Book: Qabz-e-Zamaan (novella); by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

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Humair Ishtiaq

It is not too far-fetched to say that Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the critic, would have surely approved of Faruqi, the writer. By the looks of it, he writes with the critic in mind, and if it happens to be a critic of his calibre, there has to be a writer of matching competence. And that, without even a semblance of doubt, Faruqi is.

Though he has been working at his craft since the early 1970s, it is the writer who turned the corner at the turn of the century — or rather, at the turn of the millennium — who is taken as a master of all that he chooses or cares to survey. That is, when he went from being a writers’ writer to a readers’ writer. And what a writer Faruqi turned out to be with Sawar Aur Doosray Afsanay in 2001, and then his magnum opus Kayee Chaand Thay Sar-e-Aasmaa’n in 2006. These books were absolutely brilliant; no more and no less.

Not that Faruqi was struggling in any sense prior to these masterpieces. Indeed, he was an appreciated and acknowledged authority on Urdu literature for long before that — as a critic, an editor, a poet. He was a luminary of a planet that swirled around the literati and the learned. Post-millennium, he has enlarged his orbit to take in all and sundry, touching the hearts and minds of Urdu readers across the board. His latest offering, Qabz-e-Zamaa’n, in fact, is a major stride forward in that direction. In keeping with his celebrated — and cerebral — tradition, the diction remains charming, the choice of word, ethereal, and the narrative, lucid. The reader gets bowled over in no time, and does so willingly and with great joy.

The short novel, a novelette, if you will, starts off with the present timeline, jumps back to 15th century Delhi ruled by Sikandar Lodi and resurfaces, and ends, in the same city some 250 years later in the mid-18th century under the rule of the mughal emperor, Ahmed Shah Bahadur.

For anyone who has had exposure to Faruqi’s command over literary gimmickry and the finesse with which he uses history as raw material, the timeline should not be surprising. What, indeed, will make readers sit up and take notice of — and enjoy, for sure — is the simple yet complicated introduction of the element of timelessness that the master craftsman has opted for. The protagonist remains the same across the massive time span. Some sort of magical realism? Fantasy, perhaps? Not quite. Actually, that would have been too simple for Faruqi.

Qabz-e-Zamaa’n is also different from science-fiction tales of time travel as in them the characters move through time zones and eras knowingly. That is not Faruqi’s turf. He has, instead, drawn his inspiration from the historical references in literature and scriptures of people who spent time on earth not realising the length of time that has elapsed.

As mentioned by the author in the preface, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle slept for roughly two decades. The Seven Sleepers mentioned in the Bible and the Quran’s People of the Cave spent almost 300 years sleeping — from the third to the sixth century — before they woke up from their slumber to realise the extent to which things had changed in the meantime. The graves of the People of the Cave are claimed to be in Ephesus, Turkey, as well as near Amman in Jordan, while the Uyghur Muslims believe and insist that the incident took place in Turpan in the Chinese Xinjiang region. The oldest of such tales has been related in Bhagavatam, an epic relating to the pre-Mahabharata era involving a certain Emperor Muchkund who was made to rest by Raja Indra some 5,000 years ago.

But, rest assured, that is just the raw material. In fact, it is the raw form of the concept that has provided Faruqi the material for Qabz-e-Zamaa’n. It would have been, again, too simple for Faruqi, the spinner of tales, to tell a tale so simple. In all the above references, the running thread is provided by the fact that the characters were asleep as time passed by. They were not aware of how it happened. Faruqi’s character experiences it with his eyes wide open and yet doesn’t know how it all happened.

It is significant that Faruqi has quoted Shakespeare at the outset. Taken from As You Like It, the context is set when Rosalind talks of the “lazy foot of time”, and Orlando wonders why she had not used the term “swift foot of time”. Rosalind replies: “time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons. I’ll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.”

Faruqi has linked this thought with the Sufi mystic thought of Divine Will that makes time pass at a different pace for different people. Bewitched by the similarity of thought spread over two completely different geographical spaces and time zones, Faruqi has produced an equally bewitching piece of fiction.

His character moves from, say, Point A to Point B within Delhi, and when he returns to Point A “in a matter of hours”, he finds the world has moved on by more than a couple of centuries. Shocked and bewildered, the character tries to readjust to life because he himself has not grown any older at all.

This is as tricky as it gets, but Faruqi’s narrative makes it all sound simple and seamless without using any loopholes or oversimplifications to spoil the fun. This has always been one of the outstanding features of Faruqi’s fiction writing.

In one of his short stories, ‘In Sauhbatoo’n Mein Aakhir’, that later became part of Sawar, he focused on the life and times of Mir Taqi Mir. The story starts off in 15th century Serbia and then moves on to 18th century Delhi. Likewise, in Kayee Chaand Thay Sar-e-Aasmaa’n, he moves from Bani Thani to Wazir Khanum with an ease that is, to say the least, exquisite.

Faruqi’s capacity to move through historical eras by enlivening entire cultures — languages, dresses, social norms, physical descriptions and everything else — is as amazing as it is amusing. And in doing so, he never forgets the storyline which remains his primary concern as a fiction writer. The result is that readers of Urdu enjoy not only the story, but also Faruqi’s presence in our midst. That Qabz-e-Zamaa’n has been dedicated to Saadat Hasan Manto actually adds to Manto’s stature.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer.

Qabz-e-Zamaa’n
(NOVELLA)
By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Scheherzade, Karachi
ISBN 978-9695681169
120pp.

Citation
Humair Ishtiaq, “The spinner of tales,” in Dawn, May 31, 2015. Accessed on June 7, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1185300/fiction-the-spinner-of-tales

Disclaimer
The item above written by Humair Ishtiaq and published in Dawn on May 31, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on June 7, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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