I think the best advice one can give to someone thinking about reading an Usman T. Malik story is a warning to be prepared for the crazy. Because just like his previous short story, this one made no sense.
To be fair, I did fairly enjoy his last story, even though it had passed right over my head. The writing, the characterization, the careful balancing of multiple genres, it was all very well done in The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family. In this case though, it doesn’t really work out.
For fifteen years my grandfather lived next door to the Mughal princess Zeenat Begum.
It starts off simple enough. Before going to sleep, a grandfather is telling his grandson a fairytale about a princess who sold tea in the grandfather’s neighbourhood. The night-time story has all the elements of a child’s fantasy tale: haunted trees, possessed children and magical beings that protect the good and the noble. It’s interesting enough to keep the reader hooked for a while, especially a reader like me, who has spent the majority of her life reading North American authors, and so has basically had no exposure to fictional stories that casually mention Mughal rulers or the reign of the British in the subcontinent. Teenage-me loved her Wakefield twins and Hardy Boys, but I’m now starting to appreciate stories that are a bit closer to home.
A jinn protected the princess and her two sisters, a duty imposed by Akbar the Great five hundred years back.
The Mughal Princess, Zeenat Begum, has fallen into poverty after the fall of the Mughal empire, and runs a tea stall. More interestingly, she is rumoured to be protected by a jinn, a mystical being whose abode is the huge eucalyptus tree whose branches provide shade over Zeenat’s stall. Here is where our protagonist’s grandfather spends his days, talking to the princess and trying to figure out whether the jinn is real.
He had never really questioned the reality of her existence; lots of nawabs and princes of pre-Partition India had offspring languishing in poverty these days. An impoverished Mughal princess was conceivable.
A custodian jinn, not so much.
The fantastical elements of the story have a certain charm at the starting. There is such fun in this story telling, such pleasure taken in the way Usman Malik describes the jinn, or in the narrative he is setting up. At the beginning, you can almost see the author having fun with the story.
The description of the eucalyptus jinn varied seasonally. In summertime, his cheeks were scorched, his eyes red rimmed like the midday sun. Come winter, his lips were blue and his eyes misty, his touch cold like damp roots. On one thing everyone agreed: if he laid eyes on you, you were a goner.
But of course this only lasts a short while. A child gets injured near the tree, rumours spread of him being possessed by the jinn, he emits a seemingly inane statement (The lightning trees are dying), and soon adults are clamouring for the huge, years-old tree - probably a historical entity at this point – to be cut down.
“The tree,” said the officer, “needs to go.”
“Over my dead body,” said the princess. “It was planted by my forefathers. It’s a relic, it’s history.”
“It’s a public menace.”
Zeenat Begum tries to keep the tree safe but to no avail. Meanwhile the grandfather, young and worried about the princess, dreams about the eucalyptus jinn being flung through space and time. And then, before anyone can actually do more than argue about bringing the tree down, a lightning strike hits the eucalypstus and it blows up into a million pieces. No joke.
The eucalyptus exploded into a thousand pieces, the burning limbs crackling and sputtering in the thunderstorm that followed.
The Mughal Princess decides she’s had had enough of the crazy adults and besides, she misses the jinn meant to protect her forever and ever, so she decides to leave, but not before telling our nameless grandfather to dig under the tree at the right time to find ‘the map to the memory of heaven.’
“Something old and secret rests under that tree and it’s not for human eyes.”
I’m not making any of this up. At this point I was preparing myself mentally for the wacko, because I could already feel the weirdness creeping into the story. But fast forward into the future where our protagonist is involved in some very boring relationship drama and it all goes really outlandish.
“We’ve been together for three years and you still find excuses to steer me away from your family. This cultural thing that you claim to resent, you seem almost proud of it.”
It’s sad that the relationship drama is so incapable of keeping our attention, since our protagonist basically has no other real, valid interactions with anyone except his parents and his girlfriend, Sara. I found myself incapable of caring about Sara’s confusion or irritation when, upon the grandfather’s death, our protagonist discovers the grandfather’s journals and stumbles upon a new discovery.
Gramps thought jinns weren’t devil-horned creatures bound to a lamp or, for that matter, a tree.
They were flickers of cosmic consciousness.
Um. Okay. If you say so buddy. So now jinn are involved with the creation myth. Or rather, there’s a new creation myth. Our budding hero, bored with his boring, privileged life, sets off to ‘discover himself’, and along the way figure out what the hell his grandfather was talking about.
“Shut up,” I whispered. “He was senile. Must have been completely insane. I don’t believe a word of it.”
But when Sara came that evening, I told her I believed, I really did.
And this is the point where I must stop, because what happens when he reaches his grandfather’s homeland Pakistan, and what he finds there, was too much for my brain to take in.
The age of wonders shivered and died when the world changed.
Now I could argue that I was sleepy/work-burdened/unable to appreciate the apparently super complex mastery of what Usman Malik was trying to say. And all of these would be valid arguments. But also, the story really is seriously bizarre. I vaguely know there was something about a lot of jinn going on a Great Migration, and a cup of memory called the Jaam, and a carpet that glows, but beyond that I have no idea what really happened.
“The Jaam gave me much. Visions, power, perfect knowledge, but it cost me too. Quite a bit. You can’t stare into the heart of the Unseen and not have it stare back at you.”
But here’s the truly odd thing: Even with all the peculiarity, I wouldn’t mind recommending this weird, wacky story to people. Even though Usman Malik’s writing is strange and out of the ordinary, and I never understand the endings, it still makes for fun reading. It’s obvious that he knows how to write well – when he’s writing normal, everyday situations anyway. The stories might be odd, but they’re also very, very entertaining.
“All good stories leave questions.”
There are two major reasons why I would recommend this story: first, Usman Malik keeps his writing short and swift and to the point, but also, it’s a lot of fun to read. The short, sparse sentences are nicely balanced by the fascinating descriptions of places, people and even magical entities. But here’s the appeal for the Pakistani reader: the desi references. Sprinkled randomly throughout this story you’ll find allusions to things like Juma pocket money or Sharbat; things that we grew up with. Things we never hear the mention of within this genre. So if for nothing else then for the pleasure of hearing Rooh Afza mentioned, everyone should read this.