Friday, 17 April 2015

Art, God and Sin: Reading Meri Zaat Zarai Bay Nishan

I discuss today a great book of fiction that has become popular, thanks to brilliant adaptation as a serial.
Call her an angel, in sweetness, in grace, in beauty, a saint, who loves unconditionally, a martyr of love and faith, who decimates her life lest God’s name or the Quran be taken lightly, a folk philosopher, gems of wisdom she speaks are distilled from great philosophers or theosophers, Saba Kareem of Umera Ahmed’s Meri Zaat Zarai Baynishaan, must be ranked amongst the finest characters, worth emulating, ever drawn in the history of Urdu fiction. She is one of the most beautiful souls gifted with such grace, such dignity, such nobility, such serenity of spirit that one can easily identify her as heavenly hoor who is not made for this earth to which perfection doesn’t belong. Her story is a classic ordeal of love – almost Heer Ranjha incarnated –that fails to consummate on earth but does transform all the major characters resulting in their rebirth in the Realm of Spirit. No regrets, no complaints by the end of the story as we see alchemy of love doing the magic – purifying and uplifting people into the empyreal realms after clearing their debts incurred by short sightedness and intemperance. It is a classic work both on the part of the author and the director. Saba Kareem is indeed merciful morning breeze that blows to deepen and embellish lives of many people. Reading this book one learns what catharsis is, what great tragic works are, what lofty ethics can be preached without sermonizing, by works of art. 
Saba’s passion is to see the Unseen, to see God in things, not just seek Him. See Him in everything, every experience, in stones and also perhaps in stone hearted people. She is not merely saintly; she is educated, poetic, conscious modern Muslim girl whose own negotiation of conflict between tradition and modernity show her moral and intellectual brilliance. Resisting vulgar dressing, make up that define so many heroines in Urdu fiction and popular serial culture, she is able to stand firm for her convictions and chooses not to wear conventional veil. Her literary language, her philosophical musings, her spiritual aspirations and her exemplary struggle to live with dignity and her great work ethic, all combine to make her an immortal character. 
Most of serials that bombard our homes day in and day out need to be banned for being cheap, vulgar, demeaning entertainment instead of being works of art. But there are some serials, especially from Pakistan, that can be appreciated as works of art though there are elements even in them that would constitute sin against culture. Pakistan has given us great pieces of Urdu literature that have, at least in the realm of imagination, conquered the whole subcontinent, not to speak of Kashmir. 
The work drives home soul shattering lessons regarding the operation of Moral Law. Those who doubt the reality of sin and guilt and hell – implications of moral law – should watch Greek tragedies, Macbeth, Meri Zaat… to be convinced. Saba reminds us of great heroines in Western literature and simultaneously has characteristically Islamic cast. Painting the name of Allah as there is nothing left in her own psyche to fume or fret about or show off, I see Saba as an example of almost perfect renunciation. She has arrived at the other shore – Nirvana in Buddhist and Baqa in Islamic Sufi terminology. She lives a spotless life, accepts blame and lets Destiny or God to prove her innocence. Meanwhile she suffers horrendously at the hands of this apparently merciless world. 
Drenched in Sufi symbolism – the title constitutes the crux of Sufi doctrine. The ego has melted. And what has replaced is saintly ethic we attribute to higher self. 
One might ask a question why such tragedies should happen in the first instance. The answer is to wean us away from all attachments, to show transitory or illusory nature of all things under the sun, to take us to the One thing Everlasting. 
All the important lessons one learns in wisdom traditions, in religion and mysticism are illustrated by the heroine Saba. Her story is a story of leaving everything to God – to judge, to show the way when all appears dark, to console, to uplift, to let truth prove itself. The work’s title is deeply mystical. It illustrates the doctrine that one has to be nothing and this is accomplished by surrendering our self will. The heroine takes a sort of sanyas or renunciation as she learns the bitter lesson that all earthly relations are ultimately untrustworthy or can’t last till eternity. Saints are characterized by patience and humility. No job – even the most menial – is beneath their dignity if they wish to live with dignity. Some statements made by the heroine can be mantras for spiritual transformation. 
Allah sae mohbat karnae walae kisi ko takleef nahi dae saktae sirf ibadat karne wale day sekte hai.
Allah kae gar nahi, Allah kae pass jana chati hu (on being asked to accept sponsorship of Haj) 
Dunya ka ihsan nahi laeti, kisi ka toa ahsan hi ashan hae.
Zindagi sae khwab nikalae to baqi kya rahta hai.

While refusing help in the form of lift, “Dunya ka ihsan nahi laeti , kisi ka ahsan hi ahsan hae muj per.” Lastly the refrain song that also constitutes a prayer and wisdom that can be rarely found in modern poetry:
Magar ek pal hae umeed ka
Hae mujae khuda ka jo aasira
Nahi mai nay koi gila kiya
Na hi mae nay di hae duhaayeyaan,
Meri zaat zarai baynishaan
batowoon kya mujae kya milae
Mujae sabr ha ka sila milae
Kisi yad ki rida milae
Kisi dard ka sila milae

Silent suffering and letting God judge has transformed Saba into a saintly figure and it is no wonder that her prayers work wonders for her neighbours. 

Her inability to conceal her sadness shows she is also human and not that she is not angelic. Consumed by love she can’t propose – in fact she doesn’t propose anything to anyone – she is all ears, all acceptance, all love of fate, all radical innocence, passivity of the feminine. 
We are all guilty, said Dostoevsky and philosophically showed Levinas. All of us fall short of perfection demanded by human state as mirror of the Divine. It is because we have sinned against our higher self we need to atone by selfless service, by patiently suffering humiliation in the cause of love and truth. It is in this background that we find Meri Zaat so moving. Saba Kareem carries her cross, keeps on reading great works, works under the most trying and humiliating circumstances, fights her way with rare dignity and heroism and dies a saint whose will is in absolute conformity to the divine will. Stationed on maqam-i- raza (station of acceptance) Saba Kareem shows how God is a great Teacher, how experience is a message from the Pir and how life if properly understood constitutes a perfect ordeal to lead us to presence of God or Heaven. 
Syed Moududi argued we can’t ban or wish away cinema but can and do need to “Islamize” it. If the same argument applies to serials, there can be a strong case for considering Meri Zaat… from the author of Pir-i-Kamil as an attempt to re-orient serial culture and fiction along the lines our tradition would require. 

Although theology and fiqh of modern fiction industry (Marxist fatwa that eloquently dismisses much of it, its ideological underpinning, is stated in “Culture Industry” by Adorno and Horkheimer), especially novel and its adaptation in such art forms as serials needs serious thought, we can agree with Iqbal that the ideal of art Islam would endorses is yet to be given shape (in modern fiction and serial culture).

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