Hassan’s State of Affairs — renowned Urdu writer Mirza Athar Baig’s first book to be translated into English — is a surreal ride through Pakistan. Translated into English by Haider Shahbaz, the book follows an accountant, Hassan, and a group of filmmakers, Masquerade Productions, who are working on Pakistan’s first surrealist film, titled This Film Cannot Be Made.
As the film’s production runs into hurdles, escalating from the comic to the horrific, the text itself explodes into multiple storylines, genres and characters, and bends language and form — the result is an entirely new kind of novel.
The following is an extract from the book.
It was a bright and shiny morning. Hassan did not know why it was bright and shiny, but what Hassan did find out, in one displaced sighting, as the car crossed a bridge over a dirty stream of water, is that there was a mirror stuck inside a puddle of mud right next to the bridge. The mirror was cracked and it sparkled like a shooting star at the place of the crack. Streams of blood running from the crack had turned black. In one moment of displaced sightseeing, Hassan recognized that it was the same mirror he had seen for many years hanging in a room in some other place. The only difference was that now he could see the reflection of a woman in the mirror. But there was no woman.
The company car moved ahead… A man was busy frying bread for breakfast on a huge iron pan. He burnt his fingers on the pan. He quickly put them in his mouth. He turned the bread with the same fingers before the bread burned. A young girl was getting the flat tyre of her bicycle fixed even though it had been ages since women had cycled in the city. A man extracting juice from a sugarcane got his hand shredded in the juicing machine, or maybe it was someone else who screamed — who can really know? — the company car moved ahead, it moved ahead and crossed one of the criss-crossing streets in the cemetery, a street that Hassan had never been on before. New marble tombstones could be seen one after another. Rasheeda Zafar, Mian Hayat Muhammad, Asif Iqbal, Professor Shehzad Ahmad, Muhammad Irfan, Beloved Kashif, Shahbaz Ahmad, Salma Begum, Abida Pervez, Mirza Athar Baig, Iftikhar Ahmad Chaudhary, Hakim Waris Ali, Hassan Raza Zaheer, Qamar Ali Khan… Hassan’s displacing eyes bolted back to the tombstone with his own name — Hassan Raza Zaheer — but the car moved ahead…
For a moment, Hassan wanted to scream and shout. He wanted to do something he had never done before in the face of ‘absent moments of halting terror’. He wanted to say: ‘Stop! Stop the car! That tombstone has my name on it!’ But he could not say it. The question doesn’t leave his body. How is this possible? Obviously, names match other names. If two people can have the same name in life, in the newspaper, in fiction, then why can’t they have the same name on tombstones too? Still, it is improbable that all three parts of the name — Hassan, Raza, and Zaheer — would match. But it is not impossible, and nobody can stop whatever is not impossible from happening from time to time. They arrived at the head office.
Coincidentally, the very next morning, the same driver came to pick up Hassan in the exact same car. As soon as they crossed the bridge Hassan’s heart began to beat hysterically. The bloodstained mirror was absent. The man juicing the sugarcane was absent. The machinery for juicing the sugarcane was absent. Hassan was ready. He prepared himself to absorb all the details on the tombstone with his name while remaining within the limits of displaced sightseeing. They arrived on the same road, the tombstones began to flicker in front of him, Beloved Kashif Shahbaz Ahmad, Salma Begum, Abida Pervez, Mirza Athar Baig, Iftikhar Ahmad Chaudhary, Hakim Waris Ali Hassan Raza Zaheer, son of Zaheer Ahmad… On the following three days, the same car came with the same driver, and it drove through the same street. Hassan Raza Zaheer son of Zaheer Ahmad, Hassan Raza Zaheer son of Zaheer Ahmad, Hassan Raza Zaheer son of Zaheer Ahmad.
