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Of time, space and identity

In his award-winning Punjabi novelettes, author Muddasir Bashir explore philosophical and mystical themes

By Muttahir Ahmed Khan |
PUBLISHED June 19, 2022

Do (2) Novelette”, the book in hand, is an Urdu translation, endeavoured by Mr. Zahid Nabi, of the famous writer, poet and historian Mudassar Bashir’s two award winning Punjabi novelettes titled as “Samay” (Time) and “Kaun” (Who). As, due to various socio-educational as well as technical reasons, reading in Punjabi language is not an easy task for the majority of the Punjabis even, the Urdu version has been welcomed as an immensely needed literary cake in the concerning circles. Nevertheless, I recommend the readers to go through both the versions to grasp a higher level of understanding.

Bashir has been conferred upon with various awards by different local and international institutions/organisation, including “Dhabaan” (Canada), “Masood Khaddar Posh Trust”, “PILAC” and “World Punjabi Forum”, for his services as an impressive author and scholar. His works in the genres of fiction, poetry and historical research, especially on Lahore’s history and culture, have been translated into English, Urdu, Hindi and Gurmukhi languages.

Switching onto the first fictional feast titled as “Samay” (Time), one comes across a ripple of philosophic and thought-provoking themes skillfully set and developed further with the relevant poetic techniques by Bashir. The mysterious labyrinths of time and space and their misty connections with the journey from the body to soul and the vice versa is the key subject the novelette revolves around. It reminds us of S. T. Coleridge’s below-mentioned entrancing lines:

"What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to haven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?"

The implicit message in these words is that our very dear Coleridge wishes to say that there is no wonder if what you already had dreamt happened in this world of reality. In his view the state of dream and reality are the two sides of the same coin and are inseparable. So what's doable in a dream is likewise possible in the world of reality. Our body remains stationary on the bed while the consciousness or sub-consciousness flies high and fast into unlimited dimensions of the universe to experience that feels like reality.

Another relevant and befitting reference, here, could be Mirza Ghalib’s poetry that helps us understand the spirit of this novel conveniently. Ghalib views this whole existence as a dream when he says hain khwabmain hanooz jo jagay hain khwab say (we are still dreaming after awaking up). Which view is realistic? I leave it to the readers, but the fact remains intact that the philosophical enigma – where lies the demarcation of reality and dream - pondered over by both Ghalib and Coleridge is the basic theme of “Samay”. It's this dream and reality that interchangeably set the backdrop of the novelette and provides characters a pretext to easily portray so much that is usually inconvincible for readers who believe this existence as real. Living in this world then dying and going into somewhere completely strange is simultaneously mysterious and frightening. The very idea of death freezes some of us though all of us want to know as much as we can about this mystery. We humans are concurrently terrified by death, and curious about it.

The protagonist’s experience is wonderful and passionately tickling too. What if you go to see someone you loved deeply and whom you haven’t met for a decade? You go at her home stay there for some days, eat, talk with her for hours, visit places, meet people, and all this you do, not alone but, with a witness who is your close friend. Although he – the friend - feels some eerie happenings and senses some weird sensations, you are utterly unaware of them all. And ultimately, when you return then you are made aware that the one you've been with all these days was long dead. Not only she, but all her relatives were killed by some robbers. You are even shown a grave on whose headstone her name is engraved suffixed, mysteriously, by your name. How would you feel then? So, true and pure love really never dies?

For those practical and logical readers who don't believe in such events and reject every such thing by naming it supernatural, you aren't going to enjoy this mystic piece. But if you are a little aware of science and, especially, with quantum physics which scientifically demonstrates that a particle may exist simultaneously at more than one places or at nowhere if it doesn't wish to show itself you are going to love the book. The reality is nothing is real. Ghalib sensed and expressed this long ago when he said: Hasti key mat fareeb main aa-jayo Asad; Alam tamam halqa-e-Damey khiyal hay (never be a prey to the illusion of being; the whole existence is merely a mirage). Neither what you believe real is real, nor is anything imaginary for you, imaginary. It all is relatively meaningful. So in a virtual reality like situation everything impossible becomes possible and when the virtual trip ends, everything which became possible turns out to be impossible.

