داستان گوئی : A Conversation with Hammad Rind

This is the book cover of the novel Four Dervishes by Hammad Rind. The cover shows an old TV on a floor. Above it are the words Hammad Rind and above that are the words Four Dervishes.

Four Dervishes by Hammad Rind is a fascinating novel that pulls from a rich tradition of oral storytelling. The book features a prime narrator, aptly named Khusro, but the story we receive is not his. Instead, the narrative unfolds with four other characters, who Khusro stumbles upon during a walk, which is incidentally spurred by a power cut that interrupts his favorite TV program. Already distraught by his recent separation from his girlfriend, Khusro can’t stand to be home in the dark and alone with his thoughts. So he sets out and soon, he enters a cemetery where he witnesses a burial party of three.

Before Khusro could approach them, rain starts pouring, soon accompanied by stony hails, causing Zeno, the gravedigger, to usher all of them to his hut nearby. A hookah is lit, and Leila (a Gothic woman) begins the first story within this larger narrative, speaking about how she had come to bury her newborn that night, blaming it all on her knees. “Knee is the new cleavage,” she says, going on to narrate how knees were sexualised in her village. Thus begins the novel’s satirical dive into examining honor, shame, the sexualisation of women’s bodies, and social hierarchies, using absurdist elements, which continues in the foreigner Freddy’s account of his ongoing journey toward Rey, his birth country, where he is going to lead a revolution, nevermind he has never before set foot in the land. Soon, Zeno and another dervish (who joins us much later and whose identity is a happy surprise for the reader) also narrate their tales of bravery, escaping the law, revealing the warped ways societies turn a blind eye to men and their atrocities.

Hammad Rind is a Welsh-Pakistani writer and translator. His literary and linguistic prowess is expansive, visible in this debut where he deftly fuses in wide-ranging literary references and linguistic wordplay to enrich the narratives’ landscapes. We spoke on a Tuesday afternoon about his exposure to Eastern languages and storytelling traditions, the perceived superiority of the West affecting the erasure of local languages such as Urdu, the absurdity in shrine building traditions, social hierarchies, and much more.

Bareerah Ghani: One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is that it seamlessly uses many languages – Turkish, Persian, Urdu and Saraiki, amongst the few you name in the acknowledgements. I am wondering if you can talk about your relationship to the languages you speak fluently.

Hammad Rind: I’ve been a language nerd, or whatever the term is, language enthusiast, since a very young age. When I was a child, my father was studying Arabic in Riyadh,  Saudi Arabia and maybe it was a desire to, I don’t know, please him, that I picked up Arabic and also because of the religious affiliation. So Arabic was my first language, in a way, although I’ve never been able to master it, because it’s such a deep and vast language in a lot of aspects. But then I picked up Persian and some of the languages along the way. I’ve been mostly fascinated by Eastern languages, the sort that have influenced Urdu. So Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and then Punjabi, which was the regional language, as was Saraiki, which was also spoken in the family, so I picked those up as well. It became sort of an addiction.

Once you start learning all these languages, you feel like I might as well learn French, and Italian, and all that as well. I’m learning Welsh at the moment, which I’m really enjoying.

BG: Wow! That’s really fascinating. How many languages do you speak?

HR: Around 9. Though not at the same level, some more fluently than the others.

BG: In your novel, we get stories within stories. We barely even hear from the narrator or protagonist himself. And I thought it was brilliant in the way it defies Western craft notions of how a story should be told. To what extent has your exposure to multiple languages played a role in the way you approach storytelling?

