Riaz Hassan is no stranger to the Pakistani literary scene. An M. Litt. From Durham University U.K. and a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from NUML, Islamabad, he has taught English literature both at home and abroad for over 45 years. ‘The Unchosen’ is his second novel. It deals with the life of tribesmen and their womenfolk inhabiting the inhospitable and near barren hilly areas on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Deprived of adequate means of succour, the rugged and tough people living in that area have rightly been titled as the ‘unchosen’. Moreover, because of their near isolation from the civilized world, they are also the least understood.
Set in the nineteenth century, the novel can well be categorized as ‘historical fiction’, but it is more than that as it gives us some understanding of contemporary realities. The novel describes, in some interesting detail, the life and adventures of a tribal chieftain, Abdul Hakim Khan – his loyalties, courage, organizational abilities, the way he resisted the British onslaught for decades and his marriages to girls half his age or even younger.
Abdul Hakim Khan is a tall, gaunt and battle-hardened Pathan. Because of sword injuries received on his face, his one eye is smaller than the other and his ugly looks strike terror in the people he comes across. But he has an uncanny skill in guerrilla warfare in the difficult hilly terrain. Over time, because of his courage and skill in warfare, he earns for himself the undisputed leadership of his clan, but loses his wife and children in an ambush laid by the predatory British. His life thereafter is one of resistance against the British and he keeps opposing them as long as he can only to see his son join the British army.
Abdul Hakim remained steady
in his opposition, regardless of the odds against him. He was defeated
in a final skirmish through a series of surprising events. Defeat and
the knowledge that his eldest son had joined the British army, served to
demoralize him in his retirement, but he opposed the British in another
way, by encouraging the establishment of a gun-making cottage industry
in the region.
The novel also gives us a disconcerting account of the typical Pathan attitude towards women. They tend to treat their women folk as of no consequence and only slightly more important than animals. This attitude turns out to be mutually destructive as it not only submits women to all sorts of abuse and humiliation; it also relegates men to a life of utter loneliness. The total absence of companionship between the spouses is chilling.
By the time we reach the end of the novel, we also get to know how the British colonizers finally succeeded in establishing a mutually comfortable working relationship with the Pathans of that area. Instead of striving for a near impossible task of military domination, the clever British first blocked avenues of trade and livelihood available to the hapless but courageous Pathans and then they lured them in their colonial system by dangling reprieve before them in the form of employment and other financial incentives like increased trade, education and development.
The novel makes an interesting reading as it has some highly suspenseful episodes. True to the literal meaning of the word ‘novel’ which means ‘interestingly new’ or ‘unusual’, Riaz has employed an unconventional technique in his novel. Instead of telling it all from the point of view of an all-knowing and omniscient author, he has used an intriguing first-person narrative. Abdul Hakim Khan, chief protagonist, gives an account of his life and adventures in the form of reminiscences, obviously from his own perspective. His reminiscences are then supplemented by excerpts from letters and diaries written by some ‘farangies’ and even some indigenous persons. The author thus enables the readers to see the tribal people and their outdated customs from many different angles; and the picture that emerges has many facets.
A teacher of linguistics, Riaz has a way with words. Since the novel’s chief protagonist is a near illiterate person - his worldly wisdom notwithstanding, the language used in the reminiscences is simple; and by virtue of its simplicity, it is both appropriate and effective in conveying the author’s views on the malaise afflicting the Muslims, their backwardness and lack of unity.
Because of the ongoing war against terrorism launched after 9 /11, the area and its people have attracted some much needed attention and a lot is now being written about the Pathans living in Pakistan’s north-west. This novel is a valuable edition to contemporary literature on the subject as it gives us some insights in the psyche and value system of the people of that turbulent region. This novel, therefore, should be of interest to all those who want to understand the ongoing turmoil in the region. This should in fact be of special interest to policy makers in Islamabad, Kabul and the Pentagon. I have no doubt this can help them arrive at some better informed decisions.
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