The Scent of Wet Earth in August By Feryal Ali Gauhar, Penguin, Rs 250
The Scent of Wet Earth in August is set in Lahore’s Kucha Miran Shah area, a place that “was famous for two things — the women who strung themselves out along the carved wooden balconies, and the hand-crafted leather jootis...Passing men assessed the shoes as they did the women — there was enough on display to please all ages and all types.” This book, born out of Gauhar’s film Tibbi Gali, tells the tale of the inhabitants of Kucha Miran Shah. None of them is loveable, in fact, most are revolting. Yet there is something about each character that makes a mark — Bobby, the owner of “Charlie Wideo Palace”, his friend Billoo, Dilawar the owner of the “two rupee” cart, Maulvi Basharat of Badshahi Masjid, Mumtaz the prostitute and Fatimah’s mother who is impossible to ignore. There are others like Aatish-baaz Auliya, Gogi, Rashida Khala, Parveen and the three women of Begum Haveli, who despite their ugly reality, manage to win the reader’s sympathy.
Reading Gauhar’s book is like experiencing a reality that reeks like a garbage bin. After all, the lanes of Kucha Miran Shah — which overflow with human and animal excreta — are nothing better than giant drain pipes, and the lives of its inhabitants similar to the that of insects living, breathing and breeding in that muck. What keeps these people alive is the hope to escape this filth some day. While some hope to move on to places like Dubai or get noticed by some film producer, others hope to achieve salvation after death. So they go to the masjid, but even this sanctorum resembles the life outside.
The descriptions are vivid andstark. Yet the reader is not repelled and this is because Gauhar has narrated the ugliness with great sensitivity which adds a poetic touch to the harsh reality.
What is amazing about this tale is how in spite of living in this hell — where a relation between a man and a woman is seen as nothing but lust, where sex is exhibited, bargained, purchased — two young people, Fatimah “the wordless one” and the shy apprentice priest, Shabbir, dare to discover love. They dare to dream of a normal life beyond Kucha Miran Shah. It is their sensitivity and ability to discover beauty within this ugliness, which enables them to nurture the emotion of love.
Perhaps through them Gauhar is trying to prove that the purest of feelings can be conceived within the most sordid life. Fatimah, claiming her child in front of the whole gathering in the mosque, and Shabbir’s stoning of Bobby’s shop with the scream, “He’s mine, he’s mine, he’s mine, the baby is mine”, symbolizes their final revolt against this world.
At the end, however, the reader is left wondering if the lovers will really be able to coax “out the impossible, always elusive scent of wet earth in August”.