Review By: Tariq Mahmud 21 April 2023
Athar Tahir, the author is an anglophone poet, essayist, short story writer, and art critic. He was Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan at Oxford University. His works are widely translated in Urdu and Punjabi.
The novel starts with the author’s visit to Thailand where he was representing the country as a delegate in a multilateral moot. He is the narrator as well. A special dispensation had been made to attach a protocol officer with each visiting guest. These underlings were to take care of all the logistics of the visiting guests including facilitating their outdoor movements. The author, the narrator of the novel was also provided with the services of a female protocol officer. She readily out reached him. Her name was Sukhon Uraiat. ‘you may call me Su’. She chirped. He had a good glance at her, not much to look at. She was neither attractive nor had a pleasing smile. Short with a broad face, flat nose with a boyish haircut, she was dressed in a long shirt and blouse. Most of the time she followed him at his beck and call.
He was visiting Thailand nearly after three decades. He was wonder stuck to see the new airport as a frame of steel and glass. Bangkok was bustling, a mish mash of high rises and old narrow shops. Sessions in the conference room rolled on. At each break Su reappeared within no time as a guiding spirit. She asked him if he would like to go for some sight-seeing to which he readily agreed
They drove to Pattaya, a bustling resort while the sun was going down in brilliance radiance. The European tourists made their presence around. Prostitutes in the walking streets posed as performance artists. In the midst of a loud and lurid music they went for the cabaret club. Dancing girls in agility moved to and fro in plume and pageantry. It was all glitter and glamour.
An evening before his flight, the health spa was on the cards. He had a first Thai massage which Su had made it possible for him. Thereafter, she took him to the swimming pool where he swam to the far end. Su came up in bikini. He had a good look at her body which was neither curvaceous nor striking but well-tended.
Athar deftly yarns a highly impressionable mosaic of Emarald Buddha; granular details blended with acute aesthetics. The Emerald Buddha was perched in an ornate hall in awe some radiance. Exterior of the hall being lavish mix of gold floral reliefs and small coloured glass patterns. The floor had a geometric design in coloured marble. Devotees had been lined, shaven head monks were touching their fore head to the ground. The high ceiling had the same profusion in designs, golden geometric shapes.
The Emrald version of Buddha transposed him to the city museum Lahore where the rare statute of Fasting Buddha, reduced to a bare skeleton with closed eyes, presented suffering and privation. But over here it was all gold and glitz. Why must Godly functions be attributed to a morta! It occurred to him. Why must he be deified as a miraculous being capable for granting wishes! He couldn’t find an answer at the venerated place.
Time for departure descended. At the airport she stayed till the last announcement. It was time to leave with hoarseness in the voice and welled eyes of the guest.
By the time he reached home he had received Su’s email wishing him and his family best of health. It was followed by an exchange of some photographs. At times the exchanges became playful, frivolous. Some months later she got a scholarship for PhD at Sorbonne University in France. He was so happy over that and wished her very well. She reached France while he received her photographs posing before nude Greek sculpture, male, female. These exchanges were indeed a source of happiness, with age he could realise how wrapped up he had been. Her emails had become the need, giving a feel of a youthful life which he had conscientiously missed. She began writing the words like Dear and Love. Of her European trip the following year, she shared several photos of her visit to Florence and Venice which were shafts of delight.
His second coming to Su’s home land was indeed a much awaited event. He just wanted to slip into her life for a few days without causing ripples. Dr. Sukhon looked shriveled with wrinkles around her eyes. She had aged more than five years.
Su took him to coastlines to temples and went for assorted eateries. It was good to visit but something was amiss. He couldn’t find as if time and age had taken its toll. He had a feeling that the host was just going through the circular motion. Narrator’s second coming to Pattaya with Su, now as a friend, wrapped him with the same feeling he had earlier on. Walking street, the night life zone, was as busy exuding the animal instinct as five years ago.
The country’s green fecundity never ceased to amaze and enthral him; colourful canopies and umbrellas, hawkers’ stalls and carts and shacks lined the road flanking the shore line. The coconut trees their slender trunks, high like a jungle of pale pillars, providing the thick shade. The street scenes were as crowded with hordes of people buying cut fruits of papaya, pine apple, mangoes and sipping juice of green coconut. Women sitting behind the large glass windows massaging the customers in well-lit interior.
One day, late in the evening a defining moment descended on him. ‘May I hold you.’ he whispered hoarsely. After a bare nod by Su, he placed his arm around her shoulder, their bodies were touching now. A sleepy peace permeating them. He could feel the shivers but she remained close and clasped, leaning her head against his chest, her breast was rising and falling now in a soundless spasm. It was a feeling beyond the physical.
‘May I’. He muttered.
No, no, ‘she shot back abrasively.
There was an abrupt end to rapturous moments. She went to her room without saying the usual good night. He had a feeling that something pure had been smeared and profaned. They both had their limits while he crossed those. She seemed wrapped up in her past. Apprehension of approaching uncertainty had something to do with her petulance, her resigned and imposing manner. During the past five years she had seen the world other than South East Asia. Made boyfriends and broke with them. He could understand that.
At the departure, she came along to the airport and parted him with a side hug. The narrator now had to look ahead. His thickly wooded court yard at his residence in the GOR-I Lahore awaited him. Cooing of the monsoon Koel was waiting for him to fill his void which perhaps Su could no more fill.
Author’s biographical novel in a cross-cultural milieu is profuse with the imagery adding to richness of the text. Words cascade with ta lyrical flow keeping the reader in a spell. Twists and turns in the inner self of the tow protagonists gives enough food for thought to a discernible reader.
Tariq Mahmud is a short story writer and a novelist. An alumnus of Dhaka University and school of Development studies university of East Anglia, he is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore university of Management Sciences. He has been the member of the civil service of Pakistan.