Considering Pakistan’s sociopolitical atmosphere – torn between Enlightenment values of liberalism and a vicious interpretation of Islam – and the restrictive demand on Pakistani artists to write narratives that ‘correctly’ and ‘realistically’ represent society, reading Mirza Athar Baig’s novel, Hasan Ki Surat-e-Haal: Khali Jaghain Pur Karo, is nothing short of a revelation. A novel that blurs the line between global and local literature, here is a work of fiction that wears hybridity, rather than ethnicity, on its sleeve.
Since his 2006 debut novel, Ghulam Bagh, Baig has provided crucial doses of formal provocation and theoretical nuance to the field of contemporary Urdu literature. He has written three novels and a collection of short stories, all of which have managed to stump critics while also becoming best-sellers for his publishers, an impressive feat in a country with a diminishing Urdu literary culture. The increased curiosity in Pakistani literature in Western publishing spheres, especially since 9/11, has done little to foster an interest in vernacular literature, whether in Urdu or in other regional languages of Pakistan. In fact, Western interest in English-language literature from Pakistan has adversely affected the creativity and imagination of the literary scene, conferring critical awards and financial benefits on a narrow field of themes and subjects.
From its beginnings in the 19th century, the modern Urdu novel confined itself to socio-political commentary in an overwhelmingly realist mode. Writers divided themselves on the spectrum of ‘realism’, and beyond some noticeable examples (Intizar Husain, Qurratulain Hyder), few broke with the conventions of a broad modernist aesthetic. With the publication of Hasan Ki Surat-e-Haal, Mirza Athar Baig has exploded the field of Urdu literature open with a surrealist bomb. And not just Urdu literature – unlike English-language writers from Pakistan, who have largely contended themselves with reworking ‘local’ forms and aesthetics for a predominantly Western audience – Mirza has chosen to rework a ‘Western’ aesthetic, surrealism, into a novel that speaks to ‘global’ concerns in local slangs and idioms. As he said in an interview: “The ‘modernity’ we have in our parts of the world is a vastly different socio-historical process than Western modernity, out of which the so-called post-modernity evolved. What sort of ‘post-modernity’ would bloom out of our ‘modernity’? Something is laughable about it but a lot is poignantly serious. There should be a different name for it, and the name is Hasan Ki Surat-e-Haal.”
Much of the novel develops around a group of filmmakers: a director educated in European film schools, two local writer-actors who begin to fall in love with each other, and a cameraman who is in equal parts confused and amused by the elite attitudes of the other three. The filmmakers are hell-bent on making Pakistan’s first surrealist film, which they have tentatively titled ‘This Film Cannot Be Made.’ As the film runs into all manners of hurdles from the very beginning, the title barely appears to be absurdist: the industrialist funding the film expects sexual favours from the actress, the head of the National Film Institute begins to pressure the director to adopt a more realist filming approach, the filmmakers begin to receive threats from rightwing cultural and political lobbyists who believe money should not be spent on the arts.
In pursuit of material, the filmmakers meet two ‘junkmen’ who are collecting outlandish oddities in a junkyard in the hopes of breaking as many Guinness World Records as possible. They also meet the members of a freak circus and a travelling theatre group, Lucky Star Theater, which performs folktales and semi-erotic shows for rural audiences. Inspired by artists like Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali and Wojciech Has, the screenwriters begin to develop their surrealist script around the junkyard and the travelling theatre.
Like many things in Pakistan, the film soon runs into tragedies and realities bigger than what the screenplay can absorb. The theatre group’s constant tussle with the local police escalates on the last night of the show when one of the members of the film crew attacks and injures a policeman. In a horrifying scene that is replayed from different points of view in the novel, the police arrests, tortures and rapes the members of the theatre and film crew. Soon after, the head of the National Film Institute gets assassinated in a drive-by shooting, and a suicide bomber blasts the crew and a handful of onlookers in a public park on the day the film’s shooting is finally about to begin.
