From the Love Meter To Djinns, Karachi's Secrets Come Tumbling Out In These Witty Stories

Muhammad Khalid Akhtar was one of Urdu's most popular writers.

On the cover of Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures is a watch-like device, with its dial moving from 0 to 6, then from -6 back to 0. In the second story of this collection of four, we are told it is a "love meter".

Invented by Dr Ghareeb Muhammad, a so-called scientist and physician living in Karachi's Chakiwara area (where these tales are set), it measures the degree of affection felt by anyone who looks at the wearer of the device. A local hopeful, for instance, discovers two donkeys staring at him with a combined intensity of "+6 (probably +3 per donkey)", but the dial droops to 0 as a woman walks towards him with a pot of water.

The love meter, like several other objects in these stories (such as the sculpture of a Smiling Buddha), is the source of confusion, hilarity, pathos, and even tragedy — all these emotions moving restlessly in and out of the narrative. In novelist Bilal Tanweer's elegant translation, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar's reputation as a writer of great distinction in modern Urdu literature comes through vividly. Steeped in irony, wit and an impish sense of humour, his voice is strikingly contemporary, even though the copiousness with which he tells his stories harks back to another era.

Set among the heat and dust of Karachi and populated with characters struggling to make ends meet either by doing odd jobs or living off others, Khalid's stories have an other-worldly flair. Published in 1964, the original, Chakiwara mein Visaal, was praised by Faiz Ahmed Faiz as the greatest Urdu novel (as the book jacket tells us), but rubbished by Sa'adat Hasan Manto as nonsense (according to Khalid in the Preface). Reading these stories more than half a century later, when only the ruins of the world Khalid evokes so lovingly remain, I was persuaded equally by both points of view.

While it took me a while to get into Khalid's universe, primarily because of his notoriously rambling style, I was absorbed by it, until I came to the last story. Anyone who has ever loved the fictional town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude will be susceptible to the charms of Chakiwara, a seemingly provincial neighbourhood but always teeming with the most bizarre possibilities.

Iqbal Hussain Changezi, owner of the Allah Tawakkul Bakery, is the chronicler of life in these parts, as he distills stories from thousands of pages of his journals. He cuts a popular figure among the locals, known to a range of inhabitants from various social classes, including a Chinese dentist who has fled Mao's regime to set up business in Karachi. But Changezi's special weakness is for writers, especially for Qurban Ali Khattar, who, once hailed as "the Thomas Hardy of Urdu literature", has fallen on hard times.

Published in 1964, Chakiwara mein Visaal was praised by Faiz Ahmed Faiz as the greatest novel in Urdu, but rubbished by Sa'adat Hasan Manto as nonsense

The relationship between Khattar and Changezi is parasitic, to describe it mildly, with the former living off food from the latter's bakery and usurping his inexhaustible fount of goodwill, which extends to giving away his shoes, ties, shirts and regular "loans" of money. In the final story, in spite of the tedious digressions, the dynamic between the two men becomes apparent. Changezi no longer appears as gullible, or infuriatingly innocent, as he did in the other stories.

Khalid's style, though nimble and funny, is forged in that school of story-telling which revelled in a certain glibness of expression, where repetitions and distractions served to entertain and prolong the pleasure of the reading. Alas, such writing may not suit all contemporary readers, some of whom may struggle to hold on to the thread of the narrative as they are frequently waylaid by the abrupt diversions in the plot.

While thoroughly amused by Changezi's range of allusions — to Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, Samuel Pepys, the OED and Count Dracula, to list some — I had to remind myself of the specific context of his time, too, for every sexist, patriarchal and classist remark that popped up every now and then. Then again, it is this coexistence of the seedy and the sublime that perhaps makes Khalid's stories so universally appealing. How different are these times we live in anyway?

(Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures is published by Picador India, hardback, ₹499, 320 pages).

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