ABOUT THE STORY Vladimir Nabokov called Proust’s enormous novel sequence In Search Of Lost Time “a treasure hunt where the treasure is time and the hiding-place the past.” Something of the same quest is enacted in this excerpt from the great Pakistani writer Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s novel Mirages of the Mind.
The protagonist, Basharat, is a Pakistani mohajir—someone who moved to Pakistan at the time of Partition. When, in old age, he loses his wife, he loses interest in the present and feels the call of his roots. The city of his youth, Kanpur, looms large in his imagination as a place of unequalled beauty and splendour. But, as Basharat finds out when he returns to his birthplace, it is not Kanpur that is rich so much as his memory. His treasure-hunt takes on a piquant turn as he is frustrated and confounded at every turn by all that has changed since his departure, from the look of the streets to the very Urdu (“It’s slipped further and further, so now it sounds like Hindi.”) that the city once spoke. Like Rip Van Winkle, he surveys with an almost continuous surprise and wonder the transformations of the place that memory had kept stable for so many decades—an experience made more immediate (and indeed, comic) by Yousufi’s decision to switch the narration from third-person to first-person. But if Basharat feels cheated by the new India, he is at the same time awakened and challenged by it, and becomes once again an active interpreter of life. His alert gaze defamiliarises—and in this way renews—our own view of India.
Mirages of the Mind