Knitting hypocrisy and suffocation with humour to recreate Lahore of once-upon-a-time
Contradictions in society provide subjects for storytelling but subjects alone don’t make for good storytelling. Craft is critical and Bilal Hasan Minto demonstrates a very well developed craft in addition to a keen sense of identifying the social contradictions that are the subjects of his stories. The stories included in his first collection “Model Town” reflect courage in the selection of subjects and a willingness to experiment with language.
The collection includes seven stories and for the first six the narrative is from the perspective of a ten to twelve year old boy. It is a very daring enterprise to do this; to put yourself in the shoes of a child and to write about his perceptions, fears, doubts, desires, surprises and anger. Bilal Minto has taken up this enterprise in these six stories which are placed in Model Town (in Lahore) somewhere in the late seventies. Using the first person narrative has provided him with the opportunity of ignoring alternative perspectives which in this case would have been an “adult”, even hypocritical, perspective. He has chosen to target this perspective and attack its absurdity creating excellent humour in the process. This has greatly added to the readability of these stories.
The characters in the first six stories essentially remain the same and are the family and neighbours of this ten to twelve year old narrator. These stories are also “cross-referenced” through certain events and can be read together forming a “whole”, but each of them stands alone also, independent of the other five. The seventh, (Keerra) is not linked to the first six, has different characters, and appears to be placed in today’s Lahore, though also in the locality of “Model Town”.
The subjects dealt with in this collection are socially sensitive and have not been written about very often in Urdu fiction. The confusion of pre-adolescence, for example, and how pre-adolescent boys explore their sexuality is something that the writer has approached very playfully but very realistically in “Failure”, the first one in the collection. While doing this he highlights the contradictions that most of us learn to live with as adults but which border on the hilarious when looked at from the point of view of a young boy. Reading this story, one is reminded of a similar but probably more nuanced and grim handling of the same subject by Saadat Hasan Manto in his “Dhuan”.
There is almost a complete absence in contemporary Urdu literature of subjects like differences of religion and class, religious doubt, divorce, purdah, abortion or treatment of animals. This is symptomatic of the way Pakistani middle class handles or, to be more precise, refuses to handle these difficult and sensitive issues. Mr Minto takes up these issues either directly as subjects or through oblique references and very skilfully makes fun of the middle class hypocrisy that is used to sweep them under the carpet.
But the subjects are perhaps the less important aspect of this collection. It seems to me that much more important is the apparent delight that the writer takes in the act of telling the story and it seems that he wishes to take the reader through the story feeling the same delight. This is reflected in the attention to detail, the digressions weaved into the story to describe most of those details, the very refreshingly peculiar tone of the narrator in the first six stories and the fun he seems to be making of the patterns of thought and speech of grownups. The delight in telling a story may be the most obvious in the last one in the collection, which is based on the “possibilities presented by a traffic light, a sentence and an imaginary worm”. In this the writer seems to be enjoying the absurdities of human thought and action while class issues, though essential to this story, are made to appear only incidental.
The writer’s ability to employ a tone in prose best suited to the story he wants to tell is in ample evidence throughout the collection. While using the first person narration in the first six stories he has repeatedly used a peculiar artificial diction that reminds one of the language of Islamiat and Pakistan Studies textbooks and of Urdu newspapers. It seems that the young first person narrator is making an effort to sound grownup. On the other hand, the tone and language of the seventh story, “Keerra“, is completely different and this difference emphasises the importance of the tone used in the first six all the more. This contrast also enables the reader to appreciate the craft of the author.
In writing a story, the ability to digress in multiple layers and then return to the main thread is a part of the art of writing compellingly and interestingly. The writer has used the trick consistently throughout the first six stories. In fact, I do not remember having read anyone who has done this as effectively since I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but then that was a novel, inherently possessing a greater possibility for doing this due to its broader, expanded plot. Achieving this in short stories is much more difficult. The writer does not use this technique in the seventh story at all and this too brings out the contrast in style between the first six stories and the last one in which the brisk narration required to depict the working of two tortured minds did not afford any digressions and none is available.
At a basic level these stories are about the comfortable Lahori middle class and it’s life in the general climate of Pakistani society. At another, perhaps deeper level they are about the possibilities of human life. Taken in isolation, the projected possibilities may look fantastic but juxtaposed with very real characters placed in very real circumstances, the fantasies start to look real too. In Mr Minto’s construction, the middle class office executive imagining a worm living inside him or a servant accepting the possibility of living life with a tail attached to him does not seem fantastic because of the completely realistic details surrounding these characters.
I was continuously smiling during the time that it took me to read this collection and occasionally bursting into laughter also. The writer has created very delicate humour in almost every sentence he has written, even though the sentences are constructed in a very natural style employing simple language. However, while individual situations within each story also tickle one to smile or laugh, it is hard to classify the collection as “humour”. Each story in the collection is a serious treatment of at least one grim issue and the audacity of how it is addressed frequently surprises the reader.
Would younger readers, the ones who did not experience the hypocrisy and suffocation of the seventies and the eighties, be able to relate to these stories and appreciate their humour? But these younger readers have and continue to experience their own brands of hypocrisy and suffocation; so yes, they probably would.
(Urdu Fiction-Short Stories)
Written by: Bilal Hassan Minto
Pages: 224; Price: Rs440