On the fourth day, the route changed, and the car didn’t come back to the street for many weeks. The unnamed street crossing the cemetery remained absent. But the tombstone with his name continued to impress upon Hassan’s mind. We think that it was around this time that Hassan made the fatal decision of making his ‘real inner life’ more real. Instead of continuing to live his life within the risky yet safe confines of improbable and impossible, Hassan became involved with the categories of real and unreal. He got caught in the wheel of possible and impossible. He began to contemplate ‘direct intervention in the world’. Even now, he could have satisfied himself with one of the many alternative scenarios brewing inside of him. Even now, that was possible… Maybe there was actually a minor difference between his name and the name on the tombstone, which he had failed to read because the tombstone was old and corroded, or maybe he had read the tombstone incorrectly because the street was at a distance from the tombstone, or maybe he had made a mistake because the car was moving too fast. Maybe Hassan was actually Mohsin, or even Ahsan. Maybe one of the letters was rubbed out. Furthermore, even if the last name was actually Zaheer, it could be easily explained as last names are generally given after the father, and, after all, matching names could have matching father names too. It is highly unlikely, but it is not impossible, and nobody can stop whatever is not impossible from happening from time to time. Hassan could even relegate the event to the category of ‘illusion of my sight’. But we think that it was precisely at this time that his mind began to protest. A coincidence can happen once, it can happen twice, it can even happen three times, but it cannot happen time and again, how can it happen time and again? But all this analysis around Hassan’s state of affairs is nothing but daydreaming. It has no importance. What is important is to walk alongside Hassan. So we walk alongside Hassan. We walk for the last time.
It was a scary evening. It was not scary just because of Hassan’s state of affairs. It was felt to be scary by everyone. The October twilight was unusually dense. The western horizon was blood red. A storm was coming. Darkness fell quickly, it fell so quickly that an old man said (or maybe he just thought that the last time he saw such black darkness, such a blood-red storm, someone was murdered. But all this talk is fictional and meaningless. The real thing is the fact that Hassan’s family, his wife, his sons, his daughter, all of them were confidently sitting in a room and finalizing the sale of their old house with the property dealer and the two people the property dealer called ‘party’ to the sale. When the sale was finalized, the real estate agent had left the house and remarked: “What strange weather.’ Despite the strangeness of the weather, Hassan’s family enthusiastically celebrated the sale of the old house. Hassan participated. In a few months, he would retire and receive his lump sum. Everything was moving ahead successfully.
Hassan went to his room. Downstairs, his family was excitedly discussing the details of their future, debating one aspect of it after the other, expressing and revising their views, examining them from countless angles. The scary evening was turning into an even scarier night. At ten, Hassan decided that he must directly and properly examine the tombstone with his name on it. He must do it this very night. Obviously, he couldn’t tell his family where he was going. He didn’t even try to furnish an excuse. He simply left. He took a small pocket flashlight with him, and went into the scary night, which was now scary because of Hassan’s mental state of affairs, the state of someone who had embarked on something forbidden and dangerous for the first time in his life.
Hassan arrived at the cemetery and found the tombstone. Hassan Raza Zaheer, son of Zaheer Ahmad, date of birth… The exact date of birth as Hassan’s own. The shock of something ‘impossible’ for someone who had lived his whole life in the confines of improbable and impossible was intolerable. But he recovered. No, it was not impossible for someone’s name and date of birth to match his own. It is highly unlikely, it is extremely improbable, but it is not impossible, and nobody can stop whatever is not impossible from happening from time to time. It all rests on the date of death, Hassan thought, a thinking that wasn’t very sound, it was a non-thought. Hassan’s trembling torchlight moved across the tombstone towards the date of death… The date of death was the same as the date of birth. The second shock of the ‘impossible’ was impossible for someone directly intervening in the absent moments of terror. The scary night left Hassan Raza Zaheer collapsed upon the grave and moved ahead.
We think that Hassan Raza Zaheer’s story ends here. But some stories continue despite ending and some end despite continuing. We can try and continue this story: Hassan can return from the scary night, but it would still be impossible to answer why Hassan considered it impossible for a person’s date of birth to be the same as his date of death. It is entirely likely, even though such a person’s life would be confined between the smallest possible measure of time and one whole day. Maybe the details were the first case of a proofreading mistake on a tombstone. Maybe the acid rains falling on the cemetery had changed the dates on the tombstone such that they looked identical. Maybe a trickster in the cemetery had changed the dates. Maybe the dates had seemed identical to Hassan because of the poor lighting, which is to say that he could have relegated it to the final possible alternative, ‘illusion of my sight’. But all these alternatives are only possible for someone who displaces himself from one absent moment to the next. in the course of his displaced sightseeing, without attempting to fill in the absent moments through ‘direct intervention in the world’.
If Hassan’s story is continuing, then it can also be ending. We think that in the scary night Hassan saw open sunflowers, and in the dark silence he heard the school bell echo. It is possible.