‘Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?’ —John Updike
The fear of death is the most confounding of all fears. And also the most compelling. For, death is a certainty, a foretold conclusion of a life, any life. That which is born must die yet the feelings and emotions death evokes surpass the beauty and mystery and grief of life. Why must such an absolute certainty evoke such fear? Should the very inevitability of death not bring acceptance and stoicism if not grace and compassion? But what if death must come by one’s own hand? What then?
Khalid Jawed’s elegy in prose is an intimate, almost poetic, encounter with death: its certainty, its inescapability and its inexorableness. Neither macabre nor maudlin,
The Book of Death(Maut ki Kitab in its original Urdu) is a close examination of a life that will end, inevitably, in death; a theme he pursues in his second novel Nematkhana.
As much about foreknowledge as about death (the two seem intertwined in Jawed’s imagination), much of Jawed’s work seems to be concerned with the world as a theatre of the absurd. The translation of Maut ki Kitab into English by A. Naseeb Khan falters every now and then in a terrain mined with allusion and dense with all manner of symbols and motifs, picks itself up and takes the reader along on a journey that is as ambiguous as it is, eventually, unyielding. Taut as a kite’s string one minute, hopelessly expansive the next, the narrative is unwilling to reveal all of itself. Certain tropes appear and reappear: bones, food, bodily functions and secretions, mysterious maladies all of which make for stomach-churning reading. But a fragment of a thought here, an image there stays embedded in the reader’s mind. Conventions of plot or character fall away leaving in its place stray, seemingly random words: ‘…the heart hangs from a washing line like a wrung out towel’, or ‘I firmly believe that I did not come into the world on my own. I was tipped into it like water poured into a discoloured pot.’ Or, ‘It is a strange spectacle to see the world stoop to collect the masks fallen off its face.’ Or, ‘eyes that are as large and hollow as the world.’
Like the French Symbolists whom Jawed seems to be influenced by, he studs his narrative with a profusion of images: night, sleep, womb, wind, rain, tears. Seemingly commonplace and ordinary they acquire a menacing, even sinister aura. The moon, unusually bright and precariously close to the earth on the opening page of the novel, is an ominous presence here. Its light is not serene or magical; instead, its brilliance is nerve racking, causing people to cower in their homes in terror and awe, fearful of taking their own life. And the act of taking one’s own life is transmogrified into a character: Suicide. A grotesque, constant presence, sometimes hopping on ‘tender toes’ and sometimes ‘scampering like a rat’, or standing by ‘like a loyal and brave security guard, it wavers between sympathy and sarcasm. The constant, overwhelming possibility of suicide makes Jawed’s world an existential nightmare. A state of perpetual despair and hopelessness marks the inner world of the nameless figures that roam the formless story; the outer world with its ruthless rain and menacing moon is just as terrifyingly pointless.
So what, then, is Jawed trying to say? What is the purpose of a book such as this given the general lack of purpose that permeates the book much like the world which is, in Jawed’s words, ‘an absurd place’. Merely a meandering diatribe on the pointlessness of human existence would not make this book half as interesting as it is. What makes The Book of Death rise above the conventions of a novel is the kernel of a story buried somewhere in its surreal landscape. Paroxysms of anxiety and a scouring of the self can at best camouflage harsh reality. A boy whose head is violently bashed in while still in his mother’s womb can only grow up to have a fractured relationship with reality. Perhaps it is as inevitable as the story of a death foretold.
A father consumed with not knowing whether he is raising an illegitimate seed, a son possessed of a deep-seated hatred for the father, a mother who screams the filthiest obscenities, and a wife who is absently present in a marriage that is half awake-half asleep: these are the bare bones of the story. With a hollow concavity on one side of his head, even as a full-grown adult the boy who was kicked in his mother’s womb can only feel thus:
It seems to me that there is a partly healed and partly unhealed wound on my hollowed out head. And the half healed part of the wound is no doubt mysterious and extremely dangerous as well. It is so inscrutable that it seems now to be obscenities heard in dreams, and now some names and humiliations which one hears in dreams, but laughs them away after one wakes up. The names heard in such dreams wait for the people until they reach the other edge of their life. And one day they turn to give them a jolt, ‘You are also nothing but a name heard in a dream.’
One of the finest prose stylists among contemporary writers, Khalid Jawed’s The Book of Death marks the coming of age of modernist fiction in Urdu.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. Her recent books include Liking Progress, Loving Change: A History of the Progressive Writers Movement and The Sea Lies Ahead, a translation of Intizar Hussain’s seminal novel.