FICTION: DJINNS AND GHOSTS OF MEMORY.
Growing older and drifting away from childhood friends does not mean the past that haunts will not catch up
Sarvat Hasin's latest book, You Can't Go Home Again, is a collection of seven interrelated short stories about a group of friends, chronicling their lives over several years and providing an insight into their relationships with each other, set against a backdrop of the inexplicable and otherworldly.
The book begins with Naila, Shireen, Karim and Rehan during their first year of A Levels at a Karachi school. They are all appearing in the school's production of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. Midway through the weeks of rehearsals, one of them suddenly disappears. Was he kidnapped? Did he run away? Nobody knows. A week later, the missing boy is 'returned' with zero memory of the past seven days and odd red marks around his neck. It is only by the end of the book that we realise that this incident has left an indelible and permanent mark on each of the four characters, affecting their relationships with each other as well as with their future friends, lovers and partners.
The first hint of the inhuman presence that pervades the stories appears in the opening tale, 'Dark Room'. While hanging out at the beach in Karachi one evening after rehearsals, the friends' conversation moves to djinns and churrails (witches). Naila tells the group of her aunt's encounter with a churrail, a story that has presumably become part of her family lore and is met with incredulity, particularly from Rehan, whose lack of faith in religious scripture and Karim's coming out as agnostic leave Naila utterly scandalised. The scene ends on a rather tense note, which soon develops into a sense of guilt amongst the friends, probably because Rehan goes missing soon afterwards.
A series of interlocking short stories conjures up the supernatural and the games our brains play with the past
As the friends grow older and drift away on their separate paths, their individual reunions are marked with manifestations of this dark presence in its various forms. Shireen and Karim have an intense rendezvous in London while Naila waits in Pakistan praying for Karim to finally decide on a date for their wedding. Meanwhile, Maliha whose older sister Sabah is Naila's friend from school enters the picture. Maliha dabbles in black magic and helps Naila finally make Karim commit. Maliha's own love life is a soul-crushing disappointment because the man she wants is already married with children, but there is nothing she can do to help herself as she helped Naila.
Hasin's writing is fast-paced and yet, at the same time, it doesn't feel hurried. The events are all in their 'proper' (more on this later) sequence and duly connected with each other and with other aspects of the narrative. For example, the transition between the characters hanging out the beach, the conversations that take place and Rehan's subsequent disappearance is done quite well, despite the speed with which it occurs.
Each event is depicted as a vignette and even if it occurs within a particular short story, it is able to stand alone outside of the overall narrative. This technique also works well with the book's themes, the most important of which is memory and remembrance. For instance, Rehan remembers nothing of the week he disappeared; he can only imagine that it must have been like being in a heavy sandstorm where one's visibility is so reduced that one might well be rendered blind. It is an apt analogy to explain what goes on in one's brain when one cannot remember something.
Then there are the tricks our brains' memory centres play on us, making us believe things whose authenticity cannot be adequately proved and vice versa. For example, in the title story 'You Can't Go Home Again', Karim is so haunted by Shireen's unfortunate death that he begins seeing her familiar yellow jumper everywhere. Even though he knows his father attended Shireen's funeral prayers and shook hands with her bereaved parents, Karim still cannot bring himself to believe it. The last email from her that lies unread in his inbox, the stack of books she lent him all haunt him just as much as her death does, probably even more. Shireen's memory and her death have become so entangled within Karim's mind that his only recourse is to leave everything behind and move back to Karachi. At one point, it is hard to resist thinking that Karim, in his grief, might have conjured up a new Shireen who is both a ghost and a memory combined. Such are the games played by memory on hapless souls.
You Can't Go Home Again, although presented as a series of interlocking tales, can also be considered as a novel that tells the same story from different points of view. The plots are all linked, the characters appear as the star of their own story, and the supporting cast for others. This narrative overlap, combined with Hasin's choice of subject matter, makes for a challenging read, especially if one doesn't know much about the local folklore of djinns and witches. The uncertainty surrounding the fates of the characters and the criss-crossing events will compel readers to revisit the text several times in order to better understand its myriad nuances. As such, it will appeal to a smaller readership if compared to Hasin's first book, This Wide Night.