Herald, sometime in 1998
By Ahmed Dawood
Published by Dost Publications,
Price: Rs. 100
Khwab Farosh, published almost three years after the death of its author, is perhaps the last collection of Urdu short stories by Ahmed Dawood.
“You remember the good old days when love had not shifted to prohibited territory … and the city used to tremble to the dignity of our gait. Thanks to that dream merchant, those days have come back to me after eleven years of insomnia…” So says Waqas to his friend in the opening lines of the title story (the sixth in the collection). In a few words, he reflects the mood of the entire book.
Ahmed Dawood belonged to the breed of writers that grew up in the heady seventies decade amid slogans of social revolution, battle cries of political activism and the confusion of ingenious (indigenous) experimentation in art and literature. The period of disillusionment and agony that followed those tumultuous times – the eleven years of General Zia’s reign – is represented in Khawab Farosh through 14 stories.
“… Oh, you left as soon as the trouble began. You are very worldly wise, aren’t you? You guessed what is going to follow. We were left behind. To be punished for dreaming. I was also arrested for crimes that were never committed. Speedy trial court presented me a list of accusations that included treason, terrorism and the perpetuation of obscenity, and asked me to plead guilty. What was done to my body when I refused … do you know?”
The stories collected here do not simply recall the woes of the sufferers, neither are they stories about heroes and villains. The canvas is reduced to the microcosm of the human soul with a few masterly strokes of extraordinary talent but which, in doing so, expands it simultaneously to reflect the macrocosm of a whole era. The images are surrealistic, all too surrealistic. Shadows in the dark. A stranger with a hat made out of the American flags. Seeds which give you the wrong crop. A snake turned human. The light and shade of the late afternoon playing upon the lonely streets of a dull and lifeless city. The young man who never sleeps. Visitors who never turn up and unsuspecting wanderers who set their feet on the wrong roads to meet disastrous consequences. A town which is empty of all human emotions, and a jungle which is too human …
“I felt fear and disgust as I imagined the impact of human blood on my slender, scaly body. We had heard much about this blood …” (‘Saanp Ki Sarguzasht’)
What makes a story is not the power of symbols, nor the layers of abstraction, nor the magic of super realism, but the simple fact that it looks like a story. Khwab Farosh is readable (unlike some other experiments of the sort) because the writer does not lose sight of this primary objective: simply to tell a story. The interplay between the images (a term I would prefer over characters in this case) leads to patterns which can be clearly and easily recognised as events and that, basically, is what plot is all about, if we are speaking in terms of modern short stories.
This characteristic of Khwab Farosh almost compensates for the one flaw of some of the stories: the occasional wordiness of the dialogue. Even though classical yardsticks for measuring the depth of a story are not very often used in contemporary criticism, one feels tempted to remark a little on the dialogue here. It is perhaps the only area of storytelling where Dawood seems to have been taken by impulse. While the dialogue is generally witty (as it should be in a work on these issues), poignant and serves the purpose, it occasionally also seems to lose its speech-like quality and betrays the writer’s greed by saying things as they are in the writer’s mind rather than in the way the characters would say them. For instance, in the story Khwab Farosh, Waqas’ friend summarises a conversation in a very unnatural manner and fills it in with academic references to subjects they have covered, such as politics, economy and culture.
But the one thing that will most probably compel many readers to devour this volume from cover to cover is the successful and masterly creation of a world where nothing is real and everything is plausible, and therefore ‘being or not being’ is the question. Khwab Farosh is a complete world – full of humans, animals, plants, nature and human artifacts as well as rural, urban and prehistoric modes of life. And in this world, each one of these animals, plants and inanimate objects seems to be speaking for itself, having been animated by the virility of a master storyteller. What they are saying in unison is this: what we have to speak is unspeakable; what we have to endure is unbearable; what we are living in is a void.
This is the horror, this is the terror, this is the world of a totalitarian regime – as it was seen by Ahmed Dawood, and as it can be seen by anyone who reads this book. I feel like putting it on the same shelf with 1984, We and Brave New World. And I don’t see it as a collection of short stories after I have digested what I have read. Khawab Farosh may well be taken as one complete novel comprising 14 chapters which are not linked to each other in the classical fashion and yet make up one complete whole.
This is the last bow of the young writer who died before his time and who was potentially the greatest Urdu short story writer of our age.