Kafka in Ayodhya. Kitaab. Singapore. 2016
Zafar Anjum is a man of many parts. He is the founder of Kitaab, which empowers and connects readers and writers; he runs a blog; he edits a newsletter; he is a translator; he interviews authors on Kitaab TV; a few months ago he went into publishing; he is craftsman as a short story writer.
Review by Usha Bande
How, if Kafka were to step out of time? And what if he were to land in Ayodhya? He would just shrug his shoulders and laughing heartily say, “A joke, indeed! Of Borgesian proportion, ah!” That is what Kafka does in Zafar Anjum’s charming book Kafka in Ayodhya and Other Short Stories. In story after story it is either Kafka or his Kafkaesque view of life that gives the stories their twisted appeal. When he (Kafka) encounters the confused media asking him about the structure in Ayodhya, his reply is characteristically evasive, “Leave the structure as it is” he tells them and confounds the media further as he declares, “Incompletion is also a quality, a facet of nobility. At least, that is what I do with my works.” (p.21). Ingenious, indeed! Nothing in the scheme of things reaches finality and that is how tradition and innovation overlap, merge and get reconstituted. Soon one realizes that Zafar Anjum is not interested in any particular place –Ayodhya or Gaza or Singapore; he is directing his shafts at the general condition of existence, the absurdity of it all: the manifold facets of contemporary life, the hilarious, the meaningless, the irritating and yet the plausible and logical.
Kafka in Ayodhya is a tiny book — just 92 pages — containing eight stories that have minute observations on/of life and its vagaries. Every character seems to be wriggling with a sense of being trapped: here is a disgruntled lower middle-class man for whom rats become the prime objects of hunt (‘The Rats’); there, a tear-soaked tale of suffering in war-torn Gaza (‘The Thousand-Yard Stare’); and yet again an author’s enigmatic quest (‘E.D’). All the eight stories, published in various magazines of repute, are different in themes and settings but somewhere underneath each has a cognizable thread running – something intriguing with the curious existential manipulation of fate.
Of the eight stories, four have writers as characters, looking at the world from the prism of life’s situations that are funny, inscrutable, irritating and unexplainable. In the title story ‘Kafka in Ayodhya’ it is Kafka himself come to India with Gregor, his dog. So Gregor comes out of the pages of his novel Metamorphosis. The plot is simple and yet thick with unpredictable quirky incidents, questions and ambiguous replies to those questions. Everything is confused. Kafka (the protagonist) makes fun of the very concept of fair judgment, “the cruel impossibility of the idea of justice emerging from a decadent bureaucracy” (p.11) and he wishes Joseph K were with him to share the “joke”. “I’m afraid of the truth” he tells a journalist, “one must be silent, if one can’t give any help” (p. 20).
In ‘The Lone Fighter’ the venue shifts to Singapore in a well-stocked book store “Kinokuniya”. Two authors, who are strangers, happen to meet in the store and engage in conversation which is both ridiculous and provoking. It is a disgrace when an author has to adopt tricks to sell his books. “Writers only like readers, not other writers,” (p.32) says the protagonist smugly. The story, however, is not as simple as it appears at first go; it has layered meanings and one has to read between the lines.
‘E.D’ is the tragic story of Hanu Shah, suffering from sexual dysfunction, and writer’s block. Punch-lines like: “Writing is at its best…. when it is kind of inspired play for the writer”; “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground” lead the readers slowly into the complex life of Hanu. But the biggest twist comes at the end when the man is found dead and the narrative exposes Hanu’s tumultuous inner life with a mix of palpable concern and mockery. The writer in ‘The Revolt’ is held captive by his own creation when his protagonist ‘C’ comes out of the book and confronts his creator (the writer). The “trapped” writer feels as if himself has become “words”. Probably, Zafar wants us to understand the unrelieved sadness and frustration of a de-centered self of the writers. These four stories are evocatively strong in their presentation of the story-teller’s world, so intense and yet so volatile.
‘The Thousand-Yard Stare’ is a disturbingly brilliant story that explores the human cost of war. The theme is not new and the ending is predictable, but there is an undercurrent of despair, fear and helplessness at life’s fragility running through the narrative that gives the story its strength. It is an indictment of the hunger for power and the crazy political set up.
The thematic structure of ‘Waiting for the Angels’ concentrates on the agony of old age and the loneliness associated with it. But by juxtaposing the real and the absurd Zafar Anjum highlights the ironies of life. The fear of death, the dream of angels, the urge to dress up for the final journey and yet the inability to accept separation from the loved ones create deep psychological impact. This story, inspired by a Spanish tale, has universal appeal.
