Review by Usha Bande
How, if Kafka were to step out of time? And what if he were to land in Ayodhya? He would just shrug his shoulders and laughing heartily say, “A joke, indeed! Of Borgesian proportion, ah!” That is what Kafka does in Zafar Anjum’s charming book Kafka in Ayodhya and Other Short Stories (Kitaab, 2016). In story after story it is either Kafka or his Kafkaesque view of life that gives the stories their twisted appeal. When he (Kafka) encounters the confused media asking him about the structure in Ayodhya, his reply is characteristically evasive, “Leave the structure as it is” he tells them and confounds the media further as he declares, “Incompletion is also a quality, a facet of nobility. At least, that is what I do with my works.” (p.21). Ingenious, indeed! Nothing in the scheme of things reaches finality and that is how tradition and innovation overlap, merge and get reconstituted. Soon one realizes that Zafar Anjum is not interested in any particular place –Ayodhya or Gaza or Singapore; he is directing his shafts at the general condition of existence, the absurdity of it all: the manifold facets of contemporary life, the hilarious, the meaningless, the irritating and yet the plausible and logical.
Kafka in Ayodhya is a tiny book — just 92 pages — containing eight stories that have minute observations on/of life and its vagaries. Every character seems to be wriggling with a sense of being trapped: here is a disgruntled lower middle-class man for whom rats become the prime objects of hunt (‘The Rats’); there, a tear-soaked tale of suffering in war-torn Gaza (‘The Thousand-Yard Stare’); and yet again an author’s enigmatic quest (‘E.D’). All the eight stories, published in various magazines of repute, are different in themes and settings but somewhere underneath each has a cognizable thread running – something intriguing with the curious existential manipulation of fate.
Of the eight stories, four have writers as characters, looking at the world from the prism of life’s situations that are funny, inscrutable, irritating and unexplainable. In the title story ‘Kafka in Ayodhya’ it is Kafka himself come to India with Gregor, his dog. So Gregor comes out of the pages of his novel Metamorphosis. The plot is simple and yet thick with unpredictable quirky incidents, questions and ambiguous replies to those questions. Everything is confused. Kafka (the protagonist) makes fun of the very concept of fair judgment, “the cruel impossibility of the idea of justice emerging from a decadent bureaucracy” (p.11) and he wishes Joseph K were with him to share the “joke”. “I’m afraid of the truth” he tells a journalist, “one must be silent, if one can’t give any help” (p. 20).
In ‘The Lone Fighter’ the venue shifts to Singapore in a well-stocked book store “Kinokuniya”. Two authors, who are strangers, happen to meet in the store and engage in conversation which is both ridiculous and provoking. It is a disgrace when an author has to adopt tricks to sell his books. “Writers only like readers, not other writers,” (p.32) says the protagonist smugly. The story, however, is not as simple as it appears at first go; it has layered meanings and one has to read between the lines.
‘E.D’ is the tragic story of Hanu Shah, suffering from sexual dysfunction, and writer’s block. Punch-lines like: “Writing is at its best…. when it is kind of inspired play for the writer”; “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground” lead the readers slowly into the complex life of Hanu. But the biggest twist comes at the end when the man is found dead and the narrative exposes Hanu’s tumultuous inner life with a mix of palpable concern and mockery. The writer in ‘The Revolt’ is held captive by his own creation when his protagonist ‘C’ comes out of the book and confronts his creator (the writer). The “trapped” writer feels as if himself has become “words”. Probably, Zafar wants us to understand the unrelieved sadness and frustration of a de-centered self of the writers. These four stories are evocatively strong in their presentation of the story-teller’s world, so intense and yet so volatile.
‘The Thousand-Yard Stare’ is a disturbingly brilliant story that explores the human cost of war. The theme is not new and the ending is predictable, but there is an undercurrent of despair, fear and helplessness at life’s fragility running through the narrative that gives the story its strength. It is an indictment of the hunger for power and the crazy political set up.
The thematic structure of ‘Waiting for the Angels’ concentrates on the agony of old age and the loneliness associated with it. But by juxtaposing the real and the absurd Zafar Anjum highlights the ironies of life. The fear of death, the dream of angels, the urge to dress up for the final journey and yet the inability to accept separation from the loved ones create deep psychological impact. This story, inspired by a Spanish tale, has universal appeal.
The last story ‘Ima’ has run-of-the-mill theme – a wealthy businessman goes to Singapore and falls for a bar-girl. However, the ambience that Zafar creates is perfect and revealing. The glittering night-life of Singapore, human lust and deceit have been graphically depicted. “So he [Raghu] went like a fool into that glossy den, the door to his soul wide open, for anyone to make a grab at it. It was a priceless night in Singapore, his last and all he needed was beauty” (p.81). If Raghu with his “devious mind” duped his wife and went to Singapore to “burn” his money, he got paid in the same coin by the bar-girl.
These bold and dissident stories are backed by Anjum’s existential leanings and yet there is nothing of the incomprehensibility of the Absurd, nothing of the nihilistic, pessimistic philosophy of Kafka or Sartre or others. Zafar narrates his stories with tongue-in-the-cheek manner and looks at the pageant called life with a glint in his eyes and a wry humor in his pen. The author’s vision is realistic with a human touch. The descriptions are fluid and his language has grip despite its simplicity.
In brief, Zafar Anjum’s Kafka in Ayodhya is an interesting book and a good read. But I have quarrel with the font. It is too fine for comfortable reading. And also with some of the unsavory details like those of personal morning rituals which he could have avoided. After all, Zafar is an upcoming writer of some serious and best-selling books and the dedication “For the wounded ‘Idea of India’” speaks of a sublime vision.
Dr. Usha Bande is a retired Principal and former Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. HP. India. With around twenty books to her credit, Dr Bande loves writing book reviews. She is a regular contributor to Kitaab and many online and other journals.