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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mirages of the Mind

Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi

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To purchase Mirages of the Mind

Title: Mirages of the Mind
Author: Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 521 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: Mirages of the Mind - US
Mirages of the Mind - UK
Mirages of the Mind - Canada
Mirages of the Mind - India
  • Urdu title: آبِ گم
  • Translated and with an Introduction by by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad
  • With an Afterword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : sharp, but exhaustingly anecdotal

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dawn . 15/9/2014 Intizar Husain
Express Tribune . 15/6/2014 Zehra Abid

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t carries with it the experience of Partition in a novel way, which has imparted to it a unique meaningfulness. (...) Seen in the background of Partition literature, Aab-e-Gum stand aloof from the novels, short stories and reportages written with reference to Partition because of the unique way Yousufi employs in writing about it. How dexterously the tragic and the comic have been intertwined. How imperceptibly the laughter fades in a deep sadness." - Intizar Husain, Dawn

  • "Yousufi depicts the deep-rooted sense of longing for home on both sides of the border with striking simplicity. (...) It seems to go in no particular direction, it frequently digresses and no predictions can be made about what the next chapter will bring. But a few pages into the book, the digressions seem consistent and structured. The book reads more like a conversation with oneself and society, as well as an attempt to understand the transitions of life." - Zehra Abid, Express Tribune

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       There are five sections to Mirages of the Mind, divided into chapters, which are further divided into generally short (often just a page or two), titled sub-chapters -- with titles such as 'I Burnt, But I Never Turned Into Coals Or Ashes'; 'Shit Happens', 'His Mastery of Flute Playing Did Nothing For Me', and 'Yaganah (The Poet) Thought He Was God; By God, He Wasn't'.
       The main character -- to the extent there is one -- is Basharat Ali Farooqi, who came from Kanpur (in present-day India) and wound up with his family in Karachi after the 1947 partition (of India and Pakistan), but the focus isn't solely on him and his adventures, nor is the story even presented chronologically; the final of the five sections returns to Basharat's twenties, and his first job after he graduated from college, in the mid-1930s (something mentioned in passing much earlier, but only fully described here). In other sections, other characters -- from his father to a variety of employees -- feature far more prominently than Basharat himself. The words describing one character -- "There isn't any one story that can sum up his eccentricities" -- in fact apply to several of them, and Yousufi's novel heaps these in one big mix.
       Yousufi is very conscious of what he's doing, admitting (in his Afterword), for example, that one section can be described as:

a long-winded series of anecdotal sketches about a ramshackle car, an illiterate Pathan lumber merchant, and a lying braggart of a driver.
       He also refers to the sections of his book as:
sketches -- more like montages in their structure, flow and ornateness, and more like a novel in their breadth and scope
       There's a touch of the Don Quixote-type picareque to the novel, but in its refusal to stick to one character or even strict chronology in going from section to section, it has an even looser, shaggier feel. As disorienting as this can be, Yousufi helps hold things together by at least building up smaller storylines and slices of history along the way -- and with his sharp, quick humor.
       The mix of high and low is amusing, with a sense of hopelessness about every and any undertaking: the horse that is purchased is lame (resulting in fines every time it is used), but becomes a member of the family; the car is similarly hopeless; money is alsmost impossible to earn, and the dishonest tricks and explanation of others lead just to evermore confusing situations. Yet there's a matter-of-factness to even the most cynical observations, softening the blows -- so for example the observation:
Back in those days, an ordinary person had to go through a lot in order to commit suicide. Houses were so tightly packed that in one room you would have ten people crammed together so closely that each one could hear the next one's stomach growling. In such a situation, where could you find enough privacy to string up a noose to hang yourself in peace and quiet ?
       Basharat's journeys -- from would-be poet to teacher to lumber store owner like his father, as well as to Karachi, and then, after the death of his wife, in a fit of nostalgia, back to Kanpur, don't unfold sequentially, but nevertheless make for larger picture of bygone times, places, and experiences. Typical is Basharat's concern when finishing his BA exams -- first he worries that he failed, then that he passed (which, in those hard times, just as likely means a jobless future). He is, surprisingly, successful in getting a job as a teacher -- yet almost nothing about it is what he (or readers) might have expected -- with the final fiasco at least fittingly a poetry festival he helps organize.
       Elsewhere, waxing more nostalgic, Yousufi also shows a nice touch in describing the over seventy-year-old Basharat's return to Kanpur -- observing, for example, that after a decent life in his second homeland:
There was just one thing missing in Pakistan. His youth. It turned out that after a lot of searching, he couldn't find it in Kanpur either.
       The tone of the novel, in whole and part, is summed up by observations such as:
There is no real harm in swimming against a river's current. I mean, none for the river.
       Fate tosses the characters around, regardless of their intentions -- good, bad, or indifferent. Truth and honesty are rewarded no more predictably than the most outlandish lies (and there's a lot of lying going on). There's little to be done -- not that that stops many of the characters (more those around Basharat and his dad than father and son themselves) from trying to get away with any- and everything.
       Mirages of the Mind is funny, through and through -- though more in a conversational and anecdotal way than in any carefully structured one. Sharp little throwaway lines and scenes abound, often simply and quickly devastating, as in:
A poet once said that after poets die, many live on in their words. The poet dies; the words don't. This has been to the detriment of Urdu poetry.
       There are fine observations across many areas, but the literary stuff is particulalry amusing, as in:
In those days it was literary fashion to try to reform prostitutes and their worshippers. Actually, society wasn't obsessed with this; it was just writers: whether these works purged society of this evil or not, the writers themselves enjoyed writing about these women. The recounting of sin is more delicious than the act itself, as long as the narration is longwinded and the narrator himself weak in both body and mind.
       Yousufi's dense wordplay must have been a great translation-challenge, but Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad seem to manage well with a lot of it -- and sometimes things work out particularly nicely in translation, as in (continuing the previous thoughts):
Under the banner of social realism, the amount of praise that prostitutes got from Urdu fiction writers surpassed what they got from their nightly customers. But in the last thirty years, English fiction has stopped writing between the lines and now writes openly between the loins.
       Mirages of the Mind is nothing like any sort of traditional novel, yet there's no question that it is a larger, cohesive whole -- just that instead of slowly building up a larger picture-portrait, Yousufi leaps all across his canvas, pointing here and then there and then adding a bit more about this or that corner. It makes for a work that can be exhaustingly anecdotal -- but readers open to the experience can have a lot of fun with this. This is a very funny work, but there's also more to it than just the humor.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 July 2015

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Mirages of the Mind: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pakistani author Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi (مشتاق احمد یوسفی) was born in 1923.

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