September 21, 2015

Of Lovers and Losers: Jamil Ahmad's The Sins of the Mother haunts

Source: Google Images
In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, is a military outpost manned by two score soldiers.

Jamil Ahmad’s short story The Sins of the Mother is less fictional yarn-spinning and more social commentary wrapped up within a heartbreaking tale, but that doesn’t make it any less effective, or any less interesting.

Set in a lonely and desolate place, the story takes its cues from the ravages of nature that permeate much of the landscape around it. Just like the dreaded bad-e-sad-o-bist-riz, the wind of a hundred and twenty days that blows through the area, turning everything to dust, the story is bleak and uninhabited, not pretending to offer comfort or promises. Instead, it leaves its characters alone and lost, and us along with them.

Then he was completely alone. The thousands of birds, which had kept him company for a while, had disappeared...He ate a little, drank some water and then lay down squeezed against the dead camel as the sandstorm approached.

The Summary

Somewhere on an outposting surrounded on all sides by dirt and nothingness, a man turns up with a young woman in tow. Both are dirty, exhausted and close to dying. They have a camel straggling along besides them and they are barely holding themselves together.

“Water,” his hoarse voice said from between cracked and bleeding lips. “Our water is finished, spare us some water.”

The first request for shelter from the soldiers stationed there is refused quite bluntly, but an earnest request for refuge is finally heeded. The couple retreat to a small room to the side of the fort, locking themselves away. And so, as they start to slowly emerge from their rooms, the man bringing water for the soldiers on his camel and the woman weaving gift baskets from thorn shrubs, the couple slowly become a part of the settlement.

And this is the pattern life followed as time rolled by. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months. Winter gave way to summer. Some soldiers left as their period of duty ended. Others arrived to serve their turn at the post.

Things change when the couple start expecting a child. In an area dominated by men and a harsh, forgiving climate, the child is a breath of fresh air. He is fed on army rations and follows soldiers on their patrols. At night, he curls into his mother’s lap and dreams big dreams.

“I shall tell you what I shall be. I shall be a chief, I shall have horses and camels. I shall feast your friends and defy your enemies wherever they be.”

But it’s too good to last. They’re a couple who have left a dangerous past behind them, and it’s bound to catch up to them.  Soon, very soon, a lonely figure on a camel arrives, heralding bad times ahead. And it is here that our story starts to reveal the background, propelling the man and his family on another desperate run for their lives.

As she stepped out to mount the camel, she cast a quick backward glance inside the room, her glance briefly touching the firmly packed clay floor, the date palm mats she had woven over the years and the dying embers in the fireplace. Her expression remained as calm and serene as if she had prepared for this journey for a long time.

The Setting

It was but natural that some men would lose their minds after too long an exposure to such desolation and loneliness.

The story is set in Balochistan, evoking desert lands and harsh weather. The man and his wife are from an area called Goth Siahpad, a place with a very small population in Pakistan’s south western province, and it is the location that lends the story its culture.

“Refuge I cannot offer. I know your laws well and neither I nor any man of mine shall come between a man and the law of his tribe.”

It is hard to tell whether the story stereotypes a version of the Balochi tribal life, or if it is a true account of how things actually stand. Be that as it may, we have soldiers and forts and old tribal traditions. We have camels and harsh winds and men who stone others to death. All of these things evoke a particular feeling, an idea of a place where people worry about things very different to the ones that readers living in huge metropolitan cities worry about. And yet, at its heart it is a story of survival, of a family struggling, against the odds, to survive.  In terms of relevance, this piece of fiction can survive forever.

The Characters

“Stay for a while, I like looking at you. There is an air of peace around you.”

This story deals with large scale implications using very limited characters. These characters are symbolic of things bigger than themselves. Stoic hope, for the woman. Determined compassion, for the man. Bewildered innocence, for the child. And for those around them, the virtue and kindness of the soldiers versus the resilience and rage of those who chase the couple across the desert lands.

 “Let him be a camel herder, handsome and gentle as his father,” the woman murmured.
“And fall in love with the Sardar’s daughter, his master’s wife,” the man countered.

The implied romance between the couple also work in subtle ways. It’s not a very in-your-face account of fancy words and flowery dialogues, but rather honest conversations and gentle gestures. It’s worth noting the implications of the adulterous nature of our two protagonists, and how that might affect our perception of them, but the story skews our sympathies for them rather than against them. It’s a classic trope of true love overcoming all bounds; even, in this case, the sanctity of marriage. Even though we know nothing about the woman’s husband, we understand without being told that he was unworthy of her, and it is in this couple that we must keep our faith.

It was in one of these rooms that Gul Bibi and her lover were provided their shelter.

Possibly one of the most interesting aspects of the story is the lack of names. From the soldiers to the subedar (a historical rank in the Pakistani and Indian Armies, equivalent to a British lieutenant – and also, incidentally, hinting at the historical setting of the story), and from the child to the Sardar, there are no proper nouns used for any of the characters, except for the female protagonist. Even her lover, the man with whom she is on the run, is introduced in relation to her. This is quite interesting in terms of gender representation in a story. If one believes in the idea that a writer doesn’t use particular words without a reason, than the reasoning behind such a blatant lack of names besides Gul Bibi’s becomes quite a point of curiosity. Why did Jamil Ahmad use her name only? Why not introduce all other characters with proper nouns attached to them? Sadly, with his recent death in July 2014, it seems we will have to make our own assumptions about what Jamil Ahmad wanted to convey with this particular twist in the tale.

“We have talked about this day many times. But I am afraid, my love.”

The Recommendation

At an eleven-page length, the story doesn’t take much time in wrapping things up. The writing moves the story ahead quickly but gives the feeling of long periods of time passing, becoming timeless in its telling. Recommended.