by Ranga Chandrarathne
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
― Robert Frost
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
― Oscar Wilde
Although coloured by diverse incidents that occurr against equally diverse socio-cultural backdrops, the common thread that runs throughout Zafar Anjum’s fascinating short stories in Kafka in Ayodhya (Kitaab, Singapore; 2015) is the sheer vibrancy of life in its infinite verities and under trying circumstances. The dramatic personae may change from one country to another, from one culture to another; yet, life goes on unabated amidst chaos. It is the rich emotions, pathos and unshakable kinships that forms the contours of life throughout the world. That universal truth resonates throughout the short stories in the collection Kafka in Ayodhya.
One of the poignant short stories in Anjum’s book which is truly a tribute to life and unshakable kinship that sustains it is ‘The Thousand –Yard Stare’. Apart from the moving story and the masterly portrayal of real life characters, the short story is full of vividly realised passages that symbolically represent not only the harsh ground reality in a war zone or rather conflict zone but also how that backdrop shapes the lives of the masses who are caught up in the power play.
“A blazing white sun beat down on Al-Khuwair, dense gray concrete shanty town in Gaza, surrounded by three sides by Israeli military positions. Samira wearing a damp robe, and shoes covered with dust, limped across Yusuf street in the EI-Katadwa neighbourhood. She had a photo-frame clutched under her arm. After waiting for more than a week, she could finally get the frame from the frame-maker’s shop. For over a month, she had been saving her pocket money for this memento. Initially she had thought of asking father for money, but she was old enough to realise that her father had suffered heavy losses in his business. The other day, she eavesdropped on her father telling mother how one truckload of his tomatoes got damaged because the Israeli authorities had held the truck for a whole day, the tomatoes exposed to the blistering sun. From a distance, she could see dunes enfolding the camp. The dunes were dotted on top with Israeli gun emplacements, sandbagged bunkers, bulky concrete slabs, and snaking electric fence. Armoured green jeeps and tanks roared and clanked along the fence’s perimeter, throwing up clouds of dust. She stopped for a moment and gazed at the dunes, thought: this was where Ali became a martyr. She took a look at the picture frame again and her eyes moistened.”
This is the backdrop that shapes the lives of thousands of families in Gaza. There are countless numbers of martyrs among them. But, what is significant for the little girl is the agonizing pain of separation from her brother who was her playmate. The loss of her brother was an irreparable loss for her family as well.
“Samira began to cry. Her mother took the picture frame and put her hand back beneath the pillow. She looked at it for a while. Her eyes began to brim with tears. She passed the frame to her husband, and covered her face with her hands, and began to sob. The father looked at the picture and then, at crying Samira.”
The author has used effective but down-to-earth language in narrating the story. What is important to bear in mind is the fact that the little girl represents the everyday reality in a war zone not only in Gaza but also in any conflict zone such as in Syria. It is the life that is being vividly captured in the story.
The book contains 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.
In the title storey Kafka in Ayodhya, the author masterly captures the complex socio-political realities of India. Look at this passage where the author evokes the atmosphere of Ayodhya, a small town considered holy by Hindus in India: “ 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. Ram 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 impending 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 has sarcastically woven the entire incident and the socio-cultural backdrop into the story from a perspective of an Indian common man who is named N. At the airport, journalists also query Kafka 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 the author declares that some of the dialogues in the short story were, indeed, ‘directly lifted from’ Kafka’s diaries and others were part of Kafka’s reported conversation with his friend.
Throughout the stories, Anjum tries to depict many shades of life from diverse parts of the globe yet all of them without doubt depict the milieu and sheer diversity that colours our lives. For instance, in the short story Waiting for the angles, the author deals with the issue of old age in a modern context in which traditional support base for elders has completely eroded, forcing them, sometimes, to lead lonely lives in high rise condominiums.
In the short story Ima, the author masterly depicts the busy nightlife 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 a new Indian migrant experiences when he visits a night club.
In the short story, The Rats, the author depicts how an insignificant issue would have the potential to mar the family life of a newly wedded couple: “He knew that this issue would come up for discussion one of these days. The rats! Those despicable creatures! He dreaded talking about them…Rats jumping around on kitchen utensils. Rats scurrying alongside the room’s skirting, sneaking into sheets and pillows. Rats climbing up the wired mesh of the refrigerator’s back. Rats climbing up the bamboo-made window shade. Rats had rattled their lives.”
A fascinating facet of the author’s mode of storytelling is his ability to deal with complex issues in relationships through seemingly insignificant everyday occurrences. That is also in an unassuming tone, which is almost natural in rendition.
The short stories in the collection Kafka in Ayodhya represent lives coloured by diverse socio-cultural backgrounds and contexts. At one level, they are modern-day parables full of twists and turns and depict human predicaments that men and women experience in leading complex lives and at another, they are portrayals of contemporary milieu and its harsh socio-economic realities that shapes the complex web of human relationships. A new set of ethos have replaced the old one often eroding traditional social support system in a globalised and highly urbanised milieu. This is what Anjum’s Kafka in Ayodhya brilliantly captures and portrays.
(The review first appeared in Mosaic, a cultural supplement of the Ceylon Today)