Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tyranny and comeuppance: Syed Muhammad Ashraf's The Beast

The novella is sometimes viewed as an outlander – it’s thought by many to lack the respectability of a full-length book while also lacking the compactness and balance of a good short story. But there are certain types of stories that adapt extremely well to this in-between format. George Orwell’s social allegory Animal Farm was a famous example. Closer home, and less well known, is another caustic allegorical work, Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s 1997 Urdu novella Numberdar ka Neela, about a village administrator who uses a fearsome blue bull to keep people under his thumb. Happily, Ashraf’s book is now accessible to an English readership via a fine translation by the Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

Ashraf’s story isn’t told in a strictly linear fashion, but the gist of it becomes clear within the first few pages. Shortly after a theft occurs in his village house, the despotic Thakur Udal Singh (who owns property in a village, a town and a city) begins to bestow special attention on a calf named Neela. Fed on a diet unusual for a creature of the wild, Neela grows into an exceptional animal that strikes terror into the hearts of anyone who might wish to oppose the Thakur. A cycle of oppression thus begins, culminating in the rape of a village girl by the Thakur’s son Onkar, and the subsequent deaths of three people associated with the crime.

This book is a careful portrait of village life, but even those who have never been to a village will find much that is immediately familiar in its subtle detailing of the relationship between persecutors and their victims. This is a world where supposedly impartial judges at a local assembly secretly owe their allegiance to the Thakur; where a cordial exchange of greetings at a wedding party can, in the blink of an eye, turn into a nasty display of clout and deal-making; and where illiterate people are trained to parrot statements they don’t even fully comprehend. Consider this wry account of the unfolding of one such incident:
Two days before the farmers recorded their statement in the city, Thakur had had those farmers gathered in the courtyard of the village house. He had brought along a city lawyer to prepare them for the cross-examination that awaited them.

Thakur showed the farmers the blue and red receipt books and asked, “Do you recognise these?”

The farmers answered with one voice: “No, we do not recognise them!”

The city lawyer looked askance at Thakur, and began drawing in his cigarette with quick puffs.

Thakur gnashed his teeth and told the farmers that they recognised those receipt books because they had their thumb-imprints on them. Then he made all of them put their thumb-imprints on the books.

In the Income Tax office, the farmers said with one voice: “Now we recognise these books, and all the potatoes in the cold storage belong to us, and these books are called account books, and they carry our thumb-imprints!”
Later, when things spiral out of control and people start to openly complain about the destruction wrought by Neela, Udal Singh plays the religion card: the bull is part of the mother goddess’s extended family; putting him to death would be a sin beyond measure, bringing calamity on the village. That the villagers fall for this casuistry makes it possible for us to understand why the Thakur has such an uneasy relationship with the headmaster of the village school. Education, which encourages people to ask questions, poses special dangers to a man who thrives when those around him are shrouded in darkness. (In a funny passage, we find the Thakur mulling that school textbooks could easily do without references to such dictators as Ravana and Hitler, as well as the “worrisome passages in the sociology textbooks which caused village lads to deem themselves equal to everyone else”.)

Something of the flavour of a particular language is inevitably lost in translation, but Farooqi’s English rendition goes a long way towards conveying the contrasting moods of Ashraf’s tale: playfulness, sarcasm, even coarseness. When Onkar casts his lascivious eye on a young woman rolling dough for puris, we are told that “it was natural for her whole body to swing when she rolled out the dough. It was also natural that those parts swung most heavily that weighed on Onkar’s mind”. (At another point the word “pots” is used as a double entendre – or perhaps merely as a euphemism – for a woman’s breasts.)

But running through the tale is a deep-rooted concern for the downtrodden and the exploited. Including, perhaps, Neela himself. Though the Thakur treats him as nothing more than a tool for his own ends, the omniscient narrator occasionally invites us to see the bull’s perspective on things, reminding us that this is a sentient creature with an interior life of his own. And in the ultimate fate of the exploiter and his instrument, one comes away with the sense that the scales of justice have, at least temporarily, been aligned. The Beast is a multilayered story about the lengths to which the power-hungry will go to retain their power, even when a more composed inner voice warns them that they are on the road to self-destruction.

[Earlier posts about Farooqi's translation of the Hamzanama here]


  1. Hi Jai Arjun, I read The Beast myself a few months back while travelling in India, and I was left with some uncertainties... Maybe you could help me...

    at one point SM Ashraf implies that the rape and the following deaths have a simple explanation, which a smart reader should be able to infer... I'm afraid I was less than smart, or maybe too lazy; anyway, did you understand that passage better than me?

    also, I saw a sort of antelope in Nepal which people said was called a "blue bull" (nilgay)... it was a big and sturdy animal to be sure, but by no means as scary as I had imagined Neela to be. Its antlers are a lot smaller than the horns of bulls or buffaloes. Is that really what the "blue bull" looks like in the novella?

    I really enjoyed that book anyway!
    thank you for your review.


  2. Mat, the nilgay you saw is an antelope, not a bull.

  3. Mat to understand Urdu properly you have to be here and experience it your-self,
    I have read the original Novel in Urdu when started it was 11 PM and end it at 4 AM in mornning I could not take my eyes off the page so interesting, Jeffery Archer if read it will envy.