Translation of Mirza Athar Baig’s story “Sakht Plaster me Indemaal

Illustration by Faheem Abbas

Illustration by Faheem Abbas

Tonight around six or seven o’ clock I have to work on a decision which I made a few months ago. It was that decision; in fact, it is the decision that I had made to convince the diary clerk, Anwaar Ahmed to get on my motor bike for a ride. After leaving the town I would ride my bike in the direction where the road goes through the giant mountains. And then, at the turn of the third mile my bike would reach its ultimate speed. I, then, reach the point where there are no safety barriers and I will abruptly wheel my bike around and throw the diary clerk, Anwaar Ahmed into the ditch. I know it for sure but I don’t know why: Anwaar Ahmed will scream really high in that moment. An incredible terror would take over his heart and both of us will be falling down, like a biker throwing himself down in one of those stunts in movies. These moments will be the moments of my victory. I will try to explain it all to Anwaar Ahmed as quickly as possible, why and how. I will explain him to whatever extent I can; and that too, as quickly as possible because there will be nothing remaining of me, Anwaar Ahmed and the motor bike as soon as we are sucked in by the force of gravity.

I am waiting for him right now. The motor bike is parked at the usual place outside the building and I am writing all this. Why? Because, maybe, waiting is hell for me and I want to keep myself occupied with something. Or perhaps, there is a wish germinating in me that whatever is going to happen and, after that whatever will happen should be known not only to the diary clerk. After all he doesn’t have any important standing at all— it can be anyone today if not him. There are several of them whom I would like to take for today’s ride. However, Anwaar’s consent is just a coincidence because he is the only one free. Otherwise, it is quite possible that the head clerk would have availed this offer of mine. Other clerks would have jumped at the offer of free outing as well. What a delicious thought it is! It could have been any of them on his way to become history with this evening. Anyway, it was Anwaar who wanted to come over at my apartment, if that is the name for this 8×10 size box like thing I live in, and from here we go for the promised outing. I think I am writing about it because I want it to be known to other people as well. After all what is wrong with it if people find this note when they look for our remains in the deep ditches at the turn of the third mile? I think there is nothing wrong with that.

At this very moment a thought occurred to me that what if people think of it as a mere suicide note or worse just a piece talking about a murder plan… it would be too bad if this act of mine is interpreted in such lay terms of murder and suicide. Whatever it is that I am going to do today is very complicated and difficult. I am feeling very comforted with the thought that whatever I am going to do is nothing ordinary and it reassures me that I am not an ordinary man as well.

— And whatever happened to me was not ordinary either. In fact it is so unusual and uncanny that I can hardly turn it into any verbal expression. But I think the reason for it is that I have not written a word in ages; not even a single letter to anyone. Sometime ago people made me think that I can write well. Following this belief I managed to write some experimental pieces which I wanted to make available for public knowledge very quickly. But then I thought: What a goddamn state of dependence I have thrown myself in![ii] And since that day, I did not write. Now I think I should have kept writing. Had I done so, I wouldn’t have to struggle so much to write today. However I think I have caught something in my heart that was saying otherwise. I think like every writer I am trying to be immortal through my writing. Maybe that is all there to it and it makes me laugh. Oh! But I can’t laugh. I can only smile. I am unable to explain my situation. Why should I do that? First of all the smile and laughter I mentioned earlier is not be confused as if it were a simile or a metaphor. I mean it literally. It is about the muscles, tissues and the nerves of my face as the consequence of which my bike will be falling into the ditch and Anwar, the diary clerk as well. The fault is of this smile on face which frozen there for past few years. I have always wanted to enable my face to express something other than this smile. However, at this moment I guess the reader of this text is wondering about what is it that I actually want to put across here. That is why I think I should continue writing without much being bothered about a particular word or sentence.

I had an accident a few years ago. It was not only me who went through the agony of this event. In fact there were many of them from which a few survived and others died, as it is the case normally with such accidents. However, I was neither amongst the alive nor the dead. I was amongst the wounded. I found myself at the operation table as soon as I gained consciousness. I was told that there was not a single bone in my body which hadn’t broke and it was a miracle that I survived. I was amazed at myself for the fact that my mind was working perfectly fine even when my body was in a really pathetic condition. The surgeons fixed my body parts with the best of their expertise and wrapped me in thick plaster for further healing.

