A Haunting, Howling Chup: Literature and Ecology of Violence

Abdul Aijaz

How do you tell a tale that resists narration and yet screams to be told? How do you weave a narrative around a “chup” that  is haunted by what it cannot say. How to share a story that so clearly unveils what it does not tell? In the play Chup, Fawad Khan explores the valence of silence in telling the counter stories of power. In places, such as Pakistan, where documenting the histories of state violence could easily get one into trouble with the authorities, literature affords a practical and affective medium wherein to “catch the conscience of the king,” so to speak. In thus portraying the ecology of violence—something is rotten in the state of Denmark—in literary and imaginative works and performances, the ethical and the aesthetic meld into a politics of resistance that allows the other stories to survive, despite the heavy hand of the state and the hegemony of the official and sanctioned narratives.[1]I think in Hamlet, the device of Play within the Play, affords a similar imaginative space and technique. It enables a story of murder, violence, and erasure to emerge from within the archives of the … Continue reading Animated through this poetics of resistance, stories, poems, and plays survive, nay proliferate, in the face of oppression and violence. Chup narrates for us one such counter history of power in fiction.  

Fawad’s Chup portrays a landscape of fear and haunting. The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of this account of Chup. The curtains open onto a silent and dark stage, which is immediately rattled by the clamoring of a phone ring that fills the stage with anticipation and fear. Lights come out as the phone ring dies, and we meet Salman and Rabia. Their short and measured conversation, laden with caution and anticipation, portrays a sense of anxiety that haunts the stage as the story unfolds. This haunting is produced through multiple absences that linger on, while being suspended between a fear of total erasure or final death, and a hope of an almost impossible return to a normal and healthy life. It is in depicting this in-betweenness, this suspension between fear and hope, that Chup traces an encounter between the workings of power and where power lands to leave a mark. 

In this short piece, I want to dwell on those lingering absences that define the contours of the tale told in the play and the larger world beyond. These absences are not voluntary or natural in the sense of a gradual withering away into an inevitable erasure or death; rather these are “forced disappearances,” produced through an ecology of violence that has come to define the place and people in Karachi and the region in general. This ecology of violence creates a climate of fear that seeps through everyday life deep into the individual lives and bodies shaping their desires and dreams, and fears and threats alike. It also extends its horrid hands onto a future that attempts to break free from its dark power. I will first dwell on the absences that create an atmosphere of fear and haunting to put together the story that is intentionally left untold. I will then describe some of the fears that determine what can or cannot be said or done, what can or cannot be questioned. Finally, I will come back to describe how this assemblage of fear and haunting simultaneously produces and is produced through an ecology of violence that is officially guarded by the state’s coercive apparatuses. 

Absence, Uncertainty, and Miscommunication

As the play opens, the silent, dark stage is hit by the clangor of a phone ring. The ring is ominous, it announces something that never appears, it promises something that