The narrative doesn’t shy away from the stark and morbid quality of the world it inhabits. But at the same time, the relentless accumulation of tragedies seems to be cautioning the reader: some disasters are too tremendous to be ‘realistically’ written down. It is no wonder that Mirza takes his epigraph from French philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s strange mix of literature and philosophy, The Writing of the Disaster, a book devoted to the ideological claims on literature and the impossibility of representation in the space of exemplary trauma. Mirza’s narrative, its cut-and-mix ethics, its rapidly changing vantage points, only heightens the absurdity of a ‘reality’ throttled by “the stench of death”, a world that is beyond rational representations. Indeed, a chopped, blasted, shredded, minced, sliced, bombed salad of reality.
Western interest in English-language literature from Pakistan has adversely affected the creativity and imagination of the literary scene, conferring critical awards and financial benefits on a narrow field of themes and subjects.
Throughout the novel, Mirza adopts and discards styles like shedding skin, mimicking and absorbing slapstick comedy, dream-like fantasies, academic manuscripts, horror, thriller, science fiction, moralistic fables, philosophical ruminations, diary accounts and even a complete screenplay that takes up a substantial portion of the novel. As one chapter title announces, ‘Montage of Collage’, another suggests, ‘Chopped Salad of Reality’. It is hard to demarcate a structure or a centre to the novel. It splinters in different directions simultaneously, deliberately distorting time and space to the extent that locations, years, and characters can shift within the space of a paragraph break, or even within the same sentence. Instead of narrative continuity, the novel is held together by a unity of objects, themes and spaces. For example, the mundane appearance of a sleeping bag leads the reader to the story of a Hollywood special effects producer, which leads to a discussion of a fictional novel about scientists who have discovered a ‘civilizational gene’, which then leads to a commentary on the 1966 sci-fi film ‘Fantastic Voyage’, which in turn, somehow, leads to an analysis of Japan’s technological development and acceptance of Enlightenment modernity since the Second World War. Typically, the novel meanders in this fashion until the author decides to shift to another object or event, which subsequently undergoes a similar process of splintering. The arbitrary shifts in plotlines are announced in sections cut-off from the main narrative. The sections are labelled ‘Editorial Notice’ and work as a kind of footnote-in-text. In these sections, the omnipresent ‘writer’ speaks directly to the reader on the choice of employing certain stylistic techniques.
As the novel progresses, the surrealism of the screenplay seeps out of the frame and infects Mirza’s narrative itself. The story explores the interpersonal dynamics between the members of the film crew using surrealist techniques such as collage, cut-ups, automatic writing and even a form of literary entopic graphomania. Scenes depicting the meetings of the film crew can shift from the present moment and can begin narrating the actual script itself, or even the scribbles of one of the filmmakers as he doodles and writes notes during the meeting in ‘real-time’. Or the novel might abandon the filmmakers altogether and switch to another character. The filmmakers themselves have extensive debates about the manipulation of time and space in surrealist cinema. And yet Mirza never abdicates the task of representation itself. He lovingly creates and gives life to marginal characters – actors from rural theatres, circus performers, sex workers, junk collecters. The characters represent a dying breed of artistic talent, organic and local forms of performance that are being smudged out under the twin pressures of globalisation and Islamisation. By focusing on marginalised artists and constructing splintered narratives, Mirza shows the absurdity inherent in any version of ‘reality’ that attempts to explain Pakistan only on the basis of rationality. In abandoning the Enlightenment strategies of settled chronology, stable geographies and psychological insight, Mirza develops an entirely different ethic-aesthetic: one that is grounded in a commitment to complexity, a deep exploration of the imagination, and most importantly, stubborn resistance in the face of cultural erasure.
If surrealism serves as the structural and theoretical springboard for the novel, then it can be argued that Mirza’s vernacular aesthetic is most clearly aligned with the sensibility of pop art. Building on the conceptual explorations of surrealism, pop art in Europe and North America arrived with the mission to explore local culture or ‘low art’ as a vehicle for expressing larger concerns with late-capitalist modernity. In a similar vein, Mirza’s novel is embellished with references to popular culture: local slang, street food you will only find in certain neighbourhoods of Lahore, circus renditions of folk classics. However, for Mirza, ‘local’ and ‘vernacular’ do not necessarily translate to ‘ethnic’, ‘pure’, or ‘traditional’. Just as he does with surrealism, Mirza adapts the lessons of pop art for his own objectives in a way that moulds them in entirely new identities.
