Hassan’s State of Affairs by Mirza Athar Baig

Originally written in Urdu by Mirza Athar Baig and titled Hassan Ki Surat-e-Haal , Hassan’s State of Affairs has been translated by Haider Shahbaz. At the onset, the writer and translator should both be commended for delving into one of the most non-linear and non-chronologic novels of modern times with diverse, non-stereotypic patterns of storytelling. The story begins with a Senior Accountant Hassan, who loves his ride to his workplace and engages in a series of ‘displaced sightseeing’. On one such journey he chances upon a junkyard and the story begins then on. The junkyard is the property of an ambitious collector whose sole purpose in life is to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records. One day the collector is spotted by a writer of a surrealist film- This Film That Cannot be Made. Here on the narrative takes various twists and turns and delves deep into the lives of Hassan and the film-crew who is making the film based on the junkyard and the Guinness-obsessed collector. It is interesting to note how the story takes a pace of its own and how by luck Hassan and the film-crew meet each other.

Hassan’s State of Affairs, brings into the forefront various philosophies and theories of life, the way one visualises the world and films. The human mind is truly the most awe-inspiring object on the world. The way it functions is sometimes beyond the understanding of humans themselves. Four distinct ways in which the mind functions have been cleverly incorporated as narrating patterns to take the story forward.

Hassan’s perpetual habit of ‘displaced sightseeing’ coupled with scenario-formulating makes for a very unique narrative. Often when we pass random objects on our way, we tend to ignore it. This ‘displaced sightseeing’-scenario formulating style has given birth to various possibilities and probabilities of situations, and how one can react to them. This formulation of probabilities leads to fluctuating thoughts, to combat which, the kinetic consciousness of mankind constantly needs to ‘scribble’ down each possibility. This has been cleverly named as ‘non-interventionist intervention’, a trait clearly visible in the surrealist film-writer.

If so far these concepts seem new, the writer has made sure of giving a lesson to the readers by ‘walking with Hassan’ and confusing vital realities. Reality, Alternate Reality, Sub-Altern Reality- Unrealism – are all kneaded together to create this crisp tale. The element of surrealism which is an undistinguishable veil to the realm of reality and unreality has been flawlessly captured thought the writings of Baig and translations of Shahbaz. Surrealism is a philosophy most attractive to film-makers and students of film. I remember learning it years ago in film classes, and the beauty with which a film-making technique has been blended into a novel is praiseworthy. Surrealism also often confuses the mind and makes one careful while speaking out their thoughts, especially among peers. Amplifying this message, the inside-outside format of dialogues has been cleverly devised where readers get to simultaneously read about what a character thinks vis-a-vis what the character says aloud.

Apart from the above methods which play with the mind, a fifth seemingly unrelated process of storytelling that has been used is object biography. When we see an object or make use of it, we never necessarily give a moment to think about the inception of the object. But is it necessary that we do ponder about it?  All five narrating styles are equally provocative to contemplate various philosophies. The use of such strong storytelling patterns are quite new and refreshing to read.

Hassan’s State of Affairs continues in two parallel plots and each plot poses some thoughtful questions, the first of which being the idea of making a surrealist film and the significance of the genre in contemporary times. Surrealism once brought about a revolution in film-making. But do the contemporary audience desire more of surrealism or straight forward movies today? Are the intellectual minds hungry for surrealism applauded, or has intellect been swallowed by the capitalist wave of commercialised cinema?  This process of film-making also throws light on the capitalist segment of the production. Do all businessmen enter the world of films for personal joy and money squandering? Do they understand the emotions and enthusiasm running at the backend or are only concerned with the fulfilment of their needs?

While reading Hassan’s State of Affairs, it will definitely strike the readers how very few female characters take centre stage and the light in which they have been introduced- a cigarette-smoking bold actor-screenplay writer to a stuntwoman cum man-expert to theatre actors who are often seen upon as ‘sluts’ by the world. This shows the immediate need of inducing gender equality and affirming a secure base to the women of the community. Women can be different from what is expected of them by the community in the unwritten book of conduct and with progressive time, it should be accepted and respected. The women in Hassan’s State of Affairs can be perceived as bold and strong; or of loose morals by the orthodox conservative schools. It is completely up to the readers to perceive them.

Coming back to Hassan, his visual perception of ‘displaced sightseeing’ is the reflection of an unconscious perception of every individual. But how often do we pause moments from our life to ponder about the situations happening in front of us? More often than not, never, if they do not concern us at all. But Baig makes the readers think about whether these situations are truly situations that do not concern the viewer? Does viewing the situation not make them a (silent) character/ participant in the situation itself?

Post posing several questions, the novel leaves the reader to use their power of displaced sightseeing, object biography, non-interventionist intervention and inside-outside dialogues to come up with suitable answers for themselves. It is a pure play of perceptions and no particular answer can be judged correct or incorrect. Such is the beauty of Hassan’s State of Affairs.

It will be futile to have the discussion about the content but not acknowledge how beautifully it has been transformed into the book cover by designer Rashmi Gupta. The motifs of the mind, eye and camera – all three instruments of perception have been simplistically yet effectively placed within one another to give a long-lasting impression of the symbolism within the novel through its book cover.

Hassan’s State of Affairs is a mesmerizing story told from several viewpoints. It is the story of various colourful characters and their obsessions, ambitions, relationships, influences, uncertainties and desires which often conflict with one another. But what makes the overall novel special is its unique narrative styles and how seemingly insignificant occurrences come back to us in the most unimaginable ways. As the narrator of the novel says that, there is high probability that what is uncommon might not occur but the possibility of its occurrence cannot be ruled out either.

No. of Pages: 604

Publisher: Harper Collins

Author: Mirza Athar Baig

Translator: Haider Shahbaz

Available on: Amazon

Rating: 4/5

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