People who have never experienced such an accident can never empathize with someone being tied up in plaster. My pen, too doesn’t seem to have the ability to state my feelings and it is not going to be of any use anyway.

It used to feel that I am somewhere inside the plaster but didn’t know where. And then suddenly, it ached somewhere inside but would eventually vanish. In remember that I was constantly nagged by a thought in those days. I confess to play with this thought a lot. I used to imagine myself a silkworm who was still in its shell and waiting to become a butterfly. It would dream of death and destruction in those warm and cozy nights of its sound sleep.

My healing was over all very successful. All the body parts were finally back in their original place. Everybody was happy. My surgeons were happy and I found the whole world happy. However, in the moments of sheer happiness nobody noticed the smile which got frozen on my face due to surgical stretching of the facial muscles. I was supposed to go to the office that day but I was nervous. I was suspicious as well as restless on how to answer people’s various questions. I looked in the mirror and there was no sign of anxiety or suspicion on my face. There was just a smile. I was full of perplexity but there was no such expression on my face. The perplexity transformed into terror and yet there was no expression of it. I was angry at this state of terror but there was nothing of it on my face. There was only this smile. My eyes blasted out of their sockets on realizing this facial paralysis but there was nothing else but smile on my face.

It was beginning of the post thick plaster era[iii]. In simpler words, the plaster had healed all my body parts but my face became something of a living mask which only portrayed smile. It was incapable of expressing other emotional and anxious states. However, it is not to be confused as if I had emptied out myself of all these emotions. Like everyone else, I used to love some people and hate some as well.

There was jealousy as well as anger. There was shamelessness and desire, chaos and restlessness and revenge and fatigue. There was all of it. In fact I wanted to smile as well but couldn’t. One can smile only when they haven’t smiled in quite some time, whereas I had this eternal smile frozen on my face. The madness would erupt in my eyes but there won’t be any expression of that on my face. My eyes started to look really horrible and hence I had to wear dark glasses to hide them.

The doctors and experts had given my case a really serious consideration and their reading of it was quite comprehensible and agreeable. There are seven nerves that control the inner and outer functioning of the brain. The seventh of them however controls the facial movements including the emotional reactions. It was this nerve which got damaged in my case and that is why my facial tissues were stuck at a smiling note. According to the doctors it can be the case sometimes. They told me that people can be affected by this in much weird ways than I have been. There are cases in which people would start shedding tears as if they are weeping while they eat. Now I think that being stuck on smiling note is still better than weeping. One of the surgeons insisted that I forget all this and move on.

I tried my best to forget my ‘new’ face or at least learn to live with it. However I realized sooner than later that like writing itself a face too is not your personal matter. To a large extent, it is a public matter. They won’t let you forget it even if you wanted to. I don’t blame myself for that and I didn’t give up. I went on to discover the world with the new face which was accursed with an eternal smile frozen on it; a damned face that constantly flashed the signal of ‘Everything’s fine’.
[iv]I am getting emotional for no good reason. After all what can I do even if I am emotional? If somebody enters in my room at this moment, he would be deluded by an appearance of someone who’s happily sitting in his room and enjoying writing and that’s about it. Could he ever look beyond what’s being suffered behind that ‘happy smiling face’ that is the result of the serious damage of seventh brain nerve? That is why I have chosen the diary clerk amongst many of them so that I could tell my story. It is as if someone has won the lottery. Otherwise, I don’t have anything personal against Anwaar Ahmed.

I admit that I’ve not yet come to terms with the world around me regarding the matter of my smile. However, I had tried really hard before I got around reaching this decision. I tried various jobs where smiling faces are needed. Through some contacts I managed to get a receptionist’s job at some places where the bosses didn’t like my smiling face and instructed me to be a little serious. ‘Am I telling some kind of a joke’? They would say. During this time there happened plenty of events which could make people laugh to the best of their laughing capability.

