February 19, 2020
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Feudal Lords

A true tale of frontier bestiality

Feudal Lords
By Tehmina Durrani
Viking Rs 295, Pages: 229
A few years back, Tehmina Durrani's account of a devastating marriage, My Feudal Lord, evoked widespread shock and horror over the atrocities on women that a feudal patriarchy allows and even condones. But reading her latest work Blasphemy, a novel which the Pakistani writer claims is based on a true story, was an even more nerve-wrecking experience. There were times when I felt like putting the novel aside, not completing it. It is too horrifying, too nauseating to be true.

Yet, it stands to reason that literature reflects, or rather refracts, life though it might make things appear more grim and sordid than they actually are, in order to draw attention to the seriousness of the situation. This is the only way one can explain the attitude of Pir Sain, the bestial cleric-protagonist of the novel towards his wife, elder son and daughter, who he tries to molest.

From the day she marries Pir Sain, Heer knows only sorrow and fear—fear of being battered and sexually abused. Motherhood adds to her miseries as her children suffer the same fate and she feels doubly tortured on their account. But there is a limit to everything and Pir Sain is murdered by a woman who had been planning it for a long time since all the men in her family had been killed by his thugs.

On the whole, Blasphemy is a curious novel, rather patchy with the seams showing. The atrocities suffered by Heer and her children and distortion of the tenets of Islam which constitute the main body of the novel, stand in sharp contrast to the end. There is a lyrical quality about Heer's death. To quote her, "I looked up into the sky, at Baba smiling down at me, his face appearing and disappearing like a mist. At last he had come. It was heaven." Why must Heer die? Why can't she live on after Pir Sain is dead, a symbol of the resilience of woman, unless of course the author is unsure of what to do with her.

Cheel, the mysterious woman in the novel, trusted most by Pir Sain and ultimately the one who murders him and his mistress, is represented rather inconsistently and the reader is not satisfied with her answer to Heer's question as to why she had waited all her life to kill Pir Sain, though Heer seems happy enough with the answer.

Blasphemy can be critiqued on two levels—as a literary work and as a comment on the degenerative forces at work in a closed society without a window to the outside world. Tehmina Durrani, who experienced acute marital discord and has talked about it in her first book, naturally highlights that aspect in Blasphemy, exposing clerics who get away with anything in the name of institutionalised religion because they operate in a fundamentalist society where no one can point an accusing finger at them.

As a novel, Blasphemy has an uneven texture and an assortment of characters, some of whom are stereotypical while others are strange like Toti the ghost, even Cheel the sharp-eyed woman, very similar to her namesake the bird. Cheel is still credible despite her strange ways but Toti, the spirit of a woman Pir Sain had tortured and put to death, does not really fit in, maybe because she is too transient. A haunting presence pervading the novel, capable of arousing fear, might have been a better bet though by and large in a grim novel rooted in real horrors like Blasphemy Toti seems grossly out of place. The novel would have benefited from rigorous editing.

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