and agony.
It was late Colin Wilson (1931-2013) who explored the phenomenon of outsider in literature by writing a beautiful treaty with the similar title back in 1950-60s. He categorised that how certain forms of fiction, philosophy, and art fall in the category of the outsider. The seminal work of Colin Wilson covers works of many important figures of the 19th and 20th century like Camus, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others.
I have to refer to the work of Colin Wilson at the outset for setting the context of the novel, ‘Other Days’ by Arshad Waheed. The novel carries certain traits which are seldom explored by the contemporary novelists writing in English language in Pakistan. There is something extraordinary. The novel carries some obvious hints of an outsider, explained and elaborated by Collin Wilson in his classic work. What I identified at first was that the novel was written in the externalist tradition because this is very close to the concept of the outsider. The essence of the outsider is that he lives on fringes.
The story starts when Daud, the main protagonist is taking swimming lessons in a swimming pool somewhere in London. There he is recognized by Sara, another main character, who is there to accompany her daughter. This chance encounter kickstarts a flashback in the mind of Sara, about two events that occurred more than 25 years back in her once homeland, in 1970s. Sara had forgotten the events, but this encounter forced her sub-conscious to pop up the memory of these events. She remembers the days of Sheher, the cheering crowds and the kites flying during basant, the festival of lights at Madhu Lal, the revolutionary dreams and making of a new democratically-elected government after a long military rule. She reaches out to Daud, who took a while to recognize her. Then he accompanies her to a bar where both ordered some drinks and sat together to chat. When the story proceeds and the recollection of the woeful events unfolds, it becomes clear that how difficult it was for both to recall those other days.
There is something extraordinary. The novel carries some obvious hints of an outsider, explained and elaborated by Collin Wilson in his classic work. What I identified at first was that the novel was written in the externalist tradition because this is very close to the concept of the outsider. The essence of the outsider is that he lives on fringes.
Both Daud and Sara had been attacked by some ideological zealots when they were at a university campus in Pakistan where a strict moral code of some medieval nature was in place. Both were beaten for the mere reason that why they were alone in a room. Those were the days when strict moral policing was in full swing.
The novel reveals the story of outsiders who were misfit and experienced alienation due to the prevailing socio-political atmosphere in the society.
Many characters of the novel, men and women, portray the traits of the outsiders. The elements of anguish, absurdity and alienation are the hallmark of the outsider phenomenon. All three can be found in the novel, though in some characters these are more prominent and pronounced.
There are other interesting characters in the story. They tell us about the contemporary world as well. The characters of Ahmar and Sammi are opposite and interesting. Ahmar is somewhat a close embodiment of the outsider while Sammi can represent our today’s bourgeois/middle-class youth. Sammi wants to assert her role, she wants Ahmar to fight against the western hegemony without knowing the nature of that hegemony. She is so sure, and resolute of her ideas and ideals. She is a classic example of most of today’s Muslim youth who are struggling to find their identity in this fast-changing world.
On the other hand, Ahmar is not interested in anything. He is not so sure. He represents the outsider’s fundamental attitude, in the words of Colin Wilson, “that of non-acceptance of human life lived by human beings in a human society”.
There are debates on the clash of cultures, values and of civilisations, but Ahmar is unable to comprehend this high drama. Sammi tries to persuade him that he should take sides. She gives him a sermon on the importance of this ideological battle between East and West, between fundamentalism and modernity — but he is not moved. Meanwhile Ahmar is entangled in a verbal conflict on some issues in a crowd of some enthusiasts (crowds are always enthusiastic!) and the crowd tries to coerce him to accept certain notions (crowds are always coercive!). But Ahmar didn’t bow down.
The ‘Other Days’ is not a story of the past only, but it tells a lot about our present-day society. If we delve deeper into the characters of the novel, we can find the true reflections of what is happening around us today. Arshad has written a story, which only he could write.
In the end, Sammi had to pull Ahmar away from the crowd, fearing he might be attacked physically. This and other such events reveal the sufferings of the outsider. The outsider always has problem with crowds, they always try to pull him inside, but he resists, he wants to remain on the outside because he is not sure about anything. Colin Wilson tells, “The outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois”.
Though these characters have many similarities with the phenomenon of the outsider, not all characters represent such traits. However, the overall environment, milieu and tone of the novel remain that of the outsider. The novel might be based on some historical events which some people may recognize easily. The role of novel is not to record history but to give such historical events an artistic treatment. The ‘Other Days’ is not a story of the past only, but it tells a lot about our present-day society. If we delve deeper into the characters of the novel, we can find the true reflections of what is happening around us today. Arshad has written a story, which only he could write.
Arshad Waheed has written a novel in Urdu (Guman-Surmise) and has translated works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera in Urdu as well.
His latest novel is published by Jumhoori Publications, Lahore, and is available on Amazon as well.
By Arshad Waheed
Jumhoori Publications, Lahore