Wrinkles In Time

How Mirza Ather Baig dissolves the boundaries between traditional and modern

Mirza Athar Baig’s last novel, Hassan Ki Soorat-e-Haal, which I translated as Hassan’s State of Affairs, continues his efforts to introduce innovative narrative forms to Urdu literature. Arif Ali / White Star
30 June, 2020

I WAS SLIGHTLY NERVOUS before my first meeting with the author Mirza Athar Baig, in the winter of 2017, at the Big M restaurant in Lahore’s Shadman Market. I had recently signed a book deal for my translation of his 2014 Urdu novel Hassan’s State of Affairs, and I was meeting him to discuss the first round of edits.

When I entered the restaurant, he was already at a table, waiting for me. I was embarrassed about being late, but this would happen every time I met him. Baig is impeccably punctual in a city that runs perpetually late. He was wearing a grey suit, slightly big for his build, and an old leather bag was on the chair next to him. The manuscript of the translation I had sent was placed neatly on the table in front of him, and he was scanning it with what seemed to be perturbed eyes. His expressionless face appeared forbidding, but as I found soon enough, Baig easily bursts into laughter, adding an unexpected softness to his apparent stoicism.

The restaurant was nearly full the whole time we were there, but no one recognised Baig. People have long stopped recognising writers in this city, and even if they did, they probably would not notice Baig. He does not attend literary festivals anymore. (“They are always compromised by their corporate interests.”) He does not get along with publishers. (“Have they ever paid us on time? Paid in full?”) I once asked him to meet me at a famous Urdu publisher’s bookshop close to his office and he flatly refused. He hates doing publicity and, unlike most successful Urdu writers, he has never taken a job in the government’s cultural and literary institutions. He does not own a house and rents one far from the centre of the city. Baig, you realise fairly quickly, does not care for the frills that often embellish the literary figure’s otherwise rather prosaic tasks. 

Baig is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories and hundreds of plays for television. He published his first novel, Ghulam Bagh, in 2007. The success of this nine-hundred-page, relentlessly experimental novel secured his reputation as one of the most important Urdu writers of the twenty-first century. His last novel, Hassan Ki Soorat-e-Haal, which I translated as Hassan’s State of Affairs, continues Baig’s efforts to introduce innovative narrative forms to Urdu literature. The novel splinters in different directions, following numerous narrative threads at once, and occasionally introduces sub-plots that have nothing to do with the main story. Baig also disrupts the narratives by inserting “editorial notices,” “optional” chapters that discuss theoretical nuances, and an entire surrealist screenplay. Throughout, he experiments with different styles, including imitating those of academic manuscripts and diary entries, and challenges the social-realist mode entrenched in Urdu literature.