HR: It was a fascination with the traditional kind of Persian and Urdu literature that I grew up reading, Dastan and Qissa, that kind of storytelling which has influenced the Western tradition as well in a lot of ways. So, when you go back to the early days of the novel, or even earlier, for example, the work by Boccaccio, Decameron, the ten stories which are being told by these feudal lords and ladies who are confined in a villa outside Florence because of the Black Death. They are telling each other a story to amuse each other. So, yeah, it was sort of a familiar trope to me. When I was growing up, I read quite a lot of these tales. One of them was the original Four Dervishes, قصه چهار درویش (Qissa Chahar Darvesh) written by Amir Khusro, which has the same sort of a setting – it’s also set in a graveyard. And you don’t hear much from the prime narrator. He introduces the work, and then he kind of just hides behind the four narrators, the four dervishes he meets in a graveyard. The difference between this narrator and my narrator is that he’s more royal. He’s supposed to be the King of Constantinople. And he is going through an existential crisis, like my narrator. He spots a strand of gray hair and because he doesn’t have a male heir to succeed him, he goes through an existential crisis, and he goes out and ends up in a graveyard where he meets these four people who are actually princes disguised as fakirs. My narrator has a similar sort of an existential crisis, triggered though by a lack of electricity, which was a common occurrence when I was growing up, you know, power cuts, load shedding as we call it in Pakistan. He is obsessed with this television series, and it’s not just him but the whole nation, because I grew up with these PTV dramas, which were amazing. I’ve heard that when  a popular television drama like Varis, which was the inspiration for the opening chapter of my novel, would be on, there wouldn’t be any crimes happening during that one hour. So yeah, there were lots of different influences, but particularly, it was the traditional Urdu and Persian Dastan storytelling that influenced me.

BG: Does it continue to have an influence in the work you’re doing right now?

HR: To some extent. The work I’m doing now is much more conventional in a lot of ways, as you said, in terms of Western craft. But it still has influences, to some extent, of that داستان گوئی (Dastangoi).

When I was growing up, there was this sort of tradition where the women of our family would gather, for example, on a Thursday or something, and read these معجزہ, miracles, which were fascinating to me as a child because they were also stories. I enjoyed them especially because after the reading, there would be jalebis.

BG: I love that. So much of how I approach storytelling and envision stories in my head is based on what I’ve been hearing growing up. So I love that you grew up hearing these stories, and they somehow made it into the way you approach your writing. I also think the Western motion of craft can be limiting to people who speak multiple languages, come from other cultures. And your book does a wonderful job at showing the beauty in oral storytelling.

HR: You know, during those power cuts in my childhood, sometimes we would just gather in the room and tell each other a story to pass time. Also, if you look at some of the famous works of داستان گوئی (Dastangoi) like Amir Khusro’s or Alif Laila, The One Thousand and One Nights, also has a lot of oral storytelling. It’s being told by Shahrzad, for example. And then there are stories within stories.

BG: When Freddy is narrating his story, he talked about his father, who was a foreigner in Rey, having “rosy soirées with those broad-minded locals who’d confused socializing with westerners as the epitome of culture.” I love such satirical moments in the novel. This one evokes the colonial mindset quite prevalent in Pakistani culture, particularly the elites, this idea that the western way of life is somehow better or “progressive”. What are your thoughts on this proclaimed superiority of the West and its impact on the preservation of local culture and language, particularly Urdu?

HR: Yeah, it’s a very interesting observation. This particular episode actually is set in Iran. I didn’t go into a lot of detail about explaining that. But Rey is one of the old names for Tehran, the capital. In some works, like the old Persian poets, they refer to the whole of Iran as Rey.

I saw this in both Iran and Pakistan – this fascination with the West. In Pakistan, it’s more to do with the Anglo Saxon world, and in Iran, it’s more sort of broadly European Western. There’s a very famous work by an Iranian intellectual, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who wrote it in the sixties, it’s called غرب‌زدگی (Gharbzadegi), translated typically as, Westoxification. It influenced me a lot as well. It sees this phenomenon as an illness, as a malady – the fascination that not just Iranians, Pakistanis, other cultures of that region, they look towards the west, as you said, as some sort of a better way of life or cultures.

I’ve always tried to give the same status to our languages in my work. Whether it’s Urdu, which is the official language of Pakistan, or what they refer to as the regional languages, which I consider a debatable term, because they are just as national as any other language. So I’ve tried to promote them in my work. That’s why I have used quite a lot of Persian and Saraiki, Punjabi, Urdu. I also wanted to challenge the hegemony of the Latin script in English writing, because, you know, there are a lot of different arguments about whether or not you should italicize your foreign words, the “Other” languages.

