The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 20, 2002

Brilliance in untruths, half-truths, lies, and white lies
Bhavana Pankaj

Lies: Half Told
by Asghar Wajahat; translated by Rakshanda Jalil; Srishti Publishers. Pages 119. Rs 95.

Hariram: Gurudev, is Pakistan our enemy?

Gurudev: Yes, child, it is our enemy.

Hariram: What does Pakistan want?

Gurudev: It wants to destroy us.

Hariram: And what do we want?

Gurudev: We want to destroy Pakistan.

Hariram: Then we are friends, not enemies.

Gurudev: How Hariram?

Hariram: We have the same intentions.

That’s quintessential Dr Syed Asghar Wajahat. Pithy. Pointed. Pungent.

Like a sage, sometimes, who advises not to scale the mountain seeking wisdom, when the answer lies at your feet! Or a true-blue satirist who understands only too well that being funny is serious business.


"One night," tells Wajahat, "the Revolutionary saw Karl Marx in a dream, but strangely enough, Karl Marx was clean shaven. The Revolutionary asked, ‘Lord, what have you done?’ Karl Marx replied, ‘I haven’t done it; you people have done it to me.’"

Lao Tze says the Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao; the names that can be given are not absolute names… Each of Wajahat’s 90 word shots brings to the reader the essence of these words, each of them easy and enigmatic at the same time. By the 119th page of the book, you are ready to hail him as the new rebel who in Osho’s words "lives with such totality, so intensely, so coherently… that wisdom arises as a by-product…"

Lies: Half Told is that by-product, and a brilliant one at that. The brilliance spares no one, nothing – untruths, half-truths, lies, and white lies. Be it the farce of democracy or development, the crassness of communalism or consumerism – Wajahat’s pen hits like a slap without a sound.

Riots, revolution, common man, religious man, poverty, peace and all else that drive a writer become bullets for his biro. The unknown man, says the author, wants to live in Peace. But she is forever running away from him. One day, however, she turns around and says to him, "Why do you dog me at every step? This is the age of terrorism and look at you – you are still chasing an old hag like me?" The man says’ "I will always chase you. I like you." She asks him, "Do you know what I have come to you as today?" "What," he wants to know. "A human bomb," she says and explodes. The unknown man is blown into a million smithereens.

It is tough not to feel these shards sear your very skin when newspapers and televisions brim with a bloody Kashmir or a bombed New York. Politics, then, is where this professor of Hindi at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia finds "most grist to his mill". A simple man, he writes, tries to mediate when he sees two hungry dogs fight over a bone. A clever man runs away with the bone. But a politician sets two more hungry dogs on the scene.

The author writes about the simple man, the clever man and the politician – but his truth is minimal, subtle. "The hallmark of Asghar Wajahat writing is its steadfast refusal to strike any loud notes. Each of these 10-part series carries a tiny picture of our everyday life; a cameo of our very ‘Indianness’, an unabashed look at the times of an ordinary man from the eyes of any ordinary man…" says Rakshanda Jalil whose skilful translation is reveals the earthiness of Wajahat’s Hindi original.

Little wonder, sometimes the author reminds you of Kabir’s Kaankar paathar jori ke masjid lai banaye, Ta charhi mulla bang de kya behra hua khudai.

Sometimes, he sings with Bachchan Dharm granth sab jala chuki hai jiske antar ki jwala, mandir-masjid girije sab ko tor chuka joh matwala….

Much like Manto’s eponymous Toba Tek Singh is Wajahat’s madman whose insanity only hides the pain of existence. So, when an inmate sees that the door of the lunatic asylum had been broken down, he begins to cry inconsolably. He cries and cries till he falls ill. Some one asks him why he is crying so much. He answers: "There was only one place in the entire country fit for human beings to live; that too has now been vandalized."

He is so beautifully blasé in parts that all too often he reminds you of the spiky RK Lakshman. He sees, feels and speaks of the things common, things that you and I have seen and felt but not had the courage or the concern to articulate. TP Dev sees an ad. "Fill your neighbour’s heart with envy. Buy this car." Mr Dev buys the car. But he doesn’t know who his neighbour is or where he stays. However, he knows what envy is!

So, whether it is the constipated civil servant or the kid who dies from watching a black and white TV, the escaped lunatic or the revolutionary turned fence-sitter, Wajahat stays "witty, acerbic and unsentimental… in this collection… that snaps a metaphorical finger in front of our eyes."

The finger forces you to open your eyes without poking into them. And forces you to smell these "smelling salts" and come to our senses before it is too late. But Lies: Half Told isn’t a book that needs alibis, excuses or even reviews. It needs reading. The author, widely acclaimed for his play Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya O Jamyai Nai, says, "Look for the child within you. Look at the world with a child’s smiling curious eyes. But who listens to me."

They will, sooner or later, Wajahat sahib. Cynicism is the last resort of a pessimist. And the world, you will agree, isn’t made up of Narendra Modis and Bin Ladens alone.