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Roop Behroop: Make Novelette
By Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693533163

Mustansar Hussain Tarar is a prolific writer in the true and broad sense of the term. Every few months, new novels and travelogues – often voluminous – written by him arrive on newsstands. One can imagine that he has to sit at his desk for hours a day.

Have a dozen novels – among them some real masterpieces such as Bahau [Flow], Raakh [Ashes] and Khas-o-Khashak Zamaanay [Littered Ages] – to his credit already, in the recent past he published two other novels and two short stories. The novels – Mantaqul Tair Jadeed [The Modern Conference of Birds] and Shehr Khaali, Koocha Khaali [Empty City, Empty Alley] – succeeded in attracting a large audience, but received little critical acclaim. It is a dilemma that almost all popular and prolific writers face.

His latest news – Roop Behroop [Guise, Disguise] and Phuphi Noor Bibi Ka Zard Gulab [Aunt Noor Bibi’s Yellow Rose] – united in one volume entitled Roop Behroop, deserves to be widely read, debated and critically evaluated. For lack of sufficient space, we will only discuss the title tale in this review.

In Mantaqul Tair Jadeed, Tarar sets out to reimagine and reinterpret the fundamental mantaq, or logos, of Fariduddin Attar’s great 12th-century Persian Sufi text. As Tarar prioritizes mantaq, or logic, over the story of Attar’s allegorical text, he therefore has another set of stories to tell, making an artist the central character. In Attar’s text, the birds embody the logos of the history of spiritual research. Birds – Tarar’s all-time favorite entity and symbol – at Mantaqul Tair Jadeed come to explore the pluralistic traditions indigenous to Punjab.

Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s latest works, as always, negotiate the “gap” between the imaginary and the real worlds, between what the Pakistani nation once envisioned and what it ultimately faces.

The most striking feature of many of Tarar’s works – including Mantaq and Roop Behroop – is their cohesive negotiation of the “gulf” between the imaginary and the real worlds. This gap is not metaphorical; it is historical and existential, an intermediate space between what the Pakistani nation once envisioned and what it ultimately faces.

To be more precise, we can say that Tarar not only bases his novels on the culture – the most problematic phenomenon in our context – and the history and the landscape of this country, but sets out to probe certain existential questions to which the Pakistan has always been confronted with it from its earliest days.

Besides his informal and somewhat metaphorical poetic style, the main reason for his popularity as a fiction writer could be found in his relentless engagement with what can be called the Pakistani theme. A sort of “Pakistani” seems to have infiltrated all of his writings, but one caveat: Tarar’s Pakistaniite has no ideological tone.

Roop Behroop also deals with an ongoing issue that Pakistan has faced since its inception. The title itself seems ironic. Roop (or someone’s face) is real, while behroop is unreal, but made to appear real. Moreover, behroop is simply a mask that serves multiple purposes. It not only conceals reality, but also represents what is otherwise unrepresentable, especially in the theater. How ironic that the unrepresentable is represented by the masquerade.

The word behroop was once part of everyday language in the theater world. So this word could be taken as a synecdoche for art in general. In Roop Behroop, some chronic issues of Pakistani society are dealt with through the theme of art. Sajid, the protagonist, is a storyteller. Distressed and distraught, he intends to tell his own story because he feels that none of the events of his life are detached from that of his society. He seems to believe that there is no viable distinction between the subjective world of an individual and the objective reality of society.

Set in Rawalpindi and Lahore, the novel reveals how our society evolved into an extremist society. Around 1952, Sajid, then a child, went to his aunt’s house in Rawalpindi. There, he sees his aunt removing a statue of Durga from the house which, before the partition, belonged to a Hindu family. Sajid observes that, from every house abandoned by Hindu migrants and now occupied by Muslim families, idols of Hindu gods and goddesses are thrown in the trash as an act of purgation. In this way, he manages to record the endlessly undone meaning and endlessly heightened effects of Partition. As subsequent events keep reminding him, it is not only geography, but also minds and hearts that have been divided.