English is, the official language of the whole world now, you could say. It has definitely pushed out some of the languages, including Urdu. In Pakistan, almost all of the official work is being done in English. You don’t see that as much though in some neighboring countries like in Iran, for example, all the official stuff is done in Persian, academically as well. It’s a thriving language which isn’t the case, deplorably, for Urdu in Pakistan. And if the so-called national language is not thriving, there is no chance for Punjabi or Saraiki or Sindhi to, you know, to get to that stage, to the official, or the academic sphere. The fascination with English seeps through the whole of society in some way or another. For example, when I see someone talking to their child in Punjabi but peppering it with basic words from English. I don’t want to criticize people, obviously, and I don’t want to be prescriptive either, because we learn that languages evolve and this is the way, just like  Urdu and Punjabi borrowed things from Persian because in those days Persian was the prestigious language in the subcontinent. And something similar is probably happening right now in front of us, you know, in terms of these languages borrowing from English. So it is sort of a natural process but still, I can’t help cringing whenever I see something like that. It still bothers me. It probably shouldn’t.

BG: Yeah, it bothers me, too. I know what you mean. As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to feel the loss associated with witnessing this slow erasure of Urdu from mainstream academia, or even mainstream society. I know so many of the Pakistani elites and the upper middle class choose to speak, and pass on English as a language to their kids rather than Urdu. And I speak of Urdu because I can’t even talk about the other, regional languages because it’s like you said, if Urdu is not gonna get that elevated status that it needs and that it deserves as the national language then these other languages don’t really stand a chance.

HR: On the same note,  something similar has happened in terms of regional languages where, Punjabi parents, for example, decided to pass down Urdu, as the family language, or as the first language of the child. And now, something similar is happening in terms of English replacing Urdu. So there’s a hierarchy of languages.

The photo shows Hammad Rind, glasses on his face, dressed in a blue shirt, sitting at a table with a book on it, his hands crossed in front of him on the table.
Photo of Hammad Rind

BG: In your acknowledgements, you mention that Freddy’s character was derived from an article by Iranian American writer, Ari Siletz, particularly focusing on “Fereydoonism” which is where an expat’s false sense of belonging with his culture makes him think he has the authority to lead an uprising in his birth country. It resonated with me, made me think about how overseas Pakistanis, especially second and third generation, can be critical of the country’s political instability and speak with an authority you can hardly claim if you’re not on the ground, ever. What are your thoughts on the expatriat’s claim on a homeland purely on the basis of ancestral roots?

HR: I came across that particular article long before I started writing Four Dervishes and it resonated with me because I read it after I came back to the UK. And I found it interesting because I was seeing this around me as well, that people who may have been to Pakistan or the ancestral land and not really lived there would express their views in a way that would be very, you know, authoritative but maybe not much based on the ground realities of that country and the culture. Their views would be different from someone who has grown up there, has lived there for twenty or thirty years. I saw that quite a lot so that’s why I wanted to talk about that.

I wouldn’t deny anyone if they’ve got a sense of belonging, and they want to belong [to the ancestral land]. I would say they have a right to that land. It’s just that one should respect the views of those who are going through a lived reality.

BG: The warped notion of “honor” is touched upon in almost every character’s story. Our protagonist narrates a tale about a shrine built over the grave of a woman who was initially falsely slandered and her nose amputated to save her husband’s honor. Zoltan’s tale reflects the hypocrisy in men committing terrible atrocities without consequences but feeling like their honor is tarnished the moment women in their family make choices that go against societal norms. How do you contend with this patriarchal notion of attaching honor and familial stature to women and their ability to submit?

HR: The idea of male jealousy towards their female relatives is sort of universal. You’ll find them in all patriarchal societies, but they’re manifested in different ways. How women are, you know, controlled, their bodies are controlled. In Pakistan and similar cultures, there’s a dominant notion of غیرت (Ghairat), ناموس (Namus), honor, which is associated with women’s bodies. I wanted to talk about that. And I wrote the final part at the time when Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her brother. And so the inspiration for the two siblings in the last part, Zoltan and his sister, was from that. Zoltan doesn’t even mention her name because he thinks that that would tarnish his honor somehow, because you’re not supposed to mention the name of your female relatives to strangers. I had a personal experience when I was a child, at Qasba highschool in Punjab. I was just talking to some people, and I mentioned my sister’s name, and somebody in a sort of brotherly way advised me, you shouldn’t do that.

BG: Shrine building and faith in saints is a throughline in the book. I particularly loved that part where a man steals his master’s donkey and when he buries the animal, people mistake it for his relative’s grave and help build a shrine there and the man starts to make money off of it. To me, faith of this nature where you have no proof of the dead’s miracle-granting power, suggests a desperation, a sense of hopelessness so strong that you’re willing to pray to anything and everything. I am curious about your thoughts on this and to what extent, do you think faith is integral to survival?

HR: I mean, it depends on the culture and society, but the sort of culture and society I grew up in, in Pakistan, it was prevalent, especially superstition versus faith, because there’s a lot of superstition which is mind-boggling. There is also  the social class, the so-called pirs and these spiritual feudal people. I saw a lot of these from up close.

You could say that at least to our people, this sort of faith which sometimes verges on superstition, is really integral. And also, fatalism – how they would just be content with everything or anything coming from fate, from قِسمت  (Qismat), and that would give them some sort of hope for survival. For example, there are a lot of natural calamities that have hit Pakistan recently and a lot of people would see that as coming from God, that would give them some sort of reason to justify how things work beyond their control. It’s a way to look at things and to survive, but then sometimes when corrupt people like these so-called spiritual people manipulate these superstitions and people’s beliefs for their own greed, then it’s obviously really harmful as well.

BG: In “Mrs. Kennedy and the camel-man”, Leila mentions how Mirassis, who were professional musicians, were treated as inferior in the village. When they leave, Leila says the other people missed them “not for the tunes they produced but for the vacuum they had created by their migration. The simple-hearted people, who were constantly abused and humiliated by their social superiors, needed someone to target their abuse at and suddenly found themselves at a loss.” It got me thinking about equality and the nature of the human race. I recently spoke with Percival Everett and he mentioned that historically, the idea of equality itself has not been inclusive of everyone. I am wondering if you can share your thoughts on this. Why do you think societies seem to only function on the basis of hierarchies that perpetuate inequities?

HR: For this specific case, I saw that quite a lot around me, growing up in rural Punjab. There was this hierarchy, definitely, which was sort of based on these professions, and it’s kind of universal – you have working class, then the middle class and upper middle class and all that. But this was a very, let’s say, a crude representation of this sort of a thing. Mirassis are called a caste, which is a debatable  term. Their profession is basically musicians. And in a lot of cultures that would be a prestigious thing. But even today, I was on social media, and I came across this person disparaging an actor, and calling them Mirassi. So Mirassi is a derogatory term. And I found that really difficult to live with. There were Mirassi families around us, and seeing how they were treated was very difficult.

I’m a cynical person, I think there will always be these differentiations, if it’s not because you’re a musician, it could be your community, or your language, or your ethnicity, or your religion. I think it’s probably a human thing. That’s how the powerful manipulate these ideas for their benefit and greed as well in some ways.

Just to give an example, the surname Smith, you would see the equivalent of it in many Western cultures. Schmidt in German or Kovács in Hungarian, and so on. So there are family names or families based on the profession of an ancestor, which don’t have that kind of stigma anymore. You wouldn’t see that kind of discrimination assigned to someone with that surname Smith in Western society. But لوہار (Lohar), for example, in rural Punjab at least would have that kind of stigma attached to them. It’s a sad sort of a phenomenon.

BG: What really stuck with me was how Leila says that they created a vacuum. That in their place there needed to be somebody else, or something else that people could ridicule or could treat poorly.

HR: The fascination with this sort of hierarchy is also really prevalent in Pakistan and it’s another thing that I find very difficult to digest. Whenever I go to an airport bookshop, I see these books, which are essentially the specimens of people’s popular tastes. And you have, for example, پنجاب کی ذاتیں (Punjab Ki Zaatien), the castes of Punjab. So there is a fascination with this sort of hierarchy in the majority of people, which is absurd to me.

Bareerah Ghani is a Canadian-Pakistani writer and editor. She holds an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University, and freelances as a book reviewer at Publishers Weekly. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Moon City Review, and other places. You can find out all about her projects at www.bareerahghani.com and follow her on Twitter @Bareera_yg or Instagram @bareerah_ghani.

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