The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 15, 2002

In the loveless lanes of Lahore...
Aradhika Sekhon

The Scent of Wet Earth in August
by Feryal Ali Gauhar. Penguin. Pages: 281. Rs 250.

The Scent of Wet Earth in AugustTHIS is an excellent book! The setting, the characters, the plot, the pace and the motives are all superb and totally convincing. The book is set in Lahore, in an area called Kucha Miran Shah, which had seen better days. Filled with buildings built centuries ago by courtiers for courtesans, it is now a place frequented by drug addicts and derelicts. Crumbling havelis, some without electricity because the residents cannot afford to pay the bills, open, overflowing drains into which any person may step, people throwing garbage into the streets…all of these form the setting for the characters, the dregs of society.

None of the characters is likable, except, perhaps, Fatimah, a mute girl, who is looked after by three aging prostitutes, Shamshad, Pyari and Raunaq. And even her, one pities more than likes. In this, Gauhar’s work reminds one of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, with its variety of deformed, vice-ridden characters, who fascinate rather than delight. While reading The Scent Of Wet Earth In August, one finds oneself wrinkling up one’s nose with slight distaste. Kucha Miran Shah is "the refuge of the defeated and the destitute". There is Mumtaz, Fatimah’s natural mother, once much in demand in her trade but now a slave to drugs, who is enraged when her young daughter, Fatimah’s sister Farzana, elopes just when she had struck a bargain for her with a Sheikh. "The worst of the Arabs still pay a lot more than our own kind", she declares pragmatically while telling hair-raising stories about how the Sheikhs treat the girls sold to them. Then there is Aatishbaz Aulia, the decrepit old trapeze artiste who has lost the use of her legs in a circus accident. Abandoned in an alien land, she and Fatimah find affection with each other—one who speaks in an alien tongue and the other who cannot speak at all. The book is full of such ironies.


Perhaps the most repulsive character in the book is the maulvi of the Badshahi Masjid, Maulvi Bashrat. Master of a crumbling old masjid, the Maulvi wallows in the memories of an ancient passion for a courtesan while he presses into service a series of little boys whom he sexually abuses, leaving them to grow up into confused and ashamed young men. The shame is magnified because all the denizens of Kucha Miran Shah know exactly what is going on at the Badshahi Masjid and are not above jeering at the unfortunate victim. One such victim is Shabbir, an apprentice maulvi, who was brought into service by Bashrat when he was a little boy. Shabbir, now a young man, falls in love with Fatimah, "the wordless one" and that is the beginning of their tragedy. Fatimah becomes pregnant and is imprisoned in a dingy little room by her ‘mothers’. Shabbir thinks he has been abandoned and lives in lovelorn gloom. Finally, when he discovers the truth, (and this discovery is completely in keeping with the mood and tone of the novel), he does not have the courage to stand by his ‘beloved’ and walks away.

The lack of nobility in the characters is very natural to the novel. What nobility can honestly be expected from people who live and grow in such circumstances? Yet, the pity remains. Pity for the new child, Naseem, who is procured and abused by Maulvi Bashrat in his "grimy vest and red striped shorts, a rip along one edge". Pity for Shamshad, the aged prostitute who falls in love with the new maulvi, the handsome Maulvi Muzaffar. For him she renews her beauty regimen, including applying henna in her hair, "despite the cold, despite the fact that in winter applying the manure-like paste on her hair often gave her a stiff neck", and makes him expensive dishes of ande-ka-halva, only to discover that he is married and has three children with a fourth on the way. Pity even for Maulvi Bashrat who is completely upstaged by the new maulvi and who compounds his own misery by accidently playing a tape of lurid film songs at azaan time, further making himself a butt of ridicule.

The most pitiable and pathetic character is Fatimah, whom one could consider the heroine of the novel. Made mute when acid was mistakenly thrown into her open mouth when she was a child, she still retains some semblance of hope and love in her young heart, but is let down by circumstances again and again. Her tragedy is that she is born in a place where no one dare love another. A list of the treasures she has collected during her lifetime shows the meanness of the life she has lived: "The shiny tongue of paint from Pyari Begum’s biscuit box; a fair angel’s face from a newspaper packet; the breath of a spider; the soft hair from the underbelly of a cat; a ribbon that Aziz said was his sister’s; the moon in the monsoon; a crow’s feather". Terrible things happen to Fatimah because she dares to love Shabbir. Here, too, nothing dramatic or earth-shaking, but miserable, mean, dirty, painful. In the end we are left wondering what happens to Fatimah. But we really don’t want to know because we can guess that it couldn’t be very nice and frankly, we’d rather return to our nice, safe and comfortable world.

One definitely wishes to see her film Tibbi Gali, on which Feryal Ali Gauhar’s book, The Scent Of Wet Earth In August is based.