by Indeewaara Thilakarathne
In this week’s column, I examine how Singapore-based writer Zafar Anjum has depicted socio-political reality through his collection of Short Stories titled Kafka in Ayodhya and other short stories (Kitaab, 2015). What is significant in his seemingly organic prose is his innate ability to symbolically represent the harsh realities in the socio-economic and cultural sphere through the eyes of the man in the street.
The book comprises eight short stories namely Kafka in Ayodhya, The Lone Fighter, The Rats, Waiting for the Angels, E.D., The Revolt, The Thousand –Yard Stare and Ima.
Zafar Arjum has woven myriad complexities into his skillfully crafted short stories so that they are almost natural in representations, often depicting life in diverse parts of the globe.
In the title storey Kafka in Ayodhya , the author masterly captures the complex ground realities as: “ When we got down to Ayodhya, a small ancient town with a Hindu mythological past, I was struck by its simplicity. It was a place that seemed to be content in its ordinariness, a featureless wasteland. Looking at its topography, the misalignment of structures, the smallness of its huts and buildings, the dirt and the dust, the idea of justice seemed asymmetrical to this place. The town seemed readymade to bear injustice and violence.
‘This is Ayodhya where Lord Ram was born,’ N. said, as we walked towards the controversial structure which was claimed by both Muslims and Hindus. The structure which used to be a mosque built in the time of Mughal emperor Babur, looked like a mottled dolphin, torpedoed to death, lying lifeless at the bottom of the sea of hatred. ‘Ram, the hero of legendary Ramayana, was a maryada purush-a man of principles. When his wife Sita was rescued and brought back to Ayodhya after she was abducted by Ravana, people doubted her purity. Ran listened to what his people demanded and asked Sita to prove her purity by walking through a bed of fire. So judicious and public spirited that great man was”What is ironic is the impeding judgment to be delivered on the disputed structure; “ ‘For nearly sixty years’ N. continued, Muslims and Hindus have been fighting over this Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi structure. After the Independence of India, some Hindus suddenly developed a belief that Lord Rama was born at the same place where the mosque stood. So, in 1949, they forced themselves into the mosque and placed Rama’s idols under the mosque’s dome. In 1992, they demolished the mosque. Thousands died in communal riots that followed the demolition. Nobody was punished. Hindus and Muslims went to court claiming title over the land and now the judgment is imminent. ”
What is noteworthy here is that the author sarcastically woven entire incident and the socio-cultural backdrop to it into the story from a perspective of an Indian poet who is named N. At the airport Kafka is also queried by journalists on the issue. As expected Kafka’s answer was philosophical, “Leave the structure as it is. Incompletion is also a quality; a facet of nobility. It has a capacity for silence. At least, that’s what I do with my writing.”
At the end of the narrative author reveals that some of the dialogues in the short story were ‘directly lifted from’ Kafka’s diaries and others were part of Kafka’s reported conversation with his friend.
Throughout the stories, Zafar Anjum tries to depict myriads of realities from diverse parts of the globe yet all of them without doubt depict the milieu and diverse lives that people leads. For instance, in the short story Waiting for the angles, the author deals with the old age in modern context in which traditional support base for elders has completely eroded, compelling them, sometimes to lead lonely lives in high rise condominiums. In the short story The Thousand-yard Stare, the author deals with human tragedy that is unfolding in Gaza and how continuing atrocities have shaped the lives of the ordinary citizens.
In the short story IMA, the author masterly depicts the busy night life in the city state of Singapore through the visit of Indian to a night club. The author presents a vividly-realised portrayal of the nightlife in Singapore; “The girls sat on their patron’s laps or burrowed into lustful, wonton demands of their patron’s fingers, poking into various parts of their bodies. The girls were used to it. All they cared about were drinks. The more liquor their clients consumed, the more commission they earned, and in the process, if their bodies become conduits, facilitators for copious consumption of alcohol, then so be it. Money, lure, commission that was what mattered to these aggressive girls who were on a money-making mission.”
Apart from depicting the prolific nightlife in Singapore, the author has skillfully captured the cultural difference that the new Indian migrant experienced when he visited the night club. The short stories in the collection Kafka in Ayodhya are, indeed, slices of life from different parts of the globe. At one level, they are ironic modern-day parables that among others, deal with human predicament in leading complex lives and at another, they portray contemporary milieu and its hard socio-economic realities which have virtually realigned complex web of human relationships, often eroding age-old values and replacing them with new ethos. What makes the collection a part of collective psyche is the organic and plausible manner in which the short stories are woven into a complex matrix that captures the modern-day complex life and its myriad realities.