Stunned Animals, Misunderstood Animals, Beatific Animals: Stray Reflections on ‘Allah Miyan Ka Karkhana’

On May 15, 2024 by admin

[HUG reads Allah Miyan Ka Karkhana by Mohsin Khan. Trans. Saeed Ahmad. Noida: Rekhta Publications, 2023]

A great humanist work is unpitying and naïve at once. Such writing brings us very close to our unuttered & unutterable tendencies and contingent calculations, and lines those up with the alignment of stars, in order to create a bewildering but eminently possible tapestry of events. History moves through the foibles and grandeur of human beings here, but invariably the central point is to deeply question assumptions about our superiority as all-knowing beings in the world; and to follow how we act and react when confronted with absolute contingency,whenever the ground shifts with no prior notice. Being there turns more significant than being something in such searching texts. One way to address such a predicament is to frame ourselves in close proximity to our neighbours: insects, moles and reptiles, crows and pigeons, domestic animals like dogs and cats, goats and monkeys, donkeys and chicken. We share our habitat with them. But we share more: our craftiness, our vast generosity and love, the sudden mustering and eruption of courage, the apprehending of unrealized terror and our common and monumental stupidity. Each species has its own world, and there are interspecies behavioural ways and tactics, and then the bipeds who call themselves humans interact with those in the ‘other’ world. Those creatures reciprocate or attack, flee or surrender to the bipeds.  And of course, bipeds interact with other bipeds. How does relationality work in these overlapping spheres? Great modern writers like Melville and Cormac McCarthy, Hofmannsthal and Kafka, Conrad and Coetzee, Basheer and Bibhutibhushan have encountered their own skin and bones by squarely confronting the creaturely terrain. Francis Bacon and Werner Herzog have done the same in kindred arts.

A remarkable detour in Mohsin Khan’s novel Allah Miyan Ka Karkhana (translated into Hindi by Saeed Ahmad) comes right in the middle of it. The episode proves prescient as the narration progresses. The brother sister duo of Gibran and Nusrat are left to play with their hen and chicks, as they try to protect them (vainly) from the predatory eyes of the cats and the crows since their kite has been torn and the kite-flying string burnt to ashes by their mother. At such a moment they spy a blue-white butterfly, flitting about in joyous airiness. The hen and the chicken take turns to jump at the prancing insect, but it eludes them with ease. After flitting about for a while, the butterfly perches itself on a wall. Gibran and Nusrat inch closer to the butterfly and watch it periodically open and shut its magnificent blue-white pair of wings. At an opportune moment, Gibran lurches forth and catches hold of its wings. The butterfly tries to free itself from his clutches, but in vain. Nusrat implores her brother to let go off it but Gibran says that he has now found a new pet for himself. Upon Nusrat’s advice that it isn’t easy to nurture a butterfly, Gibran finally frees it and lets it go. But with a severely impaired pair of wings now, the butterfly can hardly fly. Exhausted and writhing in pain, it decides to again sit—but this time, quite low on the wall. The hen was waiting for exactly such a moment. At one swoop it picks up the butterfly on its beaks and crushes it to death little by little. The chicks too join the unexpected feast with glee. While one of them crushes the head of the butterfly, others enjoy savouring the wings and the antennae.

“Am not I
    A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
    A man like me?

For I dance,
    And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
    Shall brush my wing.”

The short exchange that follows between the two siblings re-translates somewhat like this:

Nusrat: Bhaiya, the butterfly must have condemned you with lots of malediction. Now you will see that the Almighty shall have your body plucked in the same manner by hens and chickens when you reach the abode of Allah Miyan.

Gibran: Why would I be plucked and maimed? I’d let it go. The butterfly was savoured by the hen and the chickens. It’s they who would suffer.

Nusrat: If you had not gotten hold of her legs with so much violence, she would have easily flown higher up.

Nusrat was telling the truth, and so, Gibran turns silent. Later he notices that the blueish tinge of the butterfly’s wings is still throbbing warm over his fingertips.

The novel is about various kinds of predation and its consequences. The roots of such predation cannot be removed by cosmetic morality or by cruel rationalism. The work is rather  an exploration in psychological and relational phenomenology, which eventually brings about the tragic realization that the innocence of certain creatures—be it human children, dogs or butterflies, must pass through the hellfire and the miracles of Allah Miyan’s factory—which is what creaturely existence is all about. The miracles of creation are at once bewildering—for the food cycle ensures that one animal preys on another. The novel begins with a crucial question relating food cycles to creation itself. A motif begins to emerge. When a pet chick (Kallo) is taken away by the predatory local cat, the adolescent protagonist Gibran asks his sister: “What was the need to make cats at all if Allah Miyan had already made chicken?” Nusrat, in equal innocence, replies that she does not know the answer but Allah Miyan must have thought about such things before he created his myriad creatures. All through the novel, this simple and piercing question shall return in many guises. The responses of the adults range from admonishment (Don’t ask such blasphemous questions) to metaphysical unknowability (The Almighty has his own designs and reasons, which are beyond human comprehension). There is a third answer: to read books and dive into jahandari (practical and material knowledge) and not mere deendari (spiritual and religious knowledge) and to understand the nature of things as well as hone imagination.

In a way the novel is an allegorical fable, but the locale and the happenings are all too close to us and to our times. The events take place somewhere in the northern part of India, but somehow the spectre of Gujarat is a hovering presence. Another way to look at it is as an insider critique of mindless and cruel methods of politicized religion (either leading to fanaticism or to a cruel monotony of habit), instead of asking the larger questions of creation and existence and the creaturely need for love, and the occasional emergence of manna and miracles. One of the major characters that emerges in the course of events is actually a dog named Qitmeer. The dog is a most loving and lively specimen. It seems to have a comprehension of matters and the turn of events that otherwise stump and flummox humans, when relentless tragedy and contingent virulence strikes in the story ahead. At one point Gibran asks his kind and book-lover Uncle (a rare kindness in an otherwise cruel adult world) whether animals could be sentient and emotional beings. The uncle responds in the affirmative. He reminds Gibran as to how birds and monkeys cling to the bodies of their dead children. Of course there is a parallel debate in philosophy and religious studies as to whether animals have souls. After the tragic death of the Uncle, everyone eventually moves on with life, barring Qitmeer the dog, Uncle’s pet. In grief, it would neither bark nor jump about as it used to and eventually stops taking food altogether. At a certain time, it enters its den, remains lying there for three days with no food or water, and eventually breathes its last in isolation. The dog could smell life, and its passage.

Infliction of casual cruelty upon the clueless creatures and the callousness of everyday behaviour are constant motifs in the novel. Each chapter begins with a prophetic aphorism. One such memorable line of wisdom goes like this: ‘Do not ever think that if anyone dies under your roof, mangalsangeet/shadiyana will not play at another’s lodgings.’ As non-beings, the children are caned, insulted and spitefully punished regularly in the madrasa—the local haafiz being the chief interrogator and the torturer (the irony being haafiz at once means the one who knows the Quran Sharif by heart and the one who is the protector). The children are his slaves, physically massaging him whenever he requires it. The slavish rote learners turn gradually into animals. The children, in their turn, inflict the same savagery upon donkeys, dogs, and other children (naturally, one recalls William Golding’s Lord of the Flies).

The full blast of savage fury of animal life is portrayed graphically in two separate incidents. First, when crisis hits the family of the young narrator Gibran, among other things their pet hen had to be sold off. The hen is immediately butchered to death by the buyer family and the gory details of its dead body contrasts sharply with the love and care with which the family spent months nurturing it. Everything comes to naught as one lets go of one’s dearest ones. Life simply takes the next turn. The other incident proves decisive to the young protagonist who has by then witnessed a series of calamities and afflictions—which could be read as a trial of sorts for him, which ordinarily would be a kind of a bildung or coming of age ritual. But even he can take as much. There is a limit to psychological bludgeoning in the name of adulthood, which is made synonymous to the rite of passage into ferocity and barbarity. Late into the narrative, Gibran’s sole companion was the haafiz’s goat (his mother dead, father in jail and sister forcibly separated from him), to whom Gibran would play the shepherd. It was also a moment when, as readers, we feel for the first time that perhaps there is a turn in the haafiz’s heart and he is gradually beginning to become more humane and charitable. That is a false trail. The good tidings are all put to rest when Gibran realizes that the haafiz had planned qurbani for his own pet goat for the Eid celebrations. The animal companion is going to be slaughtered. The haafiz, we realize, is actually deep into abattoir thinking. At this point, Gibran gives way to his emotions—storms away to his little quarters and begins to sob inconsolably. The haafiz turns furious at his effeminacy and faint-heartedness. Gibran is then forced to take part in the qatl of his domestic pet one more time—the shepherd protector has now severely betrayed his flock. His trials do not end here. He is forced to carry the severed head of the goat to a local worshipper. The sheer objectness of the head with its rubber like flexible ears drives home the materiality of bare living. It is obvious that a creaturely pattern is being repeated. How do we face ourselves in such circumstances—of being here and being relentlessly bludgeoned? Whither grace? Can there be a conversion of sensibilities?

In an earlier scene laden with implications, the children witness a madaari entertaining tamashais with the antiques of macaques. The madaari-macaque duo suggest three fundamental truths: (a) that humans are bored by the same cycle of games (tamasha), (b)that creatures drift about, tossed by circumstance, and (c) that human beings are the Gods to mute animals, since the latter’s patronage and whimsical turns make or mar animal existence. That life is a tamasha and the world a tamashagaah is an ancient theme, ranging across cultures. This realization may lead to numerous implications. Once this sense hits, you may turn into a renouncer, begin to dip into the solipsism of the moment, ramble about/be wayward or celebrate life in and among its rich contingencies. The novelist can show you vignettes and possibilities. But he desists from giving you ready answers nor provides any metaphysical blueprint. That choice is yours to make.

At the far side of tribulations awaits miracles and reunions with loved ones. Intimations come from afar but can sometimes be realized right in this material world. Grace awaits. It lurks and may appear unexpectedly at the right time to the right kind of creatures—to a fly or a mouse or to an adolescent biped. Or it may pass us by as we remain oblivious to its beckoning. The tell-tale signs of such prophetic intimations are already presented earlier in the novel through the character of one Gudri Baba—who appears out of thin air in order to caution the mohalla folks about their unkindness and excesses, and disappears as easily. But like an old clown, he skulks around. All kinds of tales and mystery surround the Baba. The locals declare him as मजज़ूब—a mad and immersed visionary. The haafiz rejects such claims outright.

Over a period of time Gibran would begin to hear voices within. He starts to feel flies have entered both his ears as they would ring and buzz. We can see that relentless gravitational pain was beginning to take a toll, as he was gradually being destabilized from within, buffeted by the alignments of the stars. Nary a soul noticed this subtle psycho-somatic change in him, barring us—the readers. He would also hear other kinds of voices coming from afar and see visions. His heart would race and the whole body tingle. This is an altered Gibran: the shepherd-prophet who encounters Allah Miyan in the graveyard. In his minimal existence, his friends are now the goat and the Hindu cowherd Ramsevak.

So, Ramsevak enquires: Is your goat a Muslim? 

To which Gibran replies: What an idiot you are. Can a goat be a Hindu or a Muslim?

Ramsevak: If it is not Muslim, why does he brandish a beard? 

Gibran: If you put tilak on your cow, will it turn into a Hindu?

Ramsevak: Of course cows are Hindus. That is why we call her gau-mata.

Gibran: Sure you guys say that. But animals are after all—animals.

Ramsevak: You guys are katuyas, and so think that our gau-mata is an animal.

A fist fight and elemental, scabrous physical gestures to each other follow until the two part ways.

Amidst these happenings, and during one of his trips to the graveyard by the jungle, young Gibran suddenly calls forth Allah Miyan. “Allaaahh Miyaaaan”, he yells, and the sound reverberates in the graveyard. Lo and behold! The Almighty reveals himself to the suffering and naïve soul. A candid sequence of dialogue ensues between the two until Gibran feels it is getting dark and besides, he has to find his lost goat. He bids adieu to Allah Miyan. When he reports this incident later to the haafiz, the latter severely reprimands Gibran and declares that he is suffering from the rare disease of melancholia; and that Gibran must be careful about spreading canards. But by this time Gibran’s trials and loss of dignity (brought about by the downward force of gravity at every turn in his short life) have reached a culminating point. He is no more scuttling from hole to hole. His earthly travails have come to an end. The light gradually fades away. Like Simone Weil before him, does Khan wish to suggest that only the acceptance to death is the condition for the possibility of the reception of the gift of grace?

“O He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.”

Gibran has perhaps attained some kind of metanoia or change of heart before departing from his earthly abode. By extending his self, he is now turned into the shepherd-lamb.

So, at the end of it all, the key questions remains: What is bestiality? Is it the composition of accelerated intelligence in our veins?  Does bestial life turn us into beasts or is animal sensitivity rather a sign of grace? And is grace, if that arrives at all, able to fill the void when we are trapped like ensnared squirrels in a cage? 

It is evident that singular opacities surround us. And slaughtering is a juggernaut. In order to square with casual cruelty, one way is to seek authentic living. This is the romantic-solipsistic route. The other is to espouse transcendental detachment. The third is to practice a kind of compulsory intimacy by cultivating a kind of interspecies relationality that Naisargi N. Dave calls ‘mutually existing in indifference.’ She puts forth her ideas on animal life in the context of the apparent inevitability of bloodlust in post-Independent India. Dave suggests celebrating commitment to live every moment by regarding other beings but not demanding acquiescence or sentimental love from each other.

Exceptional attention to reality and its life altering effects make Mohsin Khan turn towards clarity of relationalities in the Great Chain of Being. Only a few can reach the heavenly abode, the novel suggests. But among the possibilities, it is not necessary for Khan to take or show us a single path, for the relentless and unsparing tragic realism that ensues out of  ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ in the narration is only limned by a preternatural innocence produced in the same enormous factory designed and created by Allah Miyan. Gravity and grace remain intertwined.


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