Pittho’s World by Murtaza Razvi is a novel with stories of numerous characters, as well as that of the narrator himself. The entire novel spans a period of about two centuries, and is spread out over a large geographical space that consists of countries like 19th century Iran, the pre-partition India, which then becomes Pakistan (particularly Lahore, Karachi etc.), East Pakistan/Bangladesh (Dhaka). This geographical space even includes the land of Caucasus, if only in a fairy tale, as well as the Swiss city of Zurich. Due to the numerous characters and settings, one would think that just the amount of material to be dealt in a book like Pittho’s World would turn the text into a large jumble of characters and events. But it hasn’t.
The narrative in Pittho’s World is certainly inspired from the Arabian Nights; even the narrator, Sheikhu, and his partner Rani are reminiscent of Scheherazade and Shahryar in the Arabian Nights, although with a complete role reversal. But the similarity ends with the novel’s opening lines:
“No, I am no Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights,” I tell Rani, when she agrees to listen to my stories. “And I am no depraved king,” she says.
It signifies the breaking away from the mold of Arabian Nights, and the creation of a new one that is more suitable for understanding Pittho’s World. The opening lines also indicate that the book is not going to be what one might think after reading the blurb at the back. Therefore, it lends a certain uniqueness to Pittho’s World, in the sense that the novel is actually like a collection of short stories – all of which are true, and not a part of Sheikhu’s imagination, unlike in the Arabian Nights – with the narrator being the focal point, who is telling all these stories to his partner, and by extension, the reader too, who has also become a part of the narrative, playing the role of the listener to Sheikhu the narrator, the storyteller of Pittho’s World.
In terms of characterisation, the reader receives the most insight into Sheikhu, as compared to all other characters, even Rani. In fact, one is acquainted with the characters, and their stories through Sheikhu’s perspective, which gives a limited view of every single character with the exception of the narrator. The reader knows more about the latter due to his exposition in the first five pages, at the beginning and end of almost every chapter, unless that particular chapter is about Sheikhu’s story.
The other characters, mostly relatives of Sheikhu, and of course Rani, are all portrayed through the narrator’s perspective. Therefore, when he talks of his great-great-grandparents, great-grandparents, and grandparents, the reader can sense what he actually feels about each of these characters, whether he likes or dislikes them, respects them or treats them with contempt. But his feelings are vague, often with two or more opposing emotions directed at a single character within a space of a few lines sometimes. This leaves the reader without a clear idea of how one should consider a certain character, as well as how should one feel towards the multitude of characters illustrated in Pittho’s World. Same goes for the remaining oddball characters in Sheikhu’s family, for example, Apa.
The narrator, Sheikhu, is an equally eccentric character like the rest of his relatives. And why should he not be? He is just as nonconformist as Apa was; just as odd as all the rest of the clan; just as fond of stories and storytelling as the rest of them were. The reader gets to know him better through his stories, which appear to be his way of expressing his individuality – how he is so different from most of his conformist relatives; how he refuses to follow the norms, values, and the social mores of his clan that have been transmitted to each generation in the family over a span of about two hundred years.
Each story jumps between the past, and the present; the former being the actual story, which happened in the past, and the latter being the storytelling session taking place between Sheikhu and Rani, where he speculates about what she is thinking of his stories. Because there is little explicit description of what Rani is thinking, and the fact that there is mostly Sheikhu’s speculation regarding the various signals he thinks he is receiving from her – like a look in her eyes, a smile on her face, her enthusiasm, or her occasional lack of it, her laughing and teasing of Sheikhu for his childhood antics. All of these make the reader speculate about Rani’s opinions about the stories she is being told just as much as Sheikhu. This makes her one of the most nebulous characters in Pittho’s World.
The pace of the narrative alters between the past and present timeframes mentioned previously. The parts with Sheikhu and Rani are slowly paced, like when it is calm before the storm. When the story begins, the pace quickens, giving that particular portion a sense that there is a lot to tell to the listeners – Rani and the reader – but that is restricted by the time and space constraints.
Pittho’s World is unique because it is a collection of short stories that are all united by the presence of single narrator, and two listeners, Rani and the reader. It is also united by a common starting point: the migration of Sheikhu’s ancestors to the Indian Subcontinent from Qom in Persia in the 19th century. This particular point then connects all the subsequent stories with each other, and to Sheikhu himself. The book’s main strength is its numerous characters, all of which act as a catalyst for the narrative to move forward. The novel is highly recommended for those who are looking to read something new.
Razvi, Murtaza. *Pittho’s World. New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2013. Print.
Available at Liberty Books. Pages: 205 Price Rs 695
Originally published here.