Sometimes the only way to survive loss and life is by resorting to humour. Mirages of the Mind, the English translation of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s Urdu novel Aab-e-Gum, is all about that.
One of Pakistan’s greatest living writers, Yousufi, pens a book that encapsulates the many aspects of living in South Asia — its culture, familial relations, the pain of Partition and the nostalgia among those who witnessed the breakup of the subcontinent — with excellent satire. Translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, it revolves around the life and experiences of Basharat Ali Farooq, following his migration from the Indian city of Kanpur to Karachi in Pakistan. But Karachi remains an alien land for him, with life dramatically different from his cultured past. Basharat lives with the belief in the greatness of yesterday and the discomfort of the present, and the nostalgia that grips him remains a consistent theme in the book. “There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with his present, except that, for an old man, the present has the sizeable shortcomings of not being the past,” Yousufi writes.
Yousufi depicts the deep-rooted sense of longing for home on both sides of the border with striking simplicity. For instance, Basharat converses with a man from India, and says, “So Sir, I talked to Advani. Or not so much as listened to his monologue. It was like being taken prisoner. He wanted to confirm Jacobabad was as beautiful as it had been when he had left it as a young man. I mean, was the full moon as full as it had been? Do the palla fish still jump around in the Sindh river’s waves, shining and glimmering in the sun? Does the hot wind still blow from Khairpur with its sweet scent of dates?” The mention of the mundane palla fish and the full moon to convey a deep sense of loss reflects on Yousufi’s exceptional ability to portray ephemeral trauma.
Mirages of the Mind is a story within a story, with a mood of its own. It seems to go in no particular direction, it frequently digresses and no predictions can be made about what the next chapter will bring. But a few pages into the book, the digressions seem consistent and structured. The book reads more like a conversation with oneself and society, as well as an attempt to understand the transitions of life.
As the book wanders through Basharat’s thoughts and experiences, its wit makes it a story you want to come back to every day. First-time readers of Yousufi may also be surprised by his satirical take on several religious practices and traditions. The writer manages to say things few can think of writing about now.
This truly beautiful piece of writing keeps you wondering what the original must be like. In some ways then, the English translation of Aab-e-Gum also leaves you with a deep sense of loss — a sense of loss at the disconnect many native Urdu speakers have with Urdu literature. The book makes you wish desperately that your private school had not treated Urdu as an alien language, and the original writings of great authors like Yousufi were more accessible.
Zehra Abid is part of the editorial team at
The Express Tribune. She tweets @zehra_abid4
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 15th, 2014.