The terrible event happened to Hassan Raza Zaheer after a lifetime of displaced sightseeing.
Taking full blame for this cumbersome formula (“displaced sightseeing”), if we try to find out when, why, and where Hassan got the habit of displaced sightseeing, then we will have to walk for a little while alongside Hassan down the path of his life...in fact, more importantly, we will have to see with Hassan, because the whole problem is that of seeing, and what needs to be seen is what kind of seeing this will be.
Hassan Raza Zaheer got the job of an accountant at a chemical factory after finishing his studies in finance at the age of twenty-four. The factory was located fifteen kilometres outside of the city. It was an accommodating and appropriate job: the pay was decent, there was the prospect of annual promotion (given compliant and industrious work), meals were free and, most importantly for Hassan, there was the benefit of a company car that picked up the employees every morning from different parts of the city and dropped them back at their houses in the evening.
Hassan always sat next to the window towards the middle of the car, which, in reality, wasn’t a car, but a large van that could seat up to twenty employees. Within a few seconds of sitting down, his neck would turn to the right and, with the van beginning to move, the displaced sightseeing would begin too. The familiar houses of the neighbourhood, shops, then other neighbourhoods, bakeries, auto-workshops, barbershops, schools, colleges, hotels, corner shops, alleys, markets, office buildings, petrol pumps, bridges, rivers, railway lines, grubby dirty neighbourhoods, farms, rural mud houses, public places for gathering, wrestling rings, streams, innumerable kinds of trees, factories... and other than these static targets: moving bodies, pedestrians, animals, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, buses, tractors, trucks... The factory’s parking lot, “Time to get off, sir.”
Throughout the ride, Hassan’s gaze would keep moving ahead, displacing one unconnected target for the next.
On the way back, the same series would repeat for the left-hand side of the predetermined route. There was nothing outwardly unusual about Hassan’s act of watching. Any person looks at the world in front of him and to the world on his right and left in much the same way when moved from one place to another. We can say that the feeling of being unconnected to the sight is a prerequisite to displaced sightseeing and is an essential component of our training in “world-watching”.
Then again, it is not at all a matter of training or learning, since we already know from the moment we begin to use our senses that if, in the process of seeing, we get stuck on something that troubles us and forces us to halt, the sensible thing to do is to forget the troublesome scene and keep moving from one sight to the next.
But what happened with Hassan is that this seemingly ordinary human act began to take on an extraordinary dimension: his displaced sightseeing began to halt, and when his gaze suddenly halted on some place, some event, some sight, those seemingly ordinary and absent moments became spectacles of wonder and terror whose unknown details he became forced to assemble involuntarily. His displaced sightseeing became unable to move forward from absent moments and absent spaces without filling them in.
If we see alongside Hassan, we will notice dozens of examples of these absent moments that caused him to halt. But for the sake of being succinct, we will only present a summary. While moving along on its predetermined route, the van slows down as it approaches a speed breaker in a residential area, and in those few moments of slowing down, Hassan sees on his right-hand side a window in the first house of the street, furthermore, he sees through the broken glass of that window, and notices a large mirror attached to the wall of the room inside the house, in the middle of the mirror he sees a star-shaped crack, the result of a blow, and he notices three streams of blood originating from that star-shaped crack that run down the length of the mirror.
In the course of the next ten years, the three streams of blood congealed, the mirror fogged, and the star-shaped crack became inconspicuous.
But Hassan never completely dismissed the sight, or in other words, he became incapable of feeling unconnected, which, as we know, is a prerequisite for sensible and displaced sightseeing. In order to explain this troubling and wondrous sight, Hassan thought up many alternative stories. In fact, Hassan thought up many stories for many sights.
