Julien Columeau is a compelling story teller. And like Scheherazade, he takes his readers on various journeys – through the dingy alleyways of Lahore’s sex markets, across the incredible dense psychological forests of the Amazon, into the inevitable gloom of mere existence in urban Europe. His collection of long stories, Zahid aur Do Kahaniya, draws the reader through the pages, into the physical binding of the book and transports her to the many metaphysical scapes she is not quite ready for. Columeau writes fiction in Urdu; his unusual use of the language transforms every act of reading, writing and imagining, breaking traditions in the language that renders his stories a timeless flavour. He writes Urdu in its most unprepared ways, conjuring unenvisioned images, yoking together seemingly unfit conceits, coining unused metaphors, to weave in realism and surrealism into a new body of fiction that is readily more agreeable than usual. It is probably this finesse in transporting the language, which is both chiselled and raw, both sophisticated and rustic, both fleeting and rooted, that sets his stories apart, promising a dangerous journey that has already begun. His second collection of stories, Zahid aur Do Kahaaniya is an assimilation of a novella, “Zahid”, and two long stories “Adeel Ka Safar” and “Mengal”.
The first is the story of Zahid, the protagonist. A religious fanatic, Zahid escapes death in an Afghan container and being the only one to do so, cannot continue to live in his small village where everyone knows him and of his past. He has to leave for Lahore, where he must play a duel with his fate and make better of the second chance given to him. Though one can foresee his destiny early in the story, it is the journey that draws both the character and the reader into this incredible story.
Lahore waali bus bahut tez chalne lagi hai. Sheeshe se main apne ilaaqe ki aakhiri jhalkiyaan paa rahaa hoon. Ilaaqaa sar-sabz, zarkhez aur taazaa-kaar hai… Aur bus ke sheeshon par kiranon ki abshaar hai. Kiranein khilaa se baras rahi hain, aur hamein chhu kar khilaa ki taraf laut rahi hain. Main in kiranon ki sawaari karke khilaa ki taraf jaanaa chaahtaa hoon. Lekin, is waqt mere faraayz mujhe khilaa-e baseet mein gum hone se rokte hain. Woh mujhe roo-e zameen par sar-gardaan rakhte hain.
(The bus to Lahore is moving very fast. I can catch the final glimpses of my area from the window panes. The surroundings were fertile and lush green. The sun’s rays flowed down to the window panes. These rays showering from the void above touch us and return to the void. I crave to ride these rays and visit the nothingness they are travelling towards. But right now, my earthly duties are detaining me from being absorbed in this unfathomable void. They make me roam the surface of this earth.)
Once in Lahore, Zahid is unable to restrain himself from falling into the trap set by his fate. Unable to attain a respectable job and unable to stay calm as he witnesses two men torturing a sex-worker, Zahid ends up in a mesh where he cannot separate his beliefs from his actions, and neither can he unite the two. Zahid becomes the middle man for a sex-workers’ faction, running the business efficiently and falling in love hopelessly. Drifting through the dingy alleyways of Lahore’s sex arcades, from one woman’s body to another’s, he eventually walks in the direction of his ultimate journey, into the void he so desired to visit on his way to Lahore. The prose too drifts, from the realism of the sights and sounds of the city to the surrealism that unfolds in the lives of the characters. The realism of every night’s loneliness and detachment is as gripping for Zahid as the surrealism of every morning’s routine of dropping these women back to their abodes. Zahid not only travels from one space and time to another, but he is also the carrier of other travellers, for whom, every night is a renewed trip of the same journey. Once Zahid has made as many journeys as was required of him to know the ways of life, not only his own but that of others’, his travels converge, finally arriving at the destination of death, out of whose clutches he cheated this life. The story reaches its climax as Zahid zooms past city lanes and bylanes on his bike, towards his destiny at Shahtaj Hotel, which he never manages to reach. Zahid’s imagination transports him and he believes he is aboard a boat that is slipping into an endless ocean and this journey is beyond his control. An inability to control one’s journey and the inevitability of the journey are the vehicles that Columeau mounts his stories upon.
The second story is ‘Adeel ka Safar’ or ‘Adeel’s Journey’. Adeel, a young trainee in an Islamic missionary group is sent on a mission with three other agents into an uncivilised, untamed locality in the forests of the Amazon, to bring the light of faith into the untouched lives of an Amazonian indigenous tribe. The journey is long and punctuated, bringing in changes to the character of the protagonist with each such punctuation. As Adeel reaches Sao Paulo airport, he loses grasp of the surface layer of his consciousness and gains insight into the next journey of his sub-conscious.
