Of pirs and Peter engines

trisha gupta | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on March 20, 2015

wheat   -  Reuters

What Will You Give For This Beauty?<br>Ali Akbar Natiq<br> Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi<br> Hamish Hamilton <br> Penguin<br> Short stories<br> ₹399

The everyday is both enchanted and stark in these crackling tales from Pakistan

The eloquent title of this book appears to stem from the first sentence of Ali Akbar Natiq's ‘Qaim Deen’, Story No. 3 in this translated collection. “So tell me, what will you give for this beauty? Listen, I know it’s stolen, so be careful how you price it,” says one Noor Deen, as he strokes a buffalo’s back.

But Qaim Deen answers, “Look here, Nooray, I’ll take five thousand. Not a penny less,” making it clear that Noor Deen is the potential buyer and Qaim Deen the seller, the eponymous cross-border thief at the centre of this dramatic, eventually chilling tale. So what Noor Deen ought to have asked was: “So tell me, what will you take for this beauty?”

I must confess that I was terribly disconcerted to find that the beautifully crafted phrase, picked out to serve as introduction to Natiq’s fictional world, might not actually exist within it. I haven’t read Natiq in the original, but it didn’t seem possible that he could have made such an elementary error of everyday speech, using one word when he meant its opposite. So was it the translator who should be held responsible: whether for a mistake, or worse, for an intentional moment of glibness, of letting the rhetorical fluency of English ride roughshod over the actual Urdu?

Was I making a mountain out of a molehill? Or rather, as it would be in the idiom Natiq and I share, rai ka pahaad — a mountain from a mustard seed? But then translation is a fine art, and its finesse depends on every grain being accounted for.

It seemed a pity to have to start this way, because Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s fluid translation unfurls a world not often visible in English. The only comparable work I can think of in English is Daniyal Mueenuddin's, also set in the Pakistan countryside. Mueenuddin has described his book as “stories about the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities.” But where Mueenuddin’s tales have a slow, stately, often elegiac quality, Natiq’s storytelling is brisk, economical and crackling with energy. And rarely, if ever, does Natiq’s world show signs of transformation, of a ‘new way coming’. Justice, in the ordinary sense of the word, is not frequently achieved. Terrible things happen, and they don’t often happen to terrible people. The rural and small town Punjab of these stories is a place where power triumphs over both truth and beauty.

Natiq cannot have set out to write an ethnographic account, but this collection brims with details of geography, rituals and all sorts of work. Natiq himself has worked as a mason, building domes and minarets for many years, and in his stories, masons, barbers and farmers jostle with wrestlers and storytellers. The book also offers a succinct commentary on the vagaries of history and religion in Pakistani Punjab. Here are Sikhs who must leave their homes during Partition, and a Sikh man who stays on by converting to Islam (‘The Share’). Here are Shias made so insecure by the dominant Sunni majority that they dare not shelter their own co-religionists (‘The Guardian’). Here are stories in which caste has such a matter-of-fact power that no simplistic claim of its having been erased from Muslim sociality can ever again be made (the dramatic ‘Despair’ and the resigned ‘Achoo the Acrobat’).

Most ubiquitous of all are pirs and maulvis, all of them more concerned with wielding power than holiness. Whether they are rich landlords — like Pir Mast in the vividly told ‘Shahabu’s Premonition’, who “had vast lands and thousands of followers spread across the province of Punjab”, or practically paupers — like the memorable protagonist of ‘The Maulvi’s Miracle’, who cannot complain about Rana Farooq’s dog “since Rana Sahib paid for all of the maulvi’s household expenses”, it is terrifying mere mortals that makes them believable as men of God. They are renowned not for acts of grace towards the devout, but for striking dread into the hearts of doubters.

Natiq’s is a world of efficacious curses rather than effective duas. And the unsparingness of religious belief can turn the very landscape into something stark and brutal. In the superb ‘Jeera’s Departure’, the Beas starts to dry up because Pir Jatti Shah loses his temper at the boatmen, while Pir Moday Shah’s sacrificial injunction to the villagers feeds off their pre-existing notions of the river’s wrath. Yet the enchanted quality of this world coexists with the prosaic, the words of pirs and elders competing with matter-of-fact statements about irrigation canals, Peter engines and subcontinental realpolitik. In one story, a flood takes place because “India had released the water of the Sutlej”, and in ‘Jeera’s Departure’, “[m]any times news came that Hindustan had stopped the water but the elders contradicted it harshly, asking how it was possible for anyone to dam the river”.

Like the world in which they are set, Natiq’s stories can often have denouements that feel harsh. Hierarchies here are too entrenched to be reversed. But what human beings are powerless to achieve can sometimes be achieved by lesser creatures. It is both comic and tragic that Natiq hands two of his rare victories against the powerful to a rabbit and a dog.

Just before this review went to press, I discovered that Natiq has a ghazal from which dastango and actor Danish Husain translates one sher as follows: “What would you give for this beauty? I’ve slashed the sky and let this sun ablaze on you. What more would you want this heart to do?” The grain has been accounted for, and I am glad of a less harsh denouement.

(Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer critic)

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Published on March 20, 2015
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