The Madness of Readymade Letters[i]

Translation of a Short Story by Mirza Athar Baig

Illustration by Faheem Abbas

Illustration by Faheem Abbas

Dr. Javed Jalees, a psychiatrist, has put me to a really difficult test. It is a test of my skill to write, my memory and my ability to discern the abnormal symptoms of people’s otherwise normal behavior. It is a test for me to pick up the important events and filter them of the superficial details. It is a test for me to endure the torturous process of writing for the sake of my friend’s treatment. It is a test of telling true from false, and of all that I know nothing about which Dr. Javed Jalees might know. In any case, he should know if he thinks that my chronicle of Faheem’s last conscious days can help him diagnose the nature of his mental disorder.  He should know every single detail of the one who’s being written about, the one writing and what is ultimately written. Anyway, this is Dr. Javed’s problem. As far as I am concerned, he has put me in a really tight hole.

I have tried. I have tried really hard to convey all the details because of which Faheem became distant from the normal world.[ii] His whole way of acting and thinking got so weird that the ‘normal’ world had to intervene; and eventually he was handed over to Dr. Javed Jalees. The aforesaid doctor is somehow different from the mainstream psychiatrist; had he not been so, he would have dealt with Faheem’s condition through the usual instrumental practices of his field. Anyway, he thinks that Faheem’s disorder is not ordinary and he must look into his background.

According to him, I can help him in this matter since I am considered to be Faheem’s friend. Moreover, this assumption is not wrong either that I am the eyewitness to the dissolution of Faheem’s sanity. However, my testimony is so strange that it is hard to mould it into verbal expression.

It is impossible to retrieve the details of the events leading to his madness from Faheem himself. Not that shutting one’s self to the external world is a hallmark of madness; For Faheem’s case is quite the opposite. Contrary to the conventional logic of insanity, Faheem has opened a thousand doors on himself, which he re-opens to others whenever he is commanded to do so. The doors he opens on himself are actually thousands of snippets in the form of small flash cards, envelopes, cigarette packs, and paper of various sizes that he keeps in his countless pockets. However, I think the situation should be explained a little more.[iii]

Here is what Faheem does: Let’s assume that you meet him and ask him his name. He won’t reply and instead will flick his identity card out of his pocket. Though this is a strange thing to do and yet it’s not all that weird. But now let’s assume you tell him his identity card is torn and old and he should get it fixed. He would promptly take out another piece of paper on which the answer to your question is already written.

So far, we are at the mundane level of details, where the little flash cards, pieces of paper and placards can provide some information like that dumb and deaf beggar you would have seen who moves around with the placard hanging from his neck with all the information about his sufferings and disabilities written on it. However, Faheem has moved too far from such basic details. I know you find it difficult to understand and I am in a huge predicament myself in putting this across; but in any case, let me try again.

Let’s assume that I, his friend, say to him: “Faheem, this life is such an absurd thing.” And without any delay he would… he has made several pockets in his clothes. In fact, during the last days, I mean… by the time he was taken to Dr. Javed he had four bags full of these flash cards[iv]. Anyway, to share his point of view on the absurdity of life he would instantly bring out a note, card or cigarette pack before me. I can’t tell you what would be written on it. It is not as if I don’t want to tell, in fact, I cannot. Also, you shouldn’t assume that there won’t be anything written at all. No, there is nothing like that.

I had tried to tell Dr. Jalees the events which perhaps… I emphasize, perhaps … caused Faheem’s current mental condition. But I guess the doctor did not believe them; or perhaps he thought I was talking in some symbolic and oblique way. Maybe his idea was that unlike spoken words, the written text can be preserved for the future. I don’t exactly know; but I offered to precisely record my statement to help Faheem’s treatment and I got trapped. He said that recording your statement is also a way of writing; why don’t you just write it once and for all. I made many excuses, like: ‘I don’t have any experience in writing’, which was clearly a false statement; ‘my grammar is very poor and I don’t have a good vocabulary;’ my memory is unreliable and my vision of nearby objects is so bad that I can be easily labeled blind; my right hand constantly shivers these days, et cetera.’ But he didn’t pay much attention and said: ‘Look! Start writing about Faheem’s last conscious days however you can. Write the way you want to write or you can write. You are absolutely free to write whatever you want.’

He has put me in one hell of a mess by giving me the freedom to write whatever I want. Write the way you want to write…[v] Even though it is about Faheem’s last conscious days; this freedom gives me a certain sense of courage in one moment and tears me down in the other.

For example, I want to write a variety of things on the nature of that moment and that day when Faheem told me about the shop of ‘readymade letters’ which, I believe, is the reason for his unsettled mental state.  I am in a predicament because I have been told to write… in fact sometimes it feels as if I am ‘commanded’ to write whatever I want.

It was 11’o clock at night when Faheem first told me of that unbelievable shop of ‘readymade letters’. The world brimmed with sinister forebodings and existence seemed accursed. But was it really like that? What if, after all this time, I write that the world seethed with eternal beauty and existence pendulated between being and nothingness? What difference would it make? Whether the world seemed sinister and accursed, or seethed with beauty between being and nothingness… this whole talk doesn’t make any difference to the reality of the shop of readymade letters.

As for Faheem, he told me how  he came across the shop of readymade letters: Faheem had to send a card to one of his friends on his birthday. He knew about the availability of such readymade letters which can be adjusted according to the nature relationships between people.  Readymade texts are available for every kind of relationship. All you need to do is fill in the names and send it off. According to Faheem he entered the shop with these expectations.  The shop was situated in a rather odd locality, which made him ponder on how this shop was built here in the first place. A chilly wind was blowing and the place was surrounded by trees. I remember that I had suspected Faheem for being under the influence of some drugs but no, it wasn’t like that. He was perfectly in his senses.

Anyway, Faheem approached the shelf of readymade letters for the occasion birthdays. He found six readymade letters for his friend’s birthday. I wish he could have chosen one of these and had left the shop. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

The six letters were not the ones from which Faheem could choose. Faheem didn’t want to send his friend- whoever he was - the readymade letters as they did not reflect what he actually wanted to write. He stood there in front of the shelf a long while, and then suddenly, heard somebody talking. It was the shopkeeper.

Here, I present the conversation between Faheem and the shopkeeper exactly as it took place. It’s going to be easier for me because  I will be able to escape the hell of creating my own sentences for a while as well.

‘It seems you are having some difficulty in finalizing the birthday card. Can I be of some help?’ The shopkeeper asked.

‘Do you really think that you can contain all the possibilities of friendship between two people in just six readymade letters?’ Faheem said.  ‘Not at all. Never,’ the shopkeeper said intensely. ‘But, sir, what if your choice is made easier with another six hundred readymade letters?’

‘Another six hundred?’  Faheem asked, beguiled.

‘No, not six hundred exactly but five hundred and ninety three, to be precise. This is the number so far that we have been able to reach within the possibilities of man to man birthday exchanges. However, there are infinite possibilities and our people are working on them.’ ‘But here you have only six of them,’ Faheem said.

‘Well sir, here, we keep only those readymade letters that serve for rather the chaaloo[vi] forms of human interaction. For example, have a look here: We have put only eleven cards in the rack of husband, wife, birthday, love and youth whereas we have got actually as many as eleven hundred of them. If we count the entire range of husband, wife… love, love… hate, love… love, hate…hate, hate… greed, hate, truth, lies, revenge, love, cold, hot, birthday…  the number of such readymade letters has reached fifty three thousand.’

‘But where are these letters?’ Faheem asked rather nervously, as he told me.

‘You will have to go with me to the basement which is at the back of this shop. But before that, you must agree to a certain condition of mine.’

Faheem must have been fumbling when he enquired about the condition. And he must have been sweating as well. I still choose to write it in this way even if it wasn’t the case. After all, Dr. Jalees has given me a freehand to write whatever I want.

Faheem told me… and here I discontinue writing in the form of dialogue. He is barely able to talk. Faheem told me that the shopkeeper took a couple of bundles out of his table drawer and said: “Here are the possible readymade letters that may be exchanged between customer and shopkeeper. Please go ahead and study them and show me a readymade letter that you think is appropriate for whatever relationship we are in with each other. And since there is no postal service involved as we sit before each other, I will show you my response to your letter promptly.  We will move forward to the basement as we keep this exchange going on but, you must keep this in mind! There shouldn’t be anything directly spoken in this whole activity.

‘If you agree and if you still want to explore the unconventional outcomes of the much unconventional human relationships… by the way, let me make it clear that we have got only twenty cards for the purpose of our relationship here but actually we have gone as far as four hundred and fifty possibilities of shopkeeper-customer relationship. We can have a look at them as we move into the basement.”
As Faheem told me, the shopkeeper was talking rather rapidly. ‘It was as if his lungs were running out of oxygen and he would go quiet the very next moment and quickly place a card before me. And then, he actually stopped talking with such rapidity and chuckled in vain and as he extended his hand to the bundle of cards.’ Faheem said it was exactly at that moment when a wave of terror ran through his body he felt the overwhelming desire to leave that incomprehensible place and eventually found himself on the road outside the shop. That’s where he came from to tell me his story.

It’s strange that Faheem never told me what that shopkeeper looked like and what kind of shop it was from the inside. This being so as, it would be unfair if I don’t utilise the license to write as I have been given.  So the shopkeeper was tall and slim and it was almost impossible to have any guess about his age. His eyes resembled the color of ash and occasionally one could see some black lines running through them. The shop itself was more like a tunnel where the lights turned azure as you walked down to the basement. One could also see various ‘workers’ rapidly communicating with each other through the readymade letters.

There was thick silence in the room where one could only hear the fluttering sound of the cards rapidly exchanged. A bit lower was a spiral staircase going into the basement of unknown human relationships.

But no, I am crossing the limits. Faheem never told me about the basement. Not at all!  In fact, he hasn’t told me if at all he had been there. Now, let me come back to that particular moment of that night when Faheem told me of all this for the first time. As I wrote earlier, initially, I had suspected him of being on drugs. I had to rectify this suspicion more than once.  As I looked at him more closely, I realized that he was engulfed in a state of terror. However, he kept sipping from his tea, self-absorbed and smiling mysteriously to himself. And he didn’t say a word more for as long as he was with me. My suspicion kept nagging me but I am amazed at forgetting what I was actually suspicious of. For once, yes, it occurred to me as if I were dreaming; but this too was proven wrong.

What happened next? Well, whatever it was, it is almost impossible for me to grip it in my writing. Although the doctor had given me unlimited freedom to write, this freedom is inspiring strangely meaningless impulses in me. I feel like writing invectives, grievances, and nonsense stuff, even ‘not writing anything’ at all.

I try to get out of the torture of ‘writing as I want’ and get back to the task which I am supposed to dutifully fulfill which is: to write a detailed account of Faheem’s last conscious days. Now, I recall those days as the sum of various pieces of some scenes, conversations and states of being. I narrate these as they happened and I leave it to Javed Jalees to infer from them whatever he deems relevant.  Faheem enters and stays quiet for a long while. And then, he poses a question at me: ‘What do you think? In the series of Life…Human being, Human being… Death, how many possibilities of relationship can be found?’ … ‘What can I say?’ I say to him while staring at him suspiciously. He smiles and says: ‘Seventy two thousand nine hundred and sixty two. But the counting is still going on…’

One day he comes while there is a storm outside. He keeps on standing at the door and points at something far away with his hand. There are countless pieces of paper flying in that storm. I want to talk but he seems lost… “Faheem! Faheem!” I call him… He’s gone.

On a certain night before sleeping I am passionately overtaken by the desire to see the shop of ‘readymade letters’ myself.  I go to Faheem’s flat to get him to accompany me to the shop but he has already gone from there. I walk in the direction of the shop’s address which I inferred from Faheem’s statements. In the thick of night the police stop me for floundering. To avoid arrest, I tell them if they escort me to my home I will tip them with a good sum of money. We reach home in a friendly way and what I see is that Faheem is already there. The police ask him who he is. With amazing speed he shows them his identity card. Then they ask what he is doing there at this late hour. He shows them another card with an incredible speed but I bid them off after giving them the money. However, I am unable to talk to Faheem as he is already fast asleep on the floor and leaves before I wake up in the morning.

On another day I see him on a road while it is drizzling. I am awestruck when I looking at his dress. His dress has pockets all over it… lots of pockets… ‘What have you made of yourself?’

‘I am a cosmic letterbox,’[vii] he says secretively.

I am coming out of an office and he suddenly appears and says: ‘I have written everything for everybody out there. I have decided that I will talk only from what I have kept in my pockets.

I realize that he hardly finishes his sentence, as if he is short of oxygen in his lungs.

And then, one day I learn that Faheem has been given away in the custody of Dr. Javed Jalees.

My conversation with the doctor remains ineffective. But he grants me a freedom to ‘write whatever I want’. I have consumed my freedom to write as I want to, but now I think that that is not really true. There is incredible space to be filled in yet and there can be a lot of prattling and countless other things said in the pieces of events, which I have written above.

There is a particular knocking at the door as I want to get rid of this evil task by curbing the rebellious desire in me. I know it is Faheem. I wonder how he has managed to escape from Dr Javed’s trap. I ask him the same question. He quickly shows me a card. I scream “what the hell has happened to you?” He rapidly shows me another chit and I yell in madness: “Look, I am in hell because of you. Your doctor has asked me to write a detailed account of your conscious days. Tell me, what to write… tell me… tell… tell…

Faheem, without delaying for another moment, takes a torn piece of a cigarette box out of some of his inner most pockets and shows it to me.

***

Dr. Javed Jalees asked the nurse to remove these two persons who are exchanging the chits, cards, envelopes with each other. The nurse obeyed. The doctor took a deep breath and thought over a hypothesis maybe the ‘madness of readymade letters’ is an epidemic.

Then he picked up a written account thoughtlessly which he had read already, the account that one of the two persons had written. He fixed his eyes absentmindedly only at a point… where the writer had written:  Whether the world brimmed with sinister forebodings and existence remained accursed, or the world seethed with eternal beauty and existence pendulated between being and nothingness… this whole talk doesn’t make any difference to the reality of the shop of ‘readymade’ letters.

***


[i] The story is originally entitled Likhay Likhai Khatoot ka Junoon, which can be seen, at first glance, easy to interpret and yet , as the act of reading takes the translator deep into the text, the attempt to interpret the title becomes increasingly ‘impossible’ to translate. The Madness of Ready-made Letters is at one level a literal translation of the original and it is a deliberate choice on this translator’s part. However, on other levels of interpretation it is the only way (in the case of this translator) to achieve the equivalence that corroborates with the overall thematic concerns of the story.

During my various interviews with the author we discussed many possibilities of translating the original title of Likhay likhai Khatoot Ka Junoon.  one such possibility was that we radically replace the title with another such as; We Write it for Them, They Write it for Me, Letter Lunacy or Massive Mania. The problem, however, remained that as much as we tried to think through other variants of the title, it tended to become more pedantic and elusive. One possible suggestion, The Fervor of Pocketed Letters, was given serious consideration, but none of these possibilities could help in getting closer to the original. Hence, ‘the simpler the better’ approach is taken and instead of any functional interpretation of the title, a word for word translation is decided upon, primarily for the purpose of achieving equivalence.

[ii] Most of this story is written as a form of testimony. It may as well be seen as a frame narrative in which there is a story within story. It is a self-reflexive narrative which is predominantly aware of its inability to grasp the course of events by language and its materiality. To achieve the process of thought of the narrator; the story is structured in fragments, random thoughts and constant struggle on the narrator’s part to grasp the fluidity of his ‘freedom to write’. The translation of this sentence, for instance, preserves its rhetoric effect by repeating the words as they are in original. However, I have maintained the grammaticality of the sentence as much as possible for the sake of intelligibility of an Anglophone reader.

[iii] Grammatically, there are certain structural issues in this paragraph. There are fragments, compounds and other grammatically non-viable renderings such as random thought lines emerging from the narrator’s mind. In the process of translating this passage I have tried to maintain its elliptical nature and grammatical oddity in order to achieve the closer meaning of the original. The passage rendered in translation here can be seen as partially literal and partially a reconstruction of its meaning through a little adjustment in its sequencing.

[iv] The italics here refer to the sudden transitions in the continued narrative, which shifts from direct storytelling into teller’s commentary about it. In order to distinguish the thought from the written testimony, these shifts are formatted into italics.

[v] This refers to the narrator’s flashback when he is given absolute freedom to write whatever he wants by Faheem’s doctor.

[vi] The word is reproduced here as it is in the source language, primarily to preserve the intensity of its sound that ‘echoes’ its sense, as  Alexander Pope would say. The word is not a mainstream Urdu word and is basically slang. In the context of this story, the word is used to refer to the mechanical nature of relationships which are devoid of any genuine emotions. It also connotes the absence of moral fiber, or something which is already in running condition with innuendos of ‘easy lay’, mostly directed toward a female. Therefore, these instrumental (plastic and conventional) relationships of human beings with one another do not generate any creative or new response, but can be dealt with through the automated/ readymade responses, which, in turn are devoid of any character as well.

[vii] The Urdu word, Kainaati is used in the source text, which refers to the absolute omnipotence of its function. It knows everything and it has answers to all the possible questions/ communications that can be anticipated by the mortal human beings around the protagonist. It could have been a ‘universal’ letterbox or ‘all-knowing’ but I have avoided the hermeneutic way of reading here and focused on the textual devices, the choice of words and its apt structure that the text originally has.

Aqsa Ijaz

Aqsa Ijaz

Aqsa teaches Literature and Cultural Studies at Beaconhouse National University and is currently translating Baig’s collection of Short Stories, Be-Afsana into English.


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