“Mirages of the Mind” by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Jason Grunebaum, BTBA judge, writer, and translator. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)
Would you like read the book that Salman Rushdie had hoped to write with Midnight’s Children? Looking for that book that satisfies your itch for the reliably bawdy and resoundingly literary, a tale read out loud, episodically and euphorically, by your favorite Pakistani uncle—or the one you wish you had—and who never sleeps a wink?
Do your friends look at you wonky and miffed when you declare, “Give me picaresque or give me death?” Have a soft spot for wow-y stories told with countless detours and details by a manic raconteur who resides well south of the high peak of K2 but nevertheless can see the whole wide world?
Do you prefer your Partition history baked so deeply into the gooey mantle of your South Asian fiction that you don’t realize how much you’ve just learned until three weeks later while waiting at the dentist’s?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you should immediately go out and read Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, originally published in 1990, beautifully translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, and published in English by New Directions—“this book” in today’s installment of “Why This Book Should Win.”
Let’s begin in the usual place with a bit of “Donkeyography”: the title of a short section in this episodic and delightfully meandering book.
“Donkeography” examines the important differences in perceptions of donkeys and owls in the imaginations of East and West. The reason that we’re here is that lots of bad things are about to happen to our comic hero Basharat’s automobile, but he hasn’t settled on a car purchase yet. Other possible ways of getting around are discussed in detail. “[W]ith all this talk about modes of conveyance, why didn’t I suggest donkeys and donkey-carts?” After dispensing with owls, the narrator continues:
The mascot of the Democratic Party has always been the donkey. It’s on the party flag. The entire American people were like this donkey in their single-mindedness opposition to Iran. I mean, they were numb, dumb, and frozen in place. In the West, the donkey does not inspire any satire. In fact, the French philosopher and essayist Montaigne was so impressed with the noble qualities of this animal that he wrote, “Nowhere on earth can you find an animal more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave, and serious than a donkey.” We Asians think ill of donkeys because they have some human qualities. That is, they carry loads heavier than their power of endurance and strength will allow; and they are obedient, obliging, and grateful to their master to the same degree that they are beaten.
There’s more than one way to bring down an empire, skin a cat, or take the fort. One approach is to write a book thick with psychological portraiture and voices of something like insight from the psyche’s inside. This is not that book.
Another approach is to look at a brick wall suffering from efflorescence, caked with salt and peeling away, and see each flaky layer not as rot but zest—and then endeavor to make sure each and every brick and all the natural elements that have pushed through to the surface get their fair shake so that the whole can be viewed anew, with wisdom and awe.
Balban, the horse that drew the carriage that conveyed Basharat, before he settled on the purchase of a car, and before the discussion of donkeys, was to be shot to death by the ostensibly pious Maulana, on account of the horse having run amok on the road while passing a funeral procession, which caused Basharat to be almost blinded by an errant blow to the eye by the horsewhip and both Balban and Basharat to be nearly murdered by the discommoded, grumbling mourners, while Basharat’s father, old and infirm and Balban as his best and only friend, was not informed of the execution order on the horse, but rather told simply that the horse was being sent from Karachi to the Punjab to graze for a couple of months—all the while Maulana, the supposed executioner, quietly ordered a stay for Balban, and instead put the still living animal to work on the sly, a secret that Basharat discovers after a harrowing trip to the slums where Maulana lives.
All because a friend had given Basharat unwise counsel:
A friend advised him not to let a vet put [Balban] down. He said, ‘It’s a bad way to go. It’s not pretty. When I put my Alsatian down at a hospital, I saw it dying. I couldn’t eat for two days afterwards. He had been by my side through a lot. He was looking at me pleadingly. I sat with my hand on his forehead. This is a very inauspicious, a very miserable, horse. Despite his disability and pain, he served you and your children well.’
This friend arranged over the phone for Balban to be shot to death.
As run-down brick is reconstituted into a lapidary mural, something happens to the ego of the reader. “Defeat” is a strong word, and “solace” not quite happy enough for the dazzling experience that is the reading of this book. Nevertheless, the narrator advises this near the end of the tale:
How and where the defeated ego finds solace depends on a number of things—your taste, your skills, your ability to put up with failure (your patience), and the available means of escape:
__The Fantasy Past
Whichever form of intoxication you prefer. At the moment of imminent colonization, Arnold wrote about the ability of the navel-gazing East to withstand defeat:
The East bow’d low before the blast
In patient, deep disdain
She let the legions thunder past
And plunged in thought again.
And, in this arrogant meditation, centuries slip by. The most hypnotic and deepest form of intoxication available to humankind—the one that makes you indifferent to your surroundings—takes place through an admixture and imbrication of your thoughts and dreams. If you know this high, then everything else is A-okay.
A thousand miseries will dissolve into one great dream