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from the August 2015 issue

Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s “Mirages of the Mind”

Reviewed by Saudamini Deo

And by "homeland," people meant only their town and its vicinity; no one considered the country or state their homeland.

One of the most moving photographic documentations of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls last year in Nigeria by Boko Haram was captured by photographer Glenna Gordon, where she moves away from the course of the main “event” of abduction, and photographs objects left behind by the girls: clothes, slippers, a notebook with an image of the Eiffel Tower in which a girl had exchanged romantic notes with a boy, another notebook with notes on the solar system, a pair of earrings, and other such seemingly insignificant yet intimately personal things. The actual abduction and its informing politics are missing from these images, but it brings into focus the personal aspect of this public event. Something similar happens in Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s astringently humorous Mirages of the Mind, which is a narrative about the Partition of India in 1947 but one in which the actual Partition is never discussed: we never know why certain characters leave for the newly-formed Pakistan and why certain others don’t, what went through their minds before they made their decision to leave or stay, or what sort of hardships they had to go through during the transition. What we do get to know as readers, however, is what happened to these people before and after the Partition.

Yousufi’s novel begins with a first-person narrative and then Basharat is introduced, whose voice will come to be as important as the author’s. Basharat talks about his angry and much-feared lumber merchant father-in-law, Qibla, and his eccentric ways: “He started each sentence with ‘no.’ One day I said, ‘It’s really cold today.’ He said, ‘No, tomorrow will be colder.’’’ Qibla’s anger is perhaps his most beloved thing, but this is something he loses after he arrives in Karachi, and as proof of this he always carries an old photograph of his house in Kanpur, which he shows to anyone and everyone. The line “we left this to come here,” which Qibla repeats each time he takes out the photograph, becomes a symbol of his regret of leaving the place that was once home, and his anger at the larger political reality that forced him to leave. The line also acts as a sort of refrain, typical of the Urdu ghazal, around which the beginning of the novel is constructed, and the sentiment keeps appearing in different forms throughout. Qibla leaves us with the most heartbreaking definition of home when he says that he never wants to live in a place where he can’t be mad at people. We left this to come here.

The second part of the narrative is dominated by the image of the horse, constantly reminding readers of a type of life no longer possible: Basharat’s obsession with owning a horse and riding through the city in a phaeton, attempting to live up to an outdated feudal fantasy; Basharat’s father’s love for the injured horse, Balban, that his son ends up buying and later regretting; the famous painter Gulji’s fascination with the tails of horses. In the end, when Basharat can no longer justify the expense, he orders his secretary, Maulana Karamat Hussain, to kill the horse. However, Maulana ends up saving and taking care of the horse. Basharat witnesses this kind act in the same slum whose poverty and filth had inspired horror in his soul. “If there was hell on earth, ‘It was here! It was here! It was here!” Yousufi rephrases Amir Khusro’s famous lines about the breathtaking beauty of Kashmir, a region that remains conflicted since the Partition. Khusro wrote: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.” Where? This is a question that haunts Yousufi, Basharat, and all of us—in various ways—who are part of this narrative either as characters or readers, while the concept of home is taken apart and put back together in unrecognizable ways.

Basharat, now old and in a haze after his wife’s death, longs to return to a city he remembers as home and yet he can’t quite return to the Kanpur he had left as a young man in 1947. He keeps turning from one memory to another, immersing us deeper in the lives that once existed on the somewhat unfragmented subcontinent, and one can never predict where he will take us next or what new past will be revealed to us. Basharat’s search for a lost Kanpur is reflected in Yousufi’s narrative style which is like taking a walk through any South Asian small town: one lane leads to another bringing with it previously unseen realities, and we are suddenly faced with the unfamiliarity of our own city. Basharat has come to a city only named Kanpur, where its past exists behind a glass barrier—visible but unreachable:

You’d have to say that Urdu speakers still speak Urdu, but I noticed a strange change. It’s not just the common people, but it goes all the way up to professors and writers: they don’t speak like we used to. The crisp tone is gone. It’s slipped further and further, so now it sounds like Hindi.

Written in 1990, Yousufi’s Mirages of the Mind describes with acuity the changed ambience of India after the Partition, We, twenty-five years after the novel's release, having witnessed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the rising military violence in Kashmir, the 2002 genocide in Gujarat, the innumerable fake encounter cases, the victory and rise of Hindutva politics, and the very recent execution of Yakub Memon (to name a few incidents) know that Yousufi’s understanding of the Indian situation was nothing but prescient.

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