MIRAGES OF THE MIND by Pakistani Comic Master, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi
Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi is a witty, highly educated raconteur who, at age 92, is Pakistan’s most revered living writer. His fourth novel, and first to be translated into English, is over 500 pages long, occasionally baffling, frequently culturally opaque, and certainly not about plot or suspense. And yet it is profoundly good-humored, genuinely wise, and very often laugh-out-loud funny.
Mirages of the Mind is one long mosaic of hundreds of tiny stories all tangled up with each other, anecdotes, tall tales and domestic comedies centered about Mushtaq’s dear friend, Basharat and his many disasters. Some stories are told by Basharat, and some stories are about Basharat told by his friend, Mushtaq. One vignette leads to another in an associative spiral of digressions and narrators until it’s hard to know exactly who’s talking or where or why. What continues to draw the reader onward through this dense and frequently hilarious confusion is Yousufi’s voice, loving and ironic at the same time, delighted with the process of storytelling itself. Like Tristram Shandy, the novel threatens at any moment to develop a plot but perpetually becomes lost in digressions. He alternates wisdom with humor, pathos and pratfalls.
Basharat is a schoolteacher obsessed with horses who is constantly repairing his worthless car. He is surrounded by his father, his father-in-law, his secretary (formerly a preacher), his driver (formerly a barber), and his moneylender (who moves in until Basharat can pay). These men care more about lumber, horses, hookahs, poetry and each other than they do about chasing women. Rather than describe what a character looks like, Yousufi piles up anecdote on top of anecdote. A man is the stories people tell about him.
Women characters are few, brief and unnamed, referred to only as “Somebody’s wife” or “Somebody’s daughter.” In spite of this, when Basharat loses his unnamed wife of 45 years, he is devastated. Only the names of film actresses are given. The central cast is entirely male.
The book breaks into five novellas. The first is about Basharat’s foul-tempered father-in-law, who causes so much trouble he ends up in jail. The second centers around Basharat’s obsession with owning a handsome horse and carriage. The third concerns the purchase of an automobile, and its combination with a truck into something halfway in-between.
The fourth novella occurs decades later and tells of a return visit to Basharat’s home town in India, from which several of the characters emigrated after the Partition and the creation of Pakistan. It features comic old Master Aasi, who confuses everyone by stubbornly insisting he’s a Buddhist. The last novella goes back in time to Basharat’s first days as a schoolteacher, when his village school, desperate for funds, hosts a poetry festival. In each case, the non-chronological narrative unfolds in an episodic, conversational style crowded with vignettes.
Throughout all five novellas, which span over fifty years, Yousufi quotes the aphorisms and proverbs of his poetic zen-like mentor, as well as the pompous authority of the learned Professor Quddus (author of The Place of Mosquitoes in the Poetic Tradition of the East), both to great comic effect. Yousufi is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, especially when his droll sense of humor skewers Pakistani daily life.
Additional information is sometimes needed to understand the story. Before the individuation of furniture into beds, chairs and tables, there was just the one-piece-does-all piece of furniture called the charpoy, a wooden frame of knotted ropes for a mattress. How this affects the lumber business, in which several characters are involved, is crucial to one novella.
The narrative is frequently dense with cultural references. Hundreds of unknown words, types of music, types of food, types of clothing, types of poetry and types of singing are all given in their native languages without any kind of light shed from a glossary. Even when what’s happening is unclear, however, the author’s sense of humor and good nature shine through.
A touch of melancholy can be detected in the humor, where the worst burden of old age is nostalgia for the lost joys of the past. Yousufi laces his tales with deliciously rich sentences. “The river of memories flowed on, but it descended into the mirages of the mind.” or “Each moment has its truth, crucifix and crown.” or “Inside everyone lives a personal Satan. Desire is this Satan’s other name.” or “Victory and liberation are for those who wade through the river without drinking.” or “What point is there to crucify someone who has already committed suicide?”
He amusingly doesn’t have a huge respect for college education. “Spending just four hours in a jail’s holding cell will teach a man more about life … than forty years at a university.” he says bluntly, or “Education that you have to buy never results in spiritual growth; never has, never will.”
Yousufi has opinions on the moral conduct of dogs, the joys of ailing, flying kites from rooftops, and why Jewish prophets all rode donkeys. He brings to life a world where machine-guns are taken to weddings and where poor women dye their dung-covered floors to look like carpets. Whether he’s talking about a stolen lumber shipment or a horse that bolts at the sight of funerals, Yousufi’s witty storytelling is deftly captured in this English translation, which survives in spite of a desperate need for footnotes and a glossary, providing a lighthearted (if frequently unguided) plunge into one of the treasures of contemporary Pakistani culture. (July 7)