The only person who opposes this practice is Nasimullah Jaan, who owns a shop in Raja Bazaar named Roop Behroop. In his shop, Jaan stocks masks, coffins, costumes, and other props needed for theatrical performances, as well as thrown idols of gods and goddesses. Jaan tells Sajid, who visits his shop often, that all this paraphernalia has no place in a country created in the name of religion. Art interpreted as secular cannot accommodate itself to the sanctity of religion.

In the collection and worship of broken idols of gods and goddesses, Jaan comes to embrace – and then reveal – a secret of his own cultural / religious self. According to him, embracing a new religion does not mean that you become absolutely alienated from your past religion. You can get rid of idols, throw them out of your house, but you cannot totally erase from your heart the clandestine attachment that you have developed with them over time.

You can develop disdainful thoughts or emotions towards your past but, paradoxically, through this process of disdain, the past remains an indelible part not only of your memory, but rather of your whole being. This psychological fact has been terribly glossed over and suppressed by those who run the affairs of the Pakistani state and society. Jaan characterizes – and pisses off – the problematic of art in a country that has an ingrained religious ideology.

Among all the theatrical objects that clutter the shop, a globe of mirrors hypnotizes Sajid. Jaan tells him that scanning the globe can visualize future events. Sajid’s curious mind is captivated by this statement. One afternoon, while Jaan is snoring in a deep sleep, Sajid scans the globe and sees some truly horrific events: the lynching of Mashal Khan; the massacre of students at the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar; a burnt down temple.

Later, when he adopted storytelling as his profession, an adult Sajid shared with people what he had seen in the world, but they laughed at first and then finally rejected his prophecies. Here Tarar seems to point out that writers – storytellers – have been resilient in exposing the pitfalls of society since early times, but their voices have not been heard.

In 1948, Saadat Hasan Manto wrote a satirical short story, ‘Allah Ka Bara Fazal Hai’ [Allah Has Been Very Kind], in which he declared that all art forms were ruthlessly banned in the land created in the name of God. Manto predicted the future of human creativity in an ideological state. Although Tarar shares Manto’s dystopian outlook, his technique is different. It goes back in time and propels events that have already happened as prophecies. Here Tarar goes against the grain because, in most cases, the writers interpret the story or portend future events.

A few words are in order about Tarar’s popularity despite the lackluster attitude of critics towards his writings. Readers who constantly follow his writings might wonder what is the chemistry of his prolificacy? Is it an insatiable urge? Inexhaustible passion? Professional requirements? Or just the habit?

It is neither easy nor appropriate to indicate just one factor. In the very process of creative writing, all kinds of boundaries are blurred; the writings themselves can reveal where there was an insatiable urge to explore the deeper layers of human existence and where things were usually or professionally noted. A disinterested, critical reading can focus on the difference between a serious psychic urge to write something different and substantial and a habit of producing more and more. This kind of reading has not yet had recourse to the writings of Tarar.

By all accounts Tarar is the most popular Pakistani writer of our time; every one of his books, be they travelogue or fictional, is warmly received by posh, ordinary and literary readers. Indeed, popularity is desirable – every writer wants access to a larger audience. The act of writing may come from some sort of soliloquy, but publishing your work means nothing more than being read by a wider audience.

But popularity cannot be said to be the sole measure of a book’s literary value. Simply put, popularity and critical acclaim are not two sides of the same coin. It is true that some writers are both popular and critically acclaimed, like Haruki Murakami in our day, but Tarar’s case is somewhat different. Many of his most popular books have failed to gain critical appreciation. To some extent, contemporary Urdu criticism can be criticized for not thoroughly studying the creative works that are on the rise.

A sort of repetition of style and narrative techniques, employed more or less in most of his novels, could explain the silence and slowness of the Urdu reviews. Despite all this, Tarar’s new books are a must read for all fiction-avid readers who wonder how and why our society has become entangled in regressive behaviors, and how the new Urdu fiction is consistent in unveiling the logic. and the history of this repression.

The critic is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab, Lahore. He tweets @ AbbasNasir65

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 26, 2021