The narrative doesn’t shy away from the stark and morbid quality of the world it inhabits. But at the same time, the relentless accumulation of tragedies seems to be cautioning the reader: some disasters are too tremendous to be ‘realistically’ written down.
Pop art has more recently become synonymous with Andy Warhol and a group of (mostly) North American artists, though the aesthetic has been widely used around the world in order to serve different artistic agendas. In fact, Mirza’s simultaneous playfulness and weightiness, his ability to represent everyday scenes through colorful, fractured narratives, reminds one of another Southasian pop artist, Bhupen Khakar, especially his earlier canvases like You Can’t Please All (1981), where the artist manages to hold all binaries without splitting them – personal/public, secular/symbolic, splintered/coherent – while remaining loyal to the particularity of his own field of vision. At a time when so much contemporary literature spends its energy making itself digestible, consumable, marketable and understandable to the shared beliefs and aesthetics of a global middle class, Mirza undertakes a zany ride in the service of Pakistani pop. And instead of a flattened, self-ethnicising image of a fixed Pakistani culture, Mirza’s strength lies in his ability to highlight the syncretic flexibility of Pakistani popular culture, especially in the way he over-populates his novel with characters who continuously gossip about each other, providing endless commentaries on the social divisions between them.
Mirza has a penchant for setting up scenes where secondary characters observe the central characters, only catching and narrating snippets of the action. One of the more poignant scenes in the novel is set in this way: the director is projecting the movies of Dali and Has for the entire film crew to watch and study. However, only the director, the two writers, and the industrialist funding the film are sitting in the theatre, whereas the less-educated and lower-class cameraman and projectionist have been relegated to the projection room. The narrative divides itself between the actual narration of the plot-lines of the movies being projected, the reactions of the theatre-audience to the movies, and finally, the dialogue between the cameraman and the projectionist, who spend their time commenting on the movies as well as gossiping about the sexual habits of the other members of the film crew. The result is a fascinating look into the way ‘culture’, which is generally represented as fixed and unmoving, either (neo)colonial or (neo)Islamic, is actually received and produced in radically different ways across social divisions, even as the individuals continue to intersect and meet in creative ruptures across those very boundaries.
The non-linear plot with an extensive cast of eccentrics, misfits and dedicated troublemakers allows Mirza ample room to build a dense narrative. The abundance of plot-lines, characters, and events showcase Mirza’s defiantly maximalist sensibility – one that leads him to sometimes exhaust each and every possibility presented by the plot under its own sub-heading. Fortunately, Mirza’s prose thrives when it multiplies. The language sharpens when describing a character on hallucinatory drugs. It livens up when telling the histories of whiskey bottles and wooden tables. It graciously expands when exploring the possibilities of time and space. The novel’s sheer velocity and imaginative potential do not disadvantage the reader, instead they appear as signs of trust in the reader’s ability to appreciate engaged storytelling as well as literary complexity. Mirza prefers to thrill, exhilarate and shock more than he likes to lecture or dictate. A serious, critical mind is at play, but the emphasis, luckily for the reader, remains adamantly focused on the ‘play’.
Despite the chaotic nature of the prose, its perpetual propensity to fall off the edge, there is no doubt that the novel is carefully orchestrated. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the disruption of language and narrative are not a mere game for Mirza, something to serve as harmless entertainment. The novel functions from a deep understanding of language, and even more specifically – demonstrated in its obsession with movie scripts, academic manuscripts, film, theatre and circus – with a deep understanding of the way narration and performance are sabotaged, and in turn themselves sabotage, the social distribution of knowledge and power. It recognises the importance of changing the terms of references we deploy, the categories we make and the disciplines we study, in order to create pockets of resistance in an otherwise fixed and homogenous representation of culture. The novel has always been a potent tool of resistance, and Mirza has proved exactly that with Hasan Ki Surat-e-Haal, performing a surgical philosophical shift in the way we look at things with the invention of a language neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘modern’, but lodged in an altogether different understanding of time-space, a language whose outlines Pakistani literature is only beginning to glimpse.
~Haider Shahbaz was born in Lahore and currently lives in Las Vegas, where he is finishing an MFA from the University of Nevada. His reviews and translations are forthcoming in the Believer Logger and the Portland Review.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue ‘Disaster Politics‘.