Adeel be-hosh thaa. Lekin uske be-khood honth hilte jaa rahe the. Adeel bole jaa rahaa thaa. Woh kuch haulnaak manaazir bayaan kar rahaa thaa. Woh ek gehre jungle ke baare mein bataae jaa rahaa thaa jiske azeem shajar bureedaa saron se aaraastaa the aur jiske beech mein ek matyaalaa saa daryaa beh rahaa thaa, jiske manjhdaar par kuch be-sar laashein rawaan-dawaan theen. Is daryaa ke kinaare kuch sanwle saloone bacche ro rahe the. Jinhein saamp aur magar macch apni tirchi nazron se tak rahe the. Aur Adeel baar baar apnaa bayaan rokkar keh rahaa thaa : ‘Hamaare khokhle qaalib fanaa ki taraf garm-e safar hain.
(Adeel was unconscious. Yet, his lips were moving involuntarily. He was now murmuring, describing some terrifying visions. He kept talking about a deep forest whose gigantic trees were adorned with severed heads. A grey river flowed drearily through the forest. Headless corpses bobbed up and down on its surface. A group of dusky children sat crying mournfully on the banks as crocodiles and snakes gazed at them from the corner of their eyes. Adeel interrupted his descriptions periodically, saying ‘our hollow frames are heading towards their annihilation’)
As Adeel and his companions leave Sao Paulo, they board a flight to Santarem. Adeel is once again oblivious of himself. As he gains consciousness, he is pulled, once again, by the divinity of his fate. He sees the forests he had foreseen and the rivers he had prophesised. He witnesses the fate he has attained and is set for his impending journey. The prose moves as swiftly as Adeel’s journey and eventually, as Adeel loses all the layers of his consciousness, one after another, he drifts back into the valley of his past, from where all his journeys began. As Adeel journeys back in time, at every new milestone, his companions realise the gravity of the mistake they have committed by bringing Adeel along. As the journey reaches its penultimate stage, Adeel speaks of his past. He does not tell his story. Instead he becomes his story as he re-lives his life so far, catapulting his memory back into the valleys of Kashmir, where he lost his family.
Woh uthaa. Aur uthte hi usne mehsoos kiaa ki uske azaa sukar gae… Uske baazoo aur taangein mukhtasar ho gae the. Uskaa dhar aur sar bilkul chote the. Adeel simat simatke ek bacche ke qad kaa ho gayaa thaa. Adeel is mojize par aaynaa-e hairat banaa thaa. Usko apne hawaas pe yaqeen naheen aa rahaa thaa. So is mojize ki tasdeeq karaane ki khaatir woh apne razaakaar saathyon ke paas gayaa. Teenon apne kheme mein kharaate le rahe the. Woh unke kheme mein ghusaa. Aur usne achaanak iske andar apne bachpan kaa ghar dekhaa.
(He got up, and as he did so, suddenly realised that his limbs had shrunk in size… His arms and legs had become shorter. His head and his shoulders were also small. Adeel kept shrinking until he was as short as a child. Adeel was extremely shocked at this incredible occurrence. He could not believe himself. And so, to confirm the veracity of the matter, he went to look for his fellow volunteers. All three of them were snoring in their tent. Adeel entered the tent. And all of a sudden, he found himself in the home of his childhood days.)
Columeau transports Adeel back into his heimat, his childhood, both physical and metaphysical. Once Adeel has travelled back into his home, he finds answers to all the questions of his life, particularly, why his father had not rescued him. Through Columeau’s fleeting prose Adeel is reunited with his father, to make that one journey, the absence of which gave him his life. With his father, Adeel makes that final journey that unites him with nature and takes him beyond the physical aspects of it, into the landscape of his own mind. It is interesting that it is these physical aspects of the journey that Adeel is constantly pre-occupied with; that he believes to be the antagonist of his fate. The trees and the birds, the flora and the fauna, the forest and the river become characters for Adeel, characters that exist and metamorphose to take up the roles of his antagonists. The use of magic realism in the story of a religious missionary creates a fascinating, subtle irony that can only be conjured out of a keen belief in literary possibilities and the honed art of resisting literary restrictions. Columeau attains perfection as he unites Adeel and his father in this last journey that his fate has sought.
Abbu aur Adeel kaafi der tak waadi mein chalte rahe. Pau phut rahi thee. Aur manzar ke tewar raftaa raftaa badal rahe the. Haweli ke nasheb-o faraaz manzar se hazf ho rahe the. Bhimber Gali ki raushan pahaari aujhal ho rahi thee. Xingu kaa jungle manzar pe doobaaraa haawi ho rahaa thaa. Shajar roo-e zameen se sar uthaa rahe the. Aur sooraj ko salaami dene ke liye khare ho rahe the. Unke lambe saaye kurraa-e arz pe laraz rahe the. Unki ghani shaakhon mein parinde sukoonat ikhtiyaar kar rahe the. Qadam qadam pe koi khoosh-ilhaan parindaa sadaa de rahaa thaa. Goyaa parinde raahiyon ko aayndaa khatron se baa-khabar karnaa chaah rahe the. Lekin Adeel aur uske abbu in intibaahon se saraasar ghaafil the. Woh duniyaa-o maafihaa se bilkul be-gaanah apni manzil ki taraf march karte jaa rahe the.
(Adeel and his father walked in the valley for long. In the twilight of dawn, the landscape was transforming gradually. The contours of Haveli were dissolving. The glittering hills of Bhimber Gali were waning. The forests of Xingu were in reign of the scenery. The trees were rising their heads from the face of the earth, standing up to greet the sun. Their elongated shadows were trembling on the earth’s surface. The birds of the forest nested themselves on the branches of these trees. At every step, one could hear the musical notes of these creatures – as if they were trying to warn the wayfarers of impending dangers. But Adeel and his father did not care for such warnings anymore. Oblivious to this world and the other, they kept marching ahead towards their destination.)
“Mengal” is another such story. Having travelled for work all his life, Mengal finds himself homeless in the capital city of France. Though Columeau never really mentions Paris, one only has to derive it from the milestones that unlike the tourist’s Paris, coincides with the Paris of a South-Asian labourer like Mengal. The train station, the Seine, the Jardin du Luxembourg are those stops in the everyday of the city that constantly remind Mengal of his life in exile. The essence of being far away from a home he never had, is taken to perfection in Mengal’s train rides. For someone who has never belonged anywhere, Mengal finds his own space only as he drifts in and out of trains. He finds peace in the flowing Seine. He finds his community of homeless people in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Luxembourg mere jaise be-watanon ke liye hi banaa hai! Yahaan saare be-watan hain, mujassame, parinde, shajar aur raahgeer! Patthar ke baadshaah aur unki malikaaein apni sultanaton se jalaa-watan hue hain. Parinde apne abaai ashyaanon se bahut door hain, aur shajar apne jangalon se. Aur raahgeer tehte tehlte apne khoe hue watanon ko yaad kar rahe hain.
(Luxembourg is made for banished people like me. Everyone here is in exile – statues, birds, trees and pedestrians! The marble king and his queens are banished from their kingdoms. Birds are deported from their homes, as are trees from their forests. And the pedestrians stroll around aimlessly, remembering their lost homes and lost countries.)
Travelling is also a mode of escaping. It is a process of estranging the self from the familiar. Mengal has escaped every trap of his fate and continues to do so till he finds himself in the French capital only to realise that there is no escape, no exit from his past, nor from his destiny. Mengal’s journey to Europe was propelled by his past actions and in Paris, he finds himself trapped in his own madness. The farther he moves away from his physical past self, the nearer he finds himself to his present psychological self. Struggling to exist on an everyday basis, Mengal protects himself from his past by keeping it absolute secret while revisiting it down his memory lane, until one day, he arrives at an encounter with his very real past in the most pressing surrealism of his present existence; until there is no difference anymore, between the physical past and the psychological present.
Yeh shehr kaa koi muzaafaati ilaaqaa hogaa. Lekin is waqt meraa apne mehl-e wuqoo se koi sarokaar naheen hai. Main bas itnaa jaannaa chaahtaa hoon ki daryaa kis simt beh rahaa hai. Saamne se ek raahgeer aa rahaa hai. Main usse pooch rahaa hoon : -‘La Seine l’est ou ?’. Aur raahgeer mujhe seedhaa jaane ko kehtaa hai. Daryaa qareeb hai. Main khoosh-naseeb hoon. Meri taangon mein jaan parti hai. Main doobaaraa daurne lagtaa hoon. Yeh yaqeenan meri aakhiri daur hai. Raastaa mere aage khatam ho rahaa hai. Saamne Daryaa-e Seine beh rahaa hai… Daryaa kaa paani mere dil ki tarah yakh hai. Is paani mein mere dil ki harkatein band hone ko hain… Daryaa kaa paani mere gunaahon ki tarah mailaa hai. Is paani mein mere phephre ghalaazat se bhar rahe hain. Daryaa kaa paani meri tarah sogwaar hai. Uske sog mein mere saare sog jazb ho rahe hain… Us syaah paani se kal meri laash baraamad ho jaaegi.
(This must be the outskirts of the city. But at this moment, I am not concerned with my whereabouts. All I want to know is the direction in which the river is flowing. I see a pedestrian ahead. I am asking him: – ‘La Seine l’est ou?’ He tells me to keep walking ahead. The river is nearby. I am fortunate. My legs are back to life once again and I start running towards the river. This must be my last run. The road ahead is ending. The Seine is flowing in front of me. The river’s water is frozen like my heart and my heart is going to stop its movements in this water. The water is as dirty as my sins and my lungs are getting filled with the filth in this water. The water is as sorrowful as I am and all my sorrows will be absorbed in the mourning of this water. Tomorrow, my corpse will be removed from this black water.)
All three protagonists are unable to resist the inevitable journeys directed towards their fates. It is as if the stories and the characters are drawn by their fates. They travel, in many ways, to make that one final journey. The stories progress by buses, bikes, cars, trains, aeroplanes, boats, containers – vehicles that transfer the characters as they move, adding up, one journey at a time, to their inevitable fates. It is interesting to note that often the stories lose track of themselves and there are sudden spaces – both physical and metaphysical – in the stories that the reader has arrived at, alongwith the characters, as if through these vehicles. However, the most important transformations occur as the characters walk. For the characters do not just walk through urban spaces and nature’s mazes, but they lose their way as they ‘drift’ through these. Columeau is himself a traveller, writing in a foreign language that becomes his vehicle. His fiction becomes his journey and like his characters, it is not only he who is travelling; it is also the reader who travels vicariously in reading these stories. Reading thus becomes an act of faith, a travelling pact where the writer becomes the guide, walking the reader through the stories, and yet allows her to drift into the worlds of her own mind. Drifting is the act of non-intentional movement that is the essence of these characters’ lives. They do not own or control their lives; they are only drifting away to the winds of a larger plan in action. ‘Drifting’, thus seems to be the hamartia for Columeau’s characters that leads to their tragic fates. The only intention apart from drifting, is to reach a certain ‘nothing-ness’. All three protagonists express a keen desire to travel towards a void, or khila. Columeau, the master story teller fulfils their desires but by tricking them, as they drift, not towards khila, but towards fanaa or annihilation. He also manages to trick his reader as she travels with the characters and finds them to have eventually arrived at that one point of departure, the point of no return.
Ab ek yaqooti cheshmaa mere munh se rawaan hai. Jo aahistaa aahistaa naali ki taraf beh rahaa hai. Yeh cheshmaa naali mein jaa giregaa. Naali nadi mein jaa giregi. Aur nadi saagar mein mil jaaegi. Mere khoon kaa safar dair tak jaari rahegaa. Aur meraa har qatraa-e khoon kuraa-e arz ke paaniyon mein zam ho jaaegaa. Main ek makrooh aadmi thaa, lekin is waqt mere chehre ke kutbe par wohi sukoon lau de rahaa hai, jiskaa numood shaheedon ke murdaa chehron par hotaa hai.
(Now a crimson stream is flowing from my mouth. Slowly, it was drifting towards a drain. This stream will fall into the drain, the drain will dissolve into a river and the river will be absorbed into the sea. The journey of my blood will be prolonged. And every drop of blood will be immersed in the waters of the earth. I have been a despicable man but at this moment, the epigraph of my face was lit with the same light that glows on the lifeless faces of martyrs.)
Columeau kills each of his characters as they travel. He uses death as one final stop that takes them beyond travelling as humans do. In each death, he transforms the character’s human abilities and takes them beyond the realism of life and death. What remains is the surrealism of travel, even after death. Columeau thus refutes the idea of death as the end of all journeys. Instead, by giving narrative capacities to the characters after death, he opens up a dangerous possibility of death being not the end, but the beginning of many such surreal possibilities of travel. Like Scheherazade, Columeau’s stories do not end. These stories do not only transport the reader into another world, but they bring the reader to confront her own mind, her own madness. Death is not an escape from this madness, but an encounter. Scheherazade stalls death by telling stories, whereas Columeau makes death a part of his story, transporting the story beyond the possibilities of life. This collection of stories spiral into other stories and other possibilities, despite death. The death of these characters do not end the stories; the characters are meant to die, death being only a waiting room in these stories that take us elsewhere, closer to ourselves. The journey is the story, and it is the journey that matters.
About the Book and the Author
Zaahid aur Do Kahaaniyaan was first published in 2013 by Saanjh Publishers in Lahore. In October 2015, a talk regarding this book, with the author was held by Rakhshanda Jalil for her series New Urdu Writings at Oxford Bookstore in New Delhi. This collection is to be released in India in July 2016 by Arshia Publications, under the name Zalzala aur Doosri Kahaaniyaan, along with two additional stories, ‘Zalzala’ and ‘Pyaare Ustaad’. Zaahid aur Do Kahaaniyaan is Columeau’s second published collection of stories. His first collection, Teen Novelette, a collection of fictional biographies of three poets, Saaghar Siddiqi, Meeraji and Munir Jafri was also published in 2013 by Aaj Publications in Karachi. The same was released in Delhi by Arshia Publications at Rekhta 2016. Columeau is considered to be a significant voice in the current circles of Urdu fiction, offering an unparalleled perspective of life and literature in the language. Julien Columeau works with the International Committee of the Red Cross and travels wherever his work takes him.