Urdu fiction is mostly known for its realist, humanist approach. Even in its most experimental incarnations, Urdu writers did not make any radical break from the modernist aesthetics. Mirza Athar Baig, a revolutionary in this sense, has been hailed as a pathbreaker who with each new offering has pushed the boundaries of Urdu fiction further. Born in 1950, Baig has been a teacher of philosophy at the Government College University, Lahore. Convinced of ‘immense textual and cognitive possibilities inherent in the genre of the novel’, Baig published his first novel, Ghulam Bagh in 2006, which created a sensation across the Urdu literary world. The iconic Urdu writer Abdullah Hussain, known for his magnum opus, Udaas Naslein declared in his preface to the second edition, ‘Ghulam Bagh is located vastly at variance with the tradition of the Urdu novel. The technique employed is rare even in English fiction.’ The novel, which as Mohammad Hanif points out, ‘achieved a cult status,’ was simultaneously viewed by some as ‘confusing rants of someone who has spent too much time teaching philosophy to Punjabi students.’ Baig’s second novel Sifr se Aik Tak deployed same techniques. His third novel, Hassan ki Soorat-i-Haal: Khali Jagahein…Pur Karein, was published in 2014. It is now available in Haider Shahbaz’s stupendous English translation as Hassan’s State of Affairs.
The novel captures Hassan Raza Zaheer’s journey from youth to old age—a journey that has no end, no closure. Hassan, a master of ‘displaced sight-seeing’, is an ordinary middle class man, an accountant in a chemical factory, who despite being ‘devoid of all confidence’ has had an astonishingly successful life. This success, however, had no effect on Hassan’s ‘real inner life’ as he looks out of his vehicle at life along the roadsides while travelling back and forth from his office. He slowly starts imagining stories around these images.
The novel does not have a linear story and in its multidimensionality, an air of surreality surrounds it throughout. The story revolves around a group of filmmakers called ‘Masquerade Productions’: a director Saeed Kamal educated in European film schools, two local writer-actors, Anila Bilal and Saifi, a bewildered cameraman Master Yasin, an attendant Baba Khushya, and a professor, Professor Safdar Sultan, (he aspires to make electricity by harnessing the power of Djinns) whose family has sold his manuscript as junk by mistake. The film crew, by some coincidence, gets to meet two junkmen (Jabbar Collector, Irshad junkman) who aspire to break the Guinness Book of World Record, and members of Lucky Star Theatre, which performs folktales and semi-erotic shows for rural audiences. Thus inspired, they begin to write their screenplay. The filmmakers, ‘Caught in the unshakeable belief that they can make a film which will be recognized and acclaimed at the highest international level’, aspire to make Pakistan’s first surrealist film, which they have tentatively titled ‘This Film Cannot Be Made’. As the ‘cinematic and un-cinematic events’ unfold in the life of the crew, the title of the film ironically goes beyond its absurdist intents: the two actor-writers fall in love, the film producer expects sexual favours from the actress, the head of the National Film Institute desires a more realist filming approach from the Director, the Right Wing leaders threaten the filmmakers as they consider arts a waste of money. On the last night of the show, one of the members of the film crew injures a policeman. This is followed by nightmarish, horrifying scenes, reported from multiple points of view, such as the police arrests, tortures and rapes the members of the theatre and film crew. On the day the film’s shooting is to start, someone opens fire at the head of the National Film Institute Hikmet Shehzad’s car, and he dies along with his driver and his bodyguard. At the same time a suicide bomber blasts a bomb in a public park.