Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  

Book Review
The skies promise nothing
Syed Badrul Ahsan

No God In Sight by Altaf Tyrewala; Delhi: Penguin Books; 2006; pp. 171.

These are the tales of the ordinary, those who constitute life as it is. The grandeur upon which literature shapes itself, or attempts to come wrapped in, is not what comes alive in this Altaf Tyrewala endeavour. What is alive here is a morose way of observing individuals and the thousand and one banalities they are straitjacketed in. In a manner of speaking, when you meet all the Sohail Tambawalas, collide into the various identities of all these men bearing an identical name, you could be running into a myriad dark possibilities. For one of these innumerable Tambawalas is a terrorist, has been accused of being one. Another has a wife waiting in apprehension for him. Mistaken identities, or varied ones, are the stuff of the tales here.

And the tales branch out in very many directions before coming together once again to sketch a somewhat composite picture of life in Bombay (you could, in the manner of political correctness, even call it Mumbai). But it is life that is not lived on the broad avenues of the urban jungle. It subsists in the alleys and by-lanes where the struggle to eke out a living swiftly, and regularly, puts all possibilities of dreams to flight. Consider the case of Suleiman, the aggrieved Muslim who must now elicit an answer to the overwhelming question he places before his great-grandfather, the man who is father to his decaying Shazia-dadi. "What came over you? What mischief made you a bloody Muslim?"

It is a city of fear, the strands of which course quietly but insistently through men like Suleiman. Conversion has only deepened their anxieties and loosened their hold on the future. Of course Suleiman gets no answer. Some questions are too much of a rigmarole to be resolved with a credible response. The inability of Nawaz-'saab' to explain to Mr. Joshi and his culture-seeking son Abhay the precise meaning of the poetic thought -- Bukhara-e junoon shabo khayalon rooh maheer -- falls within the ambit of the queries that defy explanation. Nawaz's bubbling perspiration then leads him into an irreversible process of decline. His dead father's ill-fitting sherwani will not help him any. A dream of economic security, through peddling poetry, is thus brought to nought.

In these chronicles that define the mundane realities of the common herd, waiting is of the essence. Nilofer, the young woman in need of work, typifies the quiet desperation which eats away at the core of sensibilities. She waits at the door of a flat, expecting to be appointed as a maid. The wait fizzles into nothing. The sense of things not happening is what Altaf Tyrewala projects through his characters, each of whom takes centre stage, in turns as it were. Rina waits, even as she lets her hands run across the back of her lover, in anticipation of the sex she has turned into a matter of routine with him. But GK, the lover, is weighed down by ambition or ill luck or both. Balbir Pasha waits for him, for the team from Breaking News, dying to be spotted on television as a gallant police officer who has made a remarkable kill. All of them wait; and every desire gets to be nipped in the transition between a bud and a flower.

Take a few steps back and chance upon the sentimental Hamida. Marriage has been her ambition for years, and yet prospects of conjugal happiness have progressively receded for her. But she waits, for the one man she has wanted. Rafiq has explored her, has held her mouth in liplock for long minutes despite all the marriages he has gone through. Hamida understands his compulsions, and so keeps a firm lid on the probability of revulsion rising in her. She will be his fourth wife, or she thinks. She bides her time. Meanwhile, age begins to take its toll.

There is a plethora of expectations in the narrative. The chicken seller Jamal Seth plods wearily through his business of the day. What day? That for him and his friends begins in the evening as they go looking for erotic pleasures. Shakila, the woman in the black sari and white sleeveless blouse, will not disappoint them, not even when a power outage interrupts the gaiety of the evening. She gyrates, swings her left arm about and keeps the right one suggestively on her crotch. It is eerie, a disturbing image of no light and absent music and pointless simulated sensuality.

In the end, hollowness is all. There are gaping wounds all around, bodies in anticipation of embraces, youth in search of purpose. The Mahant visits Barauli for the second time in a month; and communal passions are stirred.

It is a scarred landscape. The skies promise nothing.

S. Badrul Ahsan is executive editor, The Dhaka Courier.