At one point there was supposed to be a group photo at the office in which, obviously, people smile. After it was taken and everybody got back to the normal face, the photographer said: “Sir, the picture has been taken why you are still smiling now?’ My colleagues broke into laughter saying ‘He is our smiley.’ ‘Actually, he is our Mr. Cheerful’. ‘He is always happy’. ‘Oh please tell me your secret of being constantly happy. It seems you have no worry in the world at all…’

Such events were usually my routine after being healed in the thick plaster. Apparently it was the seventh nerve which got damaged in that accident. But that was not all. The remaining six nerves started to get affected too, and led me to this decision.

There is another incident that took place has a significant role for me in reaching this decision. Somebody whom I knew died. It was his funeral and I had gone there to attend it. It was all very sad and gloomy. I sat there and expressed my condolences in few appropriate words. Soon I realized that people are staring at me with hatred and anger in their eyes for me. There were also some people who looked terrified as if I were a wolf at this place. My smiling face in a sad a crowd was exactly similar to a bomb blast in a gathering. I walked out without having said anything. And since then I knew it’s not going to be possible anymore. I can’t have this face and live in this world simultaneously. The decision I am going to execute today has been growing on me since then. An accident can be cured only by another accident and as I was not alone in the previous accident, why should I be now… it wouldn’t make any difference if a wounded ox gets a fly killed along with it!

I feel strange right now that it was very different when I started writing it and now, at its end, it’s altogether something opposite of it was. I don’t know what it is! I don’t think that I have anything more to write. And the waiting too is almost going to end. The room is filled with evening’s gloom and its softness touches me here and here; touches my lips as well… where there is that the smile.

I can hear his footsteps coming from the stairway below. Anwaar has come. First step… second… third…

And here is the key of my bike.

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[i]The Urdu title for this story is “Sakht Plaster me Indemaal” which is translated into English rather equivocally. The story can largely be categorized as a frame narrative in which another story is being told. The crucial element in this story is the pattern of its narrativity that keeps the reader on his/her in doubt regarding the credibility of the narrator. It is, therefore, the various aspects of the narrative and its play which is aimed at through this translation.

The persona, in this case, creates an artifice in which death (his own and that of an "insignificant person”) are inherent.  Those deaths are foreshadowed and push the action ahead. He talks about how he expects somehow to find immortality as a writer via the creation of this artifice. He says he doesn’t want this act to be seen as a simple murder suicide.  He wants it to be seen as the act that in spite of his lifelong failure to communicate will make him successful.  As Yukio Mishima says:

“The Japanese can sometimes win through suicide,” and, indeed Mishima, does just that in highly ritualized fashion.  Two people die in this ritual whether in Mishima’s fiction or in Mishima’s life and the Japanese ritual always includes two people (two Participating adults).
The narrator’s artifice is not part of a classical ritual.  The narrator’s audience will see the narrator’s recorded performance as too real.  They will be unable to see suicide as winning and they will certainly fail to understand the narrator’s drafting of an unwilling participant into the action.

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[ii] The italics here correspond to the interior state of the character-narrator. A translator’s intervention in this case happens to be the translation which subverts the course of original into the present indefinite tense to keep the suspense intact.

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[iii] The post thick plaster era doesn’t seem viable in the narrative’s flow of the events. However, it is deliberately opted for to maintain the rationalizing and categorizing attempts of the protagonist, which, over here, work as a categorization of a time-span that he divides between before the accident and after the accident.

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[iv] One can see that the narrator-protagonist is self-conscious of the various changes in himself while he narrates all the events. There are various intra-character and intra-narration possibilities to address the issue of Unheimlikheit, the uncanny. It is from the Poe-esque narrative of subtle madness or what can also be understood as, too much consciousness, that this character, whose name is absent from the reader’s mind since it is not there in the story’s life-world, resolves with the reality of death. This opaque tone of the original is kept intact in the translation and there has also been an effort to explore the narrative possibilities of the uncanny through engaging with it through translation.

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