It is one thing to be succinct, but we are beginning to wonder whether our text is failing to answer questions that will help us understand the displaced sightseeing of Hassan Raza Zaheer and the “absent moments of halting terror” that he experiences. Moreover, the concept of “unconnected seeing” also requires proper explanation. Keeping these questions in mind, we come to the conclusion that if we are to understand Hassan’s “real inner life”, we will have to forgo such a measured summary and instead adopt a loose, even “dispersed”, explication. What we are trying to say is that we will now proceed in a different manner.
We think – but we are not establishing a preconceived truth – we will have to revisit Hassan’s childhood if we want to grasp Hassan’s state of affairs. When Hassan reached schoolgoing age, his parents presented him to the administration of a school that only liked to enrol confident children in order to make sure that when the children grew up and did whatever it is that they did, they did it with full confidence. Hassan failed the entrance examination.
The principal of the school told Hassan’s parents: “A child should be able to look into the eyes of the person who is looking at him and speak to that person with confidence. This child severely lacks such confidence.”
When they came out of the interview room, Hassan’s mother asked him: “Son, are you unable to return people’s gazes?”
“Yes,” Hassan said, and right then he felt the deep sadness and loneliness that accompanies the first defeat of a child in this world. He looked at the open sunflowers in the flower beds. The big yellow flowers looked at the sun, and Hassan looked at the flowers, and then he heard the school bell ring.
We think that it was after this event that Hassan acquired the habit of displaced sightseeing. Soon after this event, he began to feel that not only did he find it difficult to return the gazes of people, he also could not return the gazes of objects. Because objects have eyes too, events stare back at you, street corners chuckle at your movements, footpaths frown, and windows wink. Really, there are only two categories of people in this world: those who can return gazes, and those who cannot. Obviously, Hassan belonged to the latter category.
But we will not insist on the soundness of our opinion. We have shown it as a probability, as a possibility. Maybe because such categories as probability/certainty and possibility/impossibility hold, as we will try to make clear, an essential value in Hassan’s state of affairs. And we know that such semi-diagnostic and essential opinions are, more often than not, utterly useless when it comes to understanding anyone’s “real inner life”. Maybe it is impossible to understand anyone’s real inner life; all that is possible is that we walk alongside that person for a while. We will walk with Hassan.
Assume that you get on the company van along with Hassan one ordinary morning. Soon, you turn to your right and your displaced sight begins to proceed, or say, your sight acquires a displaced continuity. The rooftops of houses, the ears of people, eyes, rotten fruits in the depot, neem trees, a woman riding on the back of a motorcycle whose shawl is hanging dangerously close to the spinning wheel and might, at any second, get caught in the wheel and cause a fatal accident, the skeleton of a car inside an auto-workshop, the book on the car’s dashboard which has been lying in that same position for ten years and which might, for Hassan, become an “absent moment of halting terror”.
But Hassan now knows what is “actually” behind all these things that cause his sight to halt. And that “actuality” is not external but Hassan’s own “real inner life”.
Hassan has solved the problem of the cracked mirror and the streams of blood by filling in that absent space in his mind. We move forward. Trucks, buses, carts, bridges, the roof of a rural mud house, a three-piece men’s suit hanging in a thatched corner on the roof of that rural mud house, and at this, Hassan’s displacing sight halts.
It is strange: what is a three-piece men’s suit doing in a thatched corner on the rooftop of this tattered, dirty, rural mud house? The company van moves ahead. A tractor-trolley laden with cauliflowers crosses the company van, and in the middle of the cauliflowers a lone, severed human head can be seen. The company’s moving van doesn’t allow a second glance. It is impossible to stop the van and follow the tractor- trolley in order to solve the problem of the human head. As it is, Hassan could never accept the prospect of direct intervention in the world as a solution to the wondrous and terrible obstructions to displaced sightseeing. Just like none of us think of it. We all simply forget the absent spaces the very next moment.
Excerpted with permission from Hassan’s State of Affairs: A Novel, Mirza Athar Baig, translated from the Urdu by Haider Shahbaz, HarperCollins India.