The last story ‘Ima’ has run-of-the-mill theme – a wealthy businessman goes to Singapore and falls for a bar-girl. However, the ambience that Zafar creates is perfect and revealing. The glittering night-life of Singapore, human lust and deceit have been graphically depicted. “So he [Raghu] went like a fool into that glossy den, the door to his soul wide open, for anyone to make a grab at it. It was a priceless night in Singapore, his last and all he needed was beauty” (p.81). If Raghu with his “devious mind” duped his wife and went to Singapore to “burn” his money, he got paid in the same coin by the bar-girl.
These bold and dissident stories are backed by Anjum’s existential leanings and yet there is nothing of the incomprehensibility of the Absurd, nothing of the nihilistic, pessimistic philosophy of Kafka or Sartre or others. Zafar narrates his stories with tongue-in-the-cheek manner and looks at the pageant called life with a glint in his eyes and a wry humor in his pen. The author’s vision is realistic with a human touch. The descriptions are fluid and his language has grip despite its simplicity.
In brief, Zafar Anjum’s Kafka in Ayodhya is an interesting book and a good read. But I have quarrel with the font. It is too fine for comfortable reading. And also with some of the unsavory details like those of personal morning rituals which he could have avoided. After all, Zafar is an upcoming writer of some serious and best-selling books and the dedication “For the wounded ‘Idea of India’” speaks of a sublime vision.
Dr. Usha Bande is a retired Principal and former Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. HP. India. With around twenty books to her credit, Dr Bande loves writing book reviews. She is a regular contributor to Kitaab and many online and other journals
The Work of a Great Student of Life
Review by Monica Arora
An ordinary man can enjoy breakfasting on juice and rye bread.
But when you are underfed, scorned, miserable or just plain bored, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.
You want something a little more colourful, exciting, tastier, meatier and juicier.”
These words by young and contemporary authoress RS Vern describe that urge in artists, authors, designers and other creative people to break the monotony of the mundane and the predictable and create something “a little less ordinary”!
Kafka in Ayodhya and other Short Stories, written by Zafar Anjum, the founder of Singapore-based literary journal Kitaab, is a brilliant experiment in quirky and offbeat literature with a Kafkaesque twist (pun intended!) Written in an easy interactive style with a twist at the end in most tales, these stories are delightful and have what it takes to keep the reader engrossed till the very end. In that, the author has established his mastery over his craft!
The title story, “Kafka in Ayodhya” is a figment of Zafar’s very fertile imagination, in which he juxtaposes the inimitable German literary genius in the backdrop of the Ayodhya riots and creates that confused dilemma so often associated with Kafka’s work. “The Lone Fighter” is about the struggle of a poet to get his works published. A funny yet poignant lament on the plight of some literary geniuses!
I particularly loved “The Rats”, as it is a potent statement on contemporary pressures of urban living whereby in order to maintain a home and keep oneself financially afloat, one has no choice but to succumb and be a part of the “rat race”, the mundane rigmarole of a 9-5 job and the challenges that lie therein.
“Waiting for the Angels” is moving and has a strong message for single women to never ever stop living before death actually knocks at the door. It is strong, emotional and moving, all embroiled into the beautiful character of the old lady, who is full of gumption and lives with gusto.
Well, how do I describe “E.D”? Naughty and tantalizing, two very pertinent issues intersect beautifully in this crazy story. An author’s block and an erectile dysfunction, both of which can be quite debilitating if not “stroked and aroused” at the right time (pun unintended!)
“The Revolt” is pure imagination at its best whilst the “Thousand-Yard Stare” highlights the lamentable state of the suffering Palestinian refugees and particularly the plight of the children who have unfortunately lost a friend, relative or sibling in this mindless orgy of power, politics, violence and bloodshed. My heart went out to the young protagonist Samira who clung on to the memory of her dead brother through a photograph that she values the most in this world. This story is very moving and sad owing to the grim landscape that the author has used as a perfect metaphor to enhance the suffering and angst of the protagonists.
And finally “Ima” is again a comical, yet sordid saga of countless men all around the globe who seek “greener pastures” beyond their hearth. Despite perfect marriages or at least marriages which have no apparent glitches, and wives who are bound by rigors of morality and society to stand by and support their husbands in all times, these husbands are always pursuing other pleasures in discreet “foreign trips” only to discover the futility of their wayward ways. A very strong statement on those with a roving eye!
