The Telegraph
Friday , June 9 , 2017

Tales from a lost time

By Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, Pan Macmillan, Rs 499

Literary creativity often articulates milieu, identity and spaces through fictionalized subjectivities. Khalid Akhtar’s Chakiwara mein Visaal, which was first published in Urdu in 1964, is an example. Its English translation, Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures, captures the spirit of the Urdu original, presenting the story of Chakiwara, a neighbourhood set in the city of Karachi. It is a collection of stories threaded together through the narration of Iqbal Hussain Changezi, a man with a fascination for struggling writers and a tendency to get caught in hilariously convoluted situations. Crafted as Changezi’s diary, it is interesting to note that Akhtar’s work scarcely mentions or reflects the political scenario of the Pakistan of the times in which it is set. 

Right at the outset, Changezi declares that his chronicle is full of bilge and drivel, much like himself. His narrative comprises four stories: “The Smiling Buddha”, “The Love Meter”, “The Downfall of Seth Tanwari”, and the lead story after which the collection is named. As the environs of Chakiwara resonate through each of these stories, it becomes apparent that Akhtar’s strategy was to create this neighbourhood not only as a space and setting for the action, but also as a persona whose spirit infused all those who lived within its precincts. Changezi goes to the extent of asserting that the “actual and real character” of the stories is Chakiwara and the human characters are only “secondary”. Chakiwara, thus, is this collection’s leitmotif, defining itself through its memorable inhabitants, like the sole partner-proprietor-managing-director of Allah Tawakkul Bakery, Iqbal Husain Changezi, whose “real heroes” are those who write any kind of books, the novelist-aspiring-for-fame and ‘Thomas Hardy of Urdu literature’, Sheikh Qurban Ali Kattar, the ex-comedian, Chakori, the inventor of the ‘love meter’, Dr Ghareeb Muhammad, the tragically acquisitive Seth Tanwari, the Shah-of-Djinns and Reliever-of-Difficulties, Suleiman, the yet-untouched-by-the-latest-fashions but heart-ravishing-beauty-of-the-balcony, Razia, beloved of both Changezi and Kattar, and the faith-healer, Professor Shahsawar Khan, whose accompanying entourage includes animals, humans and djinns. 

“The Smiling Buddha” records how Changezi’s hated sinister-looking statuette of Buddha ended up saving his life. “The Love Meter” is Changezi’s account of the devastation wrought by a device invented by Ghareeb Muhammad which ironically pushed its inventor into taking his own life. “The Downfall of Seth Tanwari” chronicles the tragic end of the wealthy but unscrupulous Tanwari who first deviously occupied the late Ghareeb Muhammad’s premises, and then invited his own destruction by spiriting away from Muhammad Deen Asp another invention of Ghareeb Muhammad — a planchette-like device for summoning spirits. “Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures”, the fourth story in the collection, is a meandering account of the converging destinies of Changezi and Kattar. As they strike up one of the great friendships of history, these two self-declared connoisseurs of literature embark on an association that sees them falling in love with the same woman, and then trying to pick up the threads of life when their efforts at romance do not reach fruition.   

From a social perspective, Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures presents a keen observation of the society and milieu of 1952 Pakistan. It captures the subtleties and variations of culture and values that characterize suburban spaces in South Asia even today. Chakiwara’s personality is an interesting mix of the old and the new. The old is highlighted through the traditions, orthodoxies, superstitions, and ways of life that are shown to have been adopted by Chakiwara’s citizens; the new is brought out by the evolving mores of these same citizens when they seek to enter the world of commerce and trade, interact (often disastrously) with those who are the cream of society, and attempt to control their private lives by taking on (again disastrously) the proponents of Chakiwara’s old ways of life and values. The friction that consequently ensues in Akhtar’s fictionalized space takes a literary form that is best summed up in Steinbeck’s poetic words about Cannery Row in the novel of the same name — “it is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream”. 

Humour, satire and parody combine to produce this effect. The writer is able to weave together disparate threads of narration, which Changezi declares are extracts from his diary meant for future publication. Ironic humour marks the love triangle between Changezi, Kattar and Razia; it also runs through the experimentation of Dr Ghareeb Muhammad with his love meter and Seth Tanwari’s greed for wealth; Kattar’s inability to sift between the fact and fantasy of romance ends in an ironic twist. Satire intervenes as the contrast between commercialized Karachi and literary Lahore. Each of the stories is a parody that caricatures occupations like that of the writer, the entrepreneur, the lover, the scientist and the faith-healer who exist in a society that is struggling to come to terms with modernity and urbanity. 

In this work, the fantastic and the existential effortlessly intersect as in a celebration of magic realism. In this technique, Akhtar underlines and presages what would become, much later, through fiction like the Midnight’s Children, the centre of literary expression and discourse in the arena of subcontinental writing in English. The narrative has some very obvious literary aspects. These include Akhtar’s nuanced critique of Urdu’s formulaic romance-cum-mystery novel, his familiarity with writers outside the reclusive pale of Urdu, and his understanding that the publisher is king in today’s commercial world. The narrative style closely resembles that of a dastaan, an oral form of narration that traces its roots to Central Asia. From a South Asian perspective, there is a nukkad natak ambience that adds to both to character and situation.

As always, things get lost and are gained in translation. Names in the stories — Bhalay Deeno, Farsh Langoori, and Ghareeb Nawaz Hotel, to mention a few — are evocative and symbolic. Romanized and left untranslated, they add to the twists of humour for only those who are familiar with Urdu. Also, literal translation, such as, “He listened to our stance patiently but there was no oil to be pressed from his seeds”, and incorrect translation as in “Only he was privy to the secrets of its gears and breaks” could have been avoided with rigorous proof reading. In spite of this, the translated version engages the reader with its variations of plot, its tongue-in-cheek humour, its nostalgia for the lost world of Urdu language and culture, and its ability to collapse fact and fiction, reality and illusion, action and procrastination. 

In a 2001 interview to the Jung daily of Karachi, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar spoke about the uncomplicated tenor of life of older times in contrast to the mechanical existence of contemporary life, and said that man was the most clever, most ruthless and most dangerous of all creatures. In more ways than one, Chakiwara and Other Misadventures captures the spirit of what the writer had said. Bilal Tanweer’s translation has brought the richness of the Urdu narrative and style to the non-Urdu knowing English readership of today.