ESSAY: The seer and the satiristMagazines
By Raza Naeem
KRISHAN Chander wrote perhaps more prolifically than any of his contemporaries, and his creative evolution can be seen in varied themes he incorporated in his work, such as the Partition of India, Lahore’s changing environment, political opportunism in the Indian subcontinent, the shenanigans of bureaucracy, Kashmir, and the continuing fixation and fascination of our middle-classes with the United States’ continuing imperial domination in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The partition of India in 1947 marked almost every other Indian and Pakistani writer. The subcontinental writer’s stance on Partition also marked his allegiance to the ideas and ideals of progress and progressiveness. In Pakistan, Saadat Hasan Manto was especially marked out by the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) for publication of a haunting series of sketches: Siyah Hashiay, and this created so much bad blood that Manto was eventually expelled from the PWA. Chander also produced a searing volume in the wake of Partition: Hum Wahshi Hain, which though praised by his Indian comrades like Ismat Chughtai, was excoriated by some Pakistani critics like Muhammad Hasan Askari, Aziz Ahmed, Anwar Sadeed and Mumtaz Shirin. It contained masterpieces like ‘Peshawar Express’, though I have always thought that the much-underrated short story in this collection ‘Aik Tawaif ka Khat Pandit Nehru aur Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah kay Naam’ is actually the most powerful, not only from the point of view of the changing role of the courtesan in 20th century India, but its powerful contemporary prescience, if one looks at the incidences of rape of women in India and the kidnappings and forced conversions of Hindu girls in Pakistan.
Since Lahore played such a major part in Krishan Chander’s intellectual upbringing, one can glean a sense of Lahore’s changing environment and society in some of his stories from the 1940s-50s, like ‘Akhri Bus’ and ‘Pehla aur Teesra’. These are as much a commentary on the complexities modern transportation has created in an already difficult life, as they are observations on the rigid class system kept intact in our modes of public transport like buses and trains. They would not be out of place in contemporary Pakistan and India, where the rulers have come up with their own Metro Bus and Delhi Metro projects, in Lahore and Delhi respectively.
Manto is often credited with being the only Pakistani writer of his generation to foresee the patterns of Pakistani state and society, especially its ruling elite’s increasing political opportunism and its ties to US imperialism, and the increasing intolerance in our society. In India, it is Krishan Chander who foresaw patterns of political corruption, as well as increasing Americanisation of its huge middle class, symptoms of which had started appearing in the 1990s as the Indian economy gradually opened up to free-market neo-liberalism, having well and truly consolidated itself in the 21st century. My favourite in this regard is the satire ‘Leader ki Kursi’ which shows the slow evolution and elevation of a ne’er-do-well to the status of a ‘leader’ without principles or scruples. “Within a few days, the election result came out. This time neither the MWE party whose slogan was ‘Make War with Everyone’ was successful, nor the MPE party whose slogan was ‘Make Peace with Everyone’. It was the WNPW party which won: its slogan was ‘Willy-Nilly Peace and War’.”
Today such mercurial Gobind Rams can be found in every political party in South Asia, from the municipal level right up to the prime minister. In the same vein, Chander’s story ‘Lakh Pati bannay ka Nuskha’ reminded me of Manto’s similarly-crafted tale of opportunism and chicanery ‘Shaheed Saz’: “In my childhood, I loved to make snowballs in my village. When the snowfall decreased, I used to go out of my house over the ravine and after making a snowball, used to roll it over the ravine. The snowball rolled with great speed and increased in size by gathering snow around it. The same is the case with money. The ball which I made out of one lakh sixty thousand rupees and started rolling over the ‘ravine’ of Bombay, rupee joined with rupee and now the ball is so huge that despite my best efforts, I can’t control it. Nowadays I am regarded as one of Bombay’s big millionaires.”
An issue related to political opportunism is the inefficiency and insensitivity of bureaucracies in the subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan developed huge bureaucracies after independence, which became enormously influential in controlling state affairs, more so in Pakistan. Krishan Chander’s famous novel Aik Gadhay ki Atmakatha is devoted to this theme, especially the Chinese-inspired model of bureaucracy introduced by Nehru in India. In the short form, one of his powerful denunciations of bureaucracy, which in my opinion could proudly be mentioned in the same league as Gogol’s The Nose, is his ‘Jamun ka Paer’, which does not require Gogol’s magic realism to depict the ruthless power and the wanton misuse it brings in its wake.
I can do no better than attempt to recreate the story’s chilling conclusion here in my imperfect translation: “On the second day when the Forest Department men arrived with saws and axes, they were barred from cutting the tree. They found out that the Foreign Affairs Department had prohibited the cutting of the tree. The reason was that the tree had been planted in the Secretariat lawn a decade ago by the Prime Minister of Petunia. If the tree was cut now, there was a great risk that our relations with the government of Petunia would be damaged forever. ‘But this is a question of a man’s life’, shouted the clerk with anger. ‘On the other side, a question of relations between two countries’, the Second Clerk admonished the First Clerk, ‘and do try to understand too how much aid the Petunian government gives to our government. Can’t we sacrifice even one man’s life for their friendship?’”
Chander was not a Kashmiri like his contemporary Manto, yet he has devoted a surprisingly large oeuvre of writing on Kashmir, more so than Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Rajinder Singh Bedi, his illustrious peers in the fictional realm. In the wake of the recent elections in Indian-occupied Kashmir and the early signs of independent opinion displayed by its newly-elected Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed, this amazingly prescient paragraph from the preface to a collection of his stories on Kashmir helps put things in perspective, more than 50 years on:
“Today Kashmir is involved in the same civil war, the poor Dogras and Muslims of Jammu, the poor farmers of Kashmir valley and the proud soldiers and farmers of the areas of Poonch, Mahinder Bagh and Palandi have been involved in this civil war. On one side is the Pakistani army, on the other side the Indian army, and above them the guardians of Anglo-American imperialism, who have come to decide the fate of Kashmir. The way in which they decided the fate of western Korea and Greece, the same sort of decision they are imposing in Kashmir today; because it is Kashmir’s misfortune that just as Greece borders socialist Europe, in the same way Kashmir borders socialist Russia. That’s why the cats have been encouraged to fight and the imperialists sitting comfortably, scale in hand, waiting to devour the bread.”
The influence of the United States in the political, social and cultural life of the Indian subcontinent can no longer be taken for granted, whether in terms of our rulers’ military ties with Washington, or the increasing numbers of people emigrating to or studying in the US, as well as the Non-Resident Indians and Pakistanis settled in the US. This dependence and its malcontents are unsparingly brought home in an entertaining manner in Krishan Chander’s short story ‘Amreeka say Aanay Wala Hindustani.’ Look at this interesting dialogue between the NRI and his Indian friend:
“He became lost in his memories:
‘Hot dogs, hot women and empty minds’.
Suddenly I began to feel a bit nauseous.
I asked: ‘You didn’t see anything else in America?’
He replied: ‘What?’
‘See Howard Fast?’
‘See Paul Robeson?’
‘Heard or read Walt Whitman’s poetry? See kids going to school?’
Jagmohan said: ‘I didn’t go to the States for these silly matters’.”
In other stories like ‘Naye Ghulam’, Chander deals with American military domination more directly, especially as it appeared to him in the former’s involvement in the Korean War, with ramifications which have passed on into the 21st century in the form of a divided Korean peninsula, with a nuclear-armed northern part and a southern part with a massive American military presence.
All translations are by the writer.