I suggest that you go through each story and take a while to ponder on its finer nuances in order to gauge the strength of their plot and the power of the message that is hidden between the lines. A very meaningful and engaging read coming from a person who has perhaps closely observed people in contemporary set-ups and has a statement to make about issues ranging from the global to the interpersonal. Indeed, it is the work of a great student of life itself!
This review first appeared in Kitaab.org. Here is the link to the review
Check out three other reviews of the collection at the following links:
The Singapore Decalogue. Red Wheelbarrow Books. Singapore 2012
Editor’s note: A collection of interrelated stories is a two-in-one treat: the delight of reading a short story merges into the pleasure of completing a novel.
The Immigrant’s Dilemma
Review by Elen Turner
Singapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective.
The format of The Singapore Decalogue (subtitled Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent) is creative: it is a novel, of sorts, but it is also akin to a collection of interrelated short stories. Each chapter narrates events from one month in the life of Asif, who, at the beginning, October 2005, is a Bangalore bachelor about to immigrate to Singapore. The protagonist, Asif, is the focus throughout the book; his life progresses from one event to the next, his consciousness and worldview undergoing development, suggesting the label of novel. However, each chapter stands alone to some degree: characters who take central roles in one chapter are entirely put aside in the next, sometimes never seen again. Asif’s life progresses, but author Zafar Anjum suggests, through this structure, that life can be compartmentalised, for good or ill.
Compartmentalisation, or enforced boundaries—physical, emotional and cultural—run through The Singapore Decalogue. Perhaps this is the lot of an immigrant, to put aside relationships from ‘back home’ and keep them in a different part of one’s existence. To be categorised as different, not a full part of the society to which they have come, but not entirely part of any other. These divisions are the case for Asif, at least, who, after being made redundant, struggles to find new work in Singapore (at least partly) because he is Indian. He has a wife back in India, who lives with him in Singapore for a while, but she appears to be of so little importance to his integral state of being that once she leaves, she is rarely mentioned again, and he returns to a bachelor-type lifestyle, drinking with Filipina and Indonesian dancers and prostitutes. Asif’s moral corruption is never quite complete, but his flirtation with the lifestyle that so thoroughly shocked him when he first arrives in Singapore represents his isolation as an immigrant.
The Singapore Decalogue is full of feeling, and although this is a work of fiction, the reader can understand that Anjum, being an Indian migrant in Singapore himself, has felt or experienced much of what his characters do. He understands the inadequacy of reporting back to those left at home, as the sensation of being out of one’s element is often beyond language:
Where is the excitement in his words? The wonder of a new place being described by an enthusiastic immigrant? In the letter, he wanted to share his exhilaration with her—the thrill of arriving in and exploring a new place, the buildings, the roads, the people, the sounds and smells of a foreign country—and not bore her to death with dull, pedestrian details that belonged in travel guides. [p. 50]
Yet, in the above passage lies The Singapore Decalogue’s main flaw—its sometimes jarring use of imagery. To this reviewer, the choice of a travel guide to exemplify uninteresting narrative rings false. Travel guides may not be lyrical (or, in fact, may be far too lyrical and purple at times) but the promise that lies within them, the spark to imagination that they hold for many readers, means that the image’s use in this context seemed strained. This is just one example, but it is emblematic of a clumsiness with imagery evident throughout the book (not least in an uncomfortable association between physical exercise and sexual assault at one point).
The appeal of The Singapore Decalogue is its meditative nature. Although events do occur in Asif’s life, of his own making and not, the book is not plot-driven. Rather, Anjum, through Asif, seeks answers to the riddles that immigrants, in particular, face in any cultural context: How does one behave in a hostile society? How far should boundaries be pushed? How can opportunities be used best? And, is it really possible to wipe the slate clean? As Asif ponders about a Chinese prostitute he meets:
Does she come from one of those flood-ravaged provinces in China, he wondered. Has she lost someone there? Or is she thanking her stars that she is rather in bright and beautiful Singapore… (p. 147)
Elen Turner is an editor, writer and reader currently based in the USA. She has a PhD in Literature and Gender Studies from the Australian National University.
This review first appeared in Kitaab. Here is the link to the review: http://kitaab.org/2014/09/30/kitaab-review-the-singapore-decalogue-by-zafar-anjum/
Two other perceptive reviews of this book, one by Krishna Udayasankar and the other by Dr. Usha Bande can be read at the following links: http://kitaab.org/2012/12/11/good-things-now-come-in-tens-the-singapore-decalogue-by-zafar-anjum/ and http://kitaab.org/2013/06/27/the-singapore-decalogue-when-dreams-fall/