” In black humor, topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo, specifically those related to death, are treated in an unusually humorous or satirical manner while retaining their seriousness; the intent of black comedy, therefore, is often for the audience to experience both laughter and discomfort, sometimes simultaneously. ”
So goes the description of black humour in the Wikipedia. If a literature student wanted to lay hands on a book in this genre, contextual to our times, Vanity Bagh” by Anees Salim would be a most appropriate one .
Six muslim youth, aspiring to attain the hieghts of notoriety of the local don, Abu Hathim, form an allegiance and wait for their moments of specious glory, meeting daily on the stairway of the mosque in their mohallah, Vanity Bagh, of which Bushra Jabbari, the mother of the narrator of this story had said,”The moment the rikshaw stopped, your abba had said, This is Vanity bagh, where we will build our home and make it heaven-like”. She would later speak of the row of dusty green colonaded structures with balconies made of wood and railings of wrought iron, “In my memory these buildings haven’t changed a bit in thirty years”.
Bushra Jabbari and her husband, the Imam of the local mosque , would never have foreseen that their son, Imraan Jabbari, would be incacerated for fourteen years , having been judged guilty of having triggered off the deaths in the 11/11 scooter bomb blasts. Neither had Imraan Jabbari and his five other friends expected the twists in the tales of their macho manhood that they were scripting for themselves. Yes , they had names of famous Pakistani personalities …Imran, Zia, Zulfikar, Jinnah, Yahya and Nawaz Sharif. Yes, their Mohallah had earned the nickname “little Pakistan” after a riot had broken out outside the hair-dressing salon of Sharif Khan, when he and some others had started to celebrate Pakistan’s victory in the world cup by bursting crackers. But all that these youngsters had wanted, was to do what Abu Hathim had done when he was their age,”guarding their mohallah, being saluted by the mohallah-wallahs, collecting haftah, being salaamed by the mohalla-wallahs, making a fortune, being salaamed by the mohallah-wallahs , beating up the mohalla-wallahs , being salaamed still more by them ” and so on. Jihad was not on their minds.
It is indeed a feat to handle a subject ,so sensitive in these times, in a way that even the grimmest of situations is presented thus, that makes you smile.The narrative is interspersed with quotes from members of the mohallah and from the English films that the youngsters watched, mostly on the VCD, after Nawaz Sharif’s Abba pulled down the shutters of the salon for the day, which chips away at the darkness of the situation and lends a lightness , even as it evokes discomfiture in the reader.
And then there is Shair Shoukath , who deliciously steals lines from others and makes it his own , with a flourish , much to the grief of Professor Suleiman Ilahi and Rustom Sahib, the other members of the local Poetry club..
“Cowards die many times before their death. The valiant never taste of death, but once”-Shair Shoukath
“Now you are stealing from Shakespeare.That’s improvement.”-Professor Suleiman
“That’s Shakespeare? Sure? I thought Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote that” -RustomSahib.
I had watched the film “Shahid” , last night , produced by Anurag Kahsyap and directed by Hansal Mehta. It is based on the real life story of Shahid Azmi, who had enrolled himself in a jihadi training camp after witnessing a riot in which many of his community had been butchered and burnt alive , but had fled from there , unable to assimilate the violence the jihadis professed and practiced. He was imprisoned for his suspected terrorist links and spent many years inside. He picks up his life however, goes on to become a lawyer and decides to take up cases of innocents who are jailed on the flimsiest of reasons under the TADA. Shahid himself was murdered. In the short time that he had practised as an activist lawyer, he had acquired eleven acquittals.
The film had many undertones as does this novel, both pointing to a situation that has loads to despair about. But while the film never for a moment lets go of the seriousness of its tone, albeit very well executed, ” Vanity Bagh ” grips your attention with a kind of seeming flippancy which in fact adds to its poignancy.
The figure that remains starkly etched in my mind is that of the Imam , Imran Jabbaris’ father.
“The only time he wanted to be a human bomb was when Ammi came back from Haja stores on the eve of Eid with too many shopping bags and a Chiese umbrella. He frowned at the bags and announced it was time he took Khomeini sahib’s fatwa seriously and blew himself up when Rushdie was around so that Ammi and the rest of us could wallow in the same degree of luxury Mr. Mir sahib’s wife and children were spoilt with “, narrates Imran Jabbari.
He, who rendered the azan in his own inimitable style “that made the mohallwalahs wonder whether to laugh or complain to the Muslim Welfare Board” , had later on started to dread it. ” He dreaded the azan, something he used to love so dearly and with his own sense of rhythm that Wasim and I used to blush when the muezzin’s call drifted across the mohallah. He now feared his voice would be met with boos from the street. He had five three minute ordeals to live through everyday”.
That kind of summed up the tragedy of religion gone awry, of ghettoisation, of politics that fanned hatred , of our loss of empathy and inclusiveness , of the mistrust on both sides, of the resultant belligerance.
It is not a story of hope, Anees Salim had warned us. It isn’t .