When it comes to the functioning of governments, both past and present, countless essays have been written about the topic. As for the tyranny of certain rulers, one should look no further than the local library for miscellaneous sources. The same can be said if one wants to probe the deaths of previous societies.
Fragments of history have been preserved, ancient statues have been unearthed, archaeology has progressed. Clearly, substantial historical material already exists — material that can be included in literature, material that is literature.
A question then arises as to how can literature embody this material? Is it able to capture the intricacies of this historical material? Is it able to relate it to our current status quo, and introduce new prospects? Osama Siddique's Snuffing Out the Moon might just be the answer.
Siddique's debut novel is divided into five parts, each having a fragmented piece of a larger story. The five chapters borrow from history, the near past, and the almost-present future.
The piece at the start of the novel seems to read like an elaborate description of "a city of bricks," boasting of a "prominent acropolis." Wells dotted this city, courtyards were aplenty, and the city was a "glorious abode of an industrious people."
A young harbinger of sorts is portrayed sitting atop a towering tree far away from this city of bricks. Prkaa seemed to be there of his own volition, and opines that the city is dying, and that the rulers have ostracized their denizens. Perhaps Prkaa is delusional, perhaps his forebodings hold true. Siddique keeps the reader guessing since the story ends rather abruptly, and the novel switches to the Jaulian monastery in Takshasilla.
A guru and his disciple are having a conversation about the ways of seeing the apparent and the arcane. The story, in this instance, juxtaposes reason and religion. It makes for urgent reading purely for its simplicity.
After Takshasilla comes the account of Mughal emperor Jahangir and two charlatans. This is followed by an account of the uprisings in Punjab against the British. Following the uprisings in Punjab is a story set in contemporary Pakistan — that of Rafiya Begum, Billa, and a young apprentice. This perhaps is the most poignant of all stories.
Amidst a legal battle, Begum, a senile Pakistani woman is depicted as an untiring commoner doing the rounds of the Lahore court. The reader does not know what legal battle she is embroiled in. It is almost 300 pages into the book that the reader is introduced to the details of her legal battle.
Till then, Begum's abilities, her difficulties in finding a lawyer, the lawyer's cynicism during the case, and her stability throughout the drama have been realistically captured: "On and on her case had stretched, so that she had quite forgotten the number of times she had attended court hearings and held meetings with her lawyer, coming all the way from her two-room apartment in the old Walled City."
Snuffing Out the Moon is a commendable effort for a debut novel. Siddique is diligent in his writing, careful not to make the book too convoluted. A set of undertones pepper the narrative from time to time. And the stories compel the reader to think.
Siddique provides sufficient context for readers to engage in thought. He had to, for if he hadn't, Snuffing Out the Moon would become a quagmire of characters lost in the folds of time.
More importantly, the characters in Siddique's stories do not seem to deflate at any point in the novel. Furthermore, Siddique manages to pack these fragmentary texts into less than 450 pages, which seems to be the ideal length for this voluminous a novel.
The outcome of weaving together social and historical contexts plays out unutterably well. Siddique appropriately narrates the goings-on in society, as a character tells Prkaa: "We live in strange times, Prkaa, for the roles have reversed. The rulers sit and stare vacantly while the priests dominate. And the priests in turn act more like merchants … No longer do they merely cleanse and heal and help distinguish between what is right and what is not… Their true religion, it seems, is solely commerce."
Besides a comment on plurality, the book touches upon potential impediments due to technology. Siddique creates a world — The Fort — where water becomes the new oil, where technology has overtaken human thought and emotion. Scientific developments play God in this world; its inhabitants forbidden from travelling beyond a boundary, from questioning. On the other side of this world lay the 'Regressives', known for their lack of technology and feral qualities.
When a resident of The Fort strays away and comes in contact with the Regressives, he is questioned: "Haven't humans always been like that — bifurcated into 'us' and 'others'?"
A multi-layered book with a sizeable cast of characters, Snuffing Out the Moon can be said to largely encompass one emotion, as beautifully put by one of the characters: "What you have given me is the most valuable thing any man can ever possess: Hope."
Snuffing Out the Moon is authored by Osama Siddique, and published by Penguin Random House. The novel is 427 pages long, and is priced at Rs 599.
Updated Date: Aug 06, 2017 15:00 PM