Not just a novel

The life story of Madho Lal Hussain transformed into a gripping contemporary tale.

The publication of this novel is a transgressive event in the world of letters in Pakistan. The novel successfully blurs the boundaries between time and space, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, social facts and historiography. The surface story in this debut novel is set in Lahore and narrates the story of Hussain and Mahboob but it is also a history of Lahore and the region in which Lahore exists. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, the novel is also a social document because, through the thoughts of its characters, it creates a catalogue of historical events, social movements, and political upheavals that influence the fictional lives.

The life story of Madho Lal Shah Hussain, originally two Sufi saints which are referred by one name and who are buried in Lahore, is the source of inspiration but it has been transformed into a contemporary tale. It is a difficult task to transform a historical life into a metaphor for the present but Nain Sukh has accomplished it with a deceptive sense of ease. The carefully honed analytical and creative acumen of the author exhibits an obsession with the social and political history of South Asia as well as a Sufic detachment with this post-lapsarian world. The result is a book that should be a mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand Lahore and Pakistan with everything sordid, censored, and sublime included. The effect on the reader is very unsettling at the beginning because this method of mixing facts, fiction, and poetry is new in Punjabi but not in English, which has a long history of nonfiction novels or even faction (fact+fiction = faction). The Punjabi literary landscape is already abuzz with the debate whether this book is a novel or not. But because there are no universally acceptable definitions of what the novel is, the readers should enjoy the book and the stories within the story without worrying about its genre. If House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (a novel with 96 pages of footnotes) are novels, this book is definitely a novel. But it is not just a novel. It is a book that deserves to be noted as a social document as well. For this, Nain Sukh deserves major kudos. It is difficult to list all the ironical facts that one can learn from this book but a sampling is in order. For example, the book informs the reader how Faiz Ahmed Faiz as a candidate for Lenin Peace Prize was asked what he had done for Punjabi, his mother tongue. And in this regard, Faiz was helped by Ustad Daman. Faiz admitted that he could attempt to be an equal to Ghalib and Iqbal in Urdu but not Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain in Punjabi. Or for example, the fact mentioned in the novel that a leader of the Taliban was originally named Peeran Ditta (a gift from the local saints) by his parents because his elder brothers had not survived childhood make the main story extremely engaging.

The emotive effect of all the facts included in the novel is that of an ironical sense of despair. The reader has to ultimately deal with Nietzsche’s idea about the role of contradictions in a society. For Nietzsche, contradictions do not undermine societies but rather provide the basis of their existence. If all the contradictions were to be removed from a human society, it would collapse. But Nain Sukh seems to have cultivated a sublime sense of detachment despite or because of all the ironical facts he has gathered.

Despite all the facts and factoids added to the main thread of the narrative, it is not a novel of ideas, which is a distinct genre in world literature. A novel of ideas, like Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised or Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh (despite all its metaphysical claptrap), puts forward an original argument. In that sense, this novel does not put forward an original argument. The treatment of the narrative problems and the technique of dealing with the situations the characters find themselves in are, however, very original and may ultimately teach other novelists from this region some original narrative manoeuvres.

The fact that Madho Lal Hussain has been written in Punjabi is a political choice of the author. But it does not mean it is regional or parochial in its content or themes. It has a universal appeal and should be translated from Punjabi directly into English. The reason for this suggestion is pragmatic. A lot of things discussed in the novel may not be palatable to mainstream Urdu readers and may stir an uncalled-for hoopla. English readers in Pakistan, because of their small numbers, are a safe group for sharing risqué ideas but the English version of the novel may bring the author a well-deserved global recognition.

Madho Lal Hussain

Author: Nain Sukh

Publisher: New Line Publications, Lahore

Pages: 463

Price: PKR500 

Published on May 31, 2015