Ali Akbar Natiq
What will You Give for this Beauty?
Collection of Short Stories
Translator: Ali Madeeh Hashmi
Gurgaon: Penguin Books, 2015
ISBN No. 9780670087402
217 pages | Rs 399
Eclectic human emotions of the rustic folks in Pakistani Punjab
In today’s urbanized civil society, can we think of a contemporary writer whose craft dexterously brings alive the nuances of life across the rural spectrum? Ali Akbar Natiq is a Pakistani writer who has woven eclectic human emotions of the rustic folks into his poignant short story collection What Will You Give for this Beauty? (originally written in Urdu, translated into English by Ali Madeeh Hashmi).The rural Pakistani Punjab – with its flowing rivers, verdant meadows, orthodox rituals and customs, myths, legends and superstitions, feasts and festivals, feuds and bets – forms the nucleus of these stories. Pathos functions as lynchpin in most of the stories and is reminiscent of Munshi Premchand’s and Saadat Hasan Manto’s style of story narration.
The stories portray many run-of-the-mill characters which are raw, unsophisticated, and suffused with whims and idiosyncrasies, yet sometimes unassumingly heroic. They are quite vulnerable to the natural catastrophes in the form of floods and drought, and at other times, they are cowed into subservience by the rigid societal norms. It is remarkable that pathos in the tales does not let itself degenerate into ‘bathos’ and dilute the intense flavor of some heart-wrenching tales. Despite its stark realism and irony, the collection foregrounds and celebrates the fortitude, tenacity and humane qualities of the people surviving in the midst of odds.
Rivers have been used as strong motifs in more than one story. These are representative of malign as well as benign forces of nature. The fate of people undulates with the rise and fall of the water level of rivers. The superstitious villagers associate many myths and legends with them. “It had thus become lore that the river demanded one or two human sacrifices a year” (p 5). ‘Qaim Deen’ describes a vain yet gallant Qaim Deen who crosses Satluj at night and furtively ventures into the dark and dangerous reed jungle where pythons slither, jackals howl, and wild boars grunt. He says, “I recited the spell and all the snakes lined up to say salaam. One of them refused, so I blew on him and he disappeared in a puff of smoke” (p 39). He risks his life every time he manages to steal the cattle from across the Indian border. None in the village protests or complains against his ‘illegal’ profession because it satisfies one’s national pride by his being able to pilfer something from the hands of the rival nation. It is extremely ironical that Qaim Deen who once saved many villagers from drowning during a flood in the village, turns lunatic and as ill luck would have it, the savior is devoured by the raging waters as if the river is taking revenge on him for reducing the number of sacrifices it had needed once.
The art of storytelling and folklore was much appreciated in the countryside and men with the gift of the gab were much venerated and sought after. Jeera’s stories in ‘Jeera’s Departure’ are enjoyed by one and all in the village including Pir Moday Shah. However, he becomes a victim of his own ingenuity and audacity when he angers Pir Moday Shah so much that Pir becomes his nemesis by signing off a clever death punishment for him. Again, the river becomes a strong motif since Jeera is sacrificed at the behest of Pir Moday Shah in order to bring rain to the parched, drought-stricken land. ‘Pandokey’ is a well-crafted tale where a conversation exchange between two friends initiates the plot of the story. Keeping in tune with the realistic mode, the tale is often interrupted by the other friend, and digressions and superfluous details are the accepted norm. The tale ends interestingly with the storyteller outwitting his friend, Shahzad-lala who challenges him to narrate an arresting story but without an ‘iota of exaggeration’ (107).
Though Natiq has been able to capture well the lives of rural people, yet the perspective of women seems largely under-represented. The ugly contours of the enduring gender gap which stifled the autonomy of women peep through in many stories now and then, yet there is not a single story approached through woman as a narrator. In the rustic Punjab, women observe strict purdah; they have no economic independence; elopement or infidelity may result in retribution far disproportionate to the action. ‘Jodhpur’s End’ features a young beautiful woman, Kareeman who is forcibly married off to a dimwit, Ghafoora to coerce her into complete submission. Her elopement with a family servant invites severe wrath of her cousin, Ilyas who, in connivance with his uncle, tries to bury her alive in a deep hole. Her browbeaten mother is confined to a room when she tries to raise her voice of protest. ‘Despair’ is a story about the miserable fate of courtesans and their children. The Rajputs pay visits to brothels to satiate their desires and impregnate the courtesans but what about the fate of the bastards born out of this ‘unholy’ union? There is a sudden, dark, and menacing twist in the tale which leaves the readers dumbfounded. The last story ‘A Mason’s Hand’ (translated into English by Mohammed Hanif) moved me the most since it maps the trajectory of a mason’s life. Natiq being a mason, can empathize well with their lot. The protagonist in the story leaves his country, Pakistan to Saudi Arabia in search of better future prospects. Hunger-stricken and with feet bleeding badly, he slips into a pair of leather shoes to soothe them a little (his own shoes stolen earlier). His wretchedness and helplessness leaves the readers moist-eyed. According to the Sharia law, his hands are chopped off for the crime of theft and he is too feeble to voice any form of resistance. The story forces one to think whether the religious laws should be followed in letter or in spirit.
Despite well-structured plots and gripping narration of stories, one distraction which cannot be negated is the presence of numerous characters in each story which baffles the readers. In the course of reading a story, a reader is compelled to flip through the pages again to understand the characters and their relation to one another. Except a few eponymous stories where it is easy to memorize the protagonists’ names, a bewildering number of diverse characters tests one’s memory filters. However, these flaws can be easily glossed over considering the overall impact of the entire collection which leaves the readers brooding over many issues the stories deal with, and at times, the unsettling denouement they lead to.