What you as readers are expected is, again in Coleridge's words, a willing suspension of disbelief to appreciate Mudassar's craftsmanship. The novelette is an admirable attempt to demystify the philosophical enigma I referred to in the beginning. But I sense that he would have done a more valuable job if instead of writing a novelette he had written a full-fledged novel. There he could have a bigger canvas and, thus, vast space to copiously express the ideas like: reality, life, death, time and space, possibility of being wherever and whenever one soul wishes to be. Oriental philosophers, sages, and spiritual masters have in detail discussed all these ideas. Just look, how Bully Shah views death when he claims: Bully Shah Assa`n marna nahi'n; Gor piya koi horr. (Bully Shah, we can't die, the dead laying in the grave is someone else. If one ponders deeper than conventional sense of words, he gets the meaning Bully Shah wants to convey. I sense, only if Muddassir had given some authentic sources to support the possibility of Sikandar's meeting with Naila after she was no more in this world, readers would have willingly accepted it without any hesitation. They will doubt it only because the context is not fully developed and readers are expected much more from their own background knowledge to believe that Sikandar and Naila could really meet.

The wisdom of ages has been attempted to be expressed in a pithy axiom. Obviously it requires vast background knowledge to demystify the sagacity of a one line adage. A full scale novel could have helped eliminate this flaw and made it an oriental and spiritual philosophy's magnum opus. It'll be a fruit full effort if the writer reviews his work and re-writes it as a full-blown novel.

The second venture titled “Kaun”, is also a marvelous literary endeavor with multi-angular interpretations and diverse approaches. Mudassar’s command over history, Literature, Culture and Folk heritage and natural tilt towards Sufism and socio-religious subtleties have provided him with an extra edge in composing this philosophic literary gem. Following his traditions, he, once again, has demonstrated his consistency in exploring the unfathomable and logical layers of the relations between the individual and society with all its socio-moral, ethno-lingual, economic, political and, above all, religious aspects and hues.

As we unfold the book, we come across the character of Sarmad, a mediocre young man with apposite education, substantial knowledge, awareness, lascivious curiosity and artistic ambitions. It would not be wrong to dub him as a collective persona of modern-era Punjabi youth whose socio-cultural, racio-historic, and ethnno-lingual identity has been sacrificed at the altar of political and religious bonding-----------the bonding that was ironically brought forth by a divide. The pleasing as well as taunting remarks of different costumes and related material symbolises the fact that the culture of teaching our children about “good foreign invaders” and “bad foreign invaders” has twisted our history and living values.

Another pervasive hue in the novelette is the question of human liberty that has been savagely crushed under the heavy coercions of religious, ethnic, social, national and family labels and associations that automatically enslave a new-born child and force him to willy-nilly follow all the prevalent norms, laws, regulations, customs, rituals, beliefs, doctrines and patterns. However strong an individual may be, he has to obey his society, tribe and state without any question of logic and will. The writer’s sheer interest in and reasonable knowledge of creative and theatric arts have enabled him to feel and express the true emotions and minute details of film making and the environment of studios and film houses. Besides, the sensitiveness and tender spirits of the artists----------------the film makers, directors, actors, musicians, singers, etc. have been introduced to us beyond the limits of mere entertainment.

Besides, Mudassar Bashir, like other Modern as well as classic intellectuals, has dexterously touched the subject of heartbreaking reality of the man’s struggle for livelihood that has transformed his identity into a mere slave caught between the clutching jaws of the capitalistic society. The characters of Ditta Seni, Bakhshu and other labourers are true examples of that tragic dimension of human existence.

Here, it would be extremely unjust not to appreciate Mr. Zahid Nabi who has translated both the novelettes from Punjabi into Urdu with minute details of the expressions and profound observation of the correlation between socio-cultural interpretations and the lingual codes of both the languages. It is really very hard to convert one’s thoughts, ideas and imagination into words, and the harder is to further translate that lexical work, especially literary ventures, from one language into another. To drive home the point, the twin pack is an admirable addition to Fiction literature, in general, and social fiction, in particular.