Too much of a good thing

While Salman Rushdie opened up for writers from the subcontinent a whole new way of telling 'ethnic' stories, these two novels by two Pakistani writers, dazzling in language and style, lack substance says RAKHSHANDA JALIL.

MAGIC realism is perhaps the single most devious, most innocently alluring trap for the adventurous writer from our part of the world. A dollop of "native" exotica, a large measure of popular culture, a handful of "scenes" of the nukkad variety, a generous helping of pure whimsy (the more sacrilegious the better), the merest sliver of a plot and, voil, there you have it. Magic realism at its post-Rushdie best.

In 1981, when Salman Rushdie unleashed his Midnight's Children upon an unsuspecting world, he opened the floodgates to a whole new way of telling stories; stories that were part autobiographical, part metaphorical, stories that dove in and out from the real to the imagined, often stories within stories that presented a vivid, multi-coloured, multi-textured tapestry that was neither pure history nor pure fantasy, but somewhere in between. It was this delightful coming together of the absurd and the actual, of history and the imaginative retelling of historical facts, of the autobiographical and the universal that critics were quick to dub magic realism. Rushdie single-handedly showed the world that great novels could be crafted from ethnic stories, especially stories from one's childhood, using a completely "native" idiom and expression and a distinctly idiosyncratic use of the English language.

Over the years, Rushdie's near-iconic style and linguistic audacity have been hijacked by a wagonload of wannabes with one eye on the western media and the other on the pantheon of literary agents who can bag them their multi-million dollar contracts, while keeping their fingers firmly crossed about lucrative film deals with foreign television channels feeding the diaspora's insatiable hunger for trivia from the homeland. The two books under review fall, quite lamentably, in this category. For both Uzma Aslam Khan's The Story of Noble Rot and Musharraf Farooqi's Passion in the Time of Termites can be viewed as having all the right ingredients in place, but somehow quite lacking in zest.

The unbridled flights of fancy, the brilliant portrayals of local colour and custom, the almost compulsive, near-photographic recall of detail that has become practically de rigeur in most post-colonial writing coming out from the Asian sub-continent are all there. But there is also a restlessness, a false note too many. It seems as though these two debut authors - both from Pakistan, both with experiences of having lived and studied in the West - are not fully at ease with themselves or with the stories they have to tell. They use the English language with dextrous ease but it is more a tool to astonish and dazzle the reader than to convey any real strength and imagination.

Both Khan and Farooqi exhibit a certain desperate desire to impress. The ruling mantra is - Overkill. The more absurd, bizarre and far-fetched, the better. Plot, characterisation, narrative - all are sacrificed at the altar of grandiloquence. Of the two, The Story of Noble Rot perhaps demands a greater ability for "complete suspension of disbelief" from the reader. The title itself hangs on a very slender thread of credibility: "The sweet taste of the wine comes from the muscadelle grape, and the grayish mould that it attracts. The mould is lovingly called pourriture noble, noble rot."

It is this sweet-tasting but morally degenerating wine that brings the wealthy Mrs. Masood in contact with Malika, a poor carpenter's wife. The first sip of forbidden wine marks the beginning of a relationship that inexorably changes the lives of the two women and all those who are drawn into Malika's complex web of plans and dreams. There is the urbane Mr. Masood, factory- owner and nouveau riche extraordinaire; Momin the child labourer with hennaed, deformed hands who works in his factory and dreams of fish and birds; the Pathan gardener with the sun-dappled eyes; Mr. Saeed, the withdrawn scholarly widower who employs Malika to look after his hopelessly anglicised children; Chaudry the carpenter who can carve magic out of a piece of wood; Saima with her volatile swings of affection and fund of fabulous stories; the beauteous Laila in her impeccably starched and embroidered salwar kameezes; and a couple of wine-guzzling Frenchmen who gleefully clink away their glasses "To Partnership". The presiding deity of this lush and intensely imaged landscape is the churail (witch), Soomla, named after a legendary Sindhi princess.

With so much material at her disposal, one presumes Uzma Aslam Khan set out to tell a story but it got lost somewhere in a maze of literary contretemps and stylistic peccadilloes. To wit: "The bride listened to the oxymoron of Sirkash's footsteps as he padded through the desert with heavy lightness and hushed intensity." And, "She was the fox in the chicken coop, the child in an adult theatre, Rushdie in Khomeini's bed."

Musharraf Farooqi, the more gifted and sure-footed storyteller of the two, shows a similar tendency to dazzle and overwhelm. Passion in the Time of Termites is the story of a town called Purana Shehr that has been besieged by an epidemic of termites.

For the termites the whole of Purana Shehr was a giant dining table on which the homesteads, like so many dishes, were arrayed high and low and to which they helped themselves night and day. The only place where there were no termites was the Past and that too was fast filling up with the memory of their devastation.

As the termites eat away maniacally at everything, we meet Salar Jung who has come to stay with his daughter and son-in-law in their ramshackle home in Topee Mohalla and a gaggle of ingeniously named dramatis personae. There is Ladlay Qalabaz, the scheming lover and lawyer; Mushtri Khanam, the coy bank clerk and ageing neighbourhood belle; Bilotti, the geriatric vegetable vendor and keeper of cats; a notorious tomcat called Kotwal with his strange predilections and bloodcurdling yowls; Lumboo the sweeper with his ragtag lashkar (army) of street urchins; Noor-i- Firdousi, the voluptuous singer and "the mistress of choice of pudgy generals"; Mirza Poya, the cinema buff; Master Puchranga the painter of cinema hoardings; and many more. There is also a teahouse called Chhalawa Hotel which is the hub of local gossip, a newspaper called Qandeel, a nationalised bank called Desh bank.

Farooqi has an unerring eye for detail and an often pungent way of making observations: "Nowhere else was despair found in greater number, running on two feet, than in court." It is perhaps for this reason that he has chosen to leaven his story with a remarkable number of "scenes": "At the Sessions Court", "At the Cobbler's", "At the Meat Market", "At the Barber's", "At the Photo Studio", "At the Dyer's", "At the Kalandar's Adda", "Muharram Procession", "The Letter-writers at Work", "The Knife- sharpener at Work", and several such drolly amusing and finely crafted vignettes.

But this is where the tedium sets in. Farooqi is on to a good thing and does not know where to let go. So there is more of local colour by way of desi kushti (style of wrestling), katibs (calligraphers), pehlwans (exponents of kushti), qalandars (animal-trainers), kathpuliwallahs (puppeteers), pigeon breeders, kite fliers, cock fighters, fortune-reading parrots, ad nauseum.

Khan and Farooqi suffer from the worst excesses of much of the new genre of writing in English coming out from the Asian subcontinent. Masala has come to replace savour and characters have been taken over by caricatures.

The Story of Noble Rot, Uzma Aslam Khan,

Penguin, p.217, Rs. 200.

Passion in the Time of Termites,

Musharraf Farooqi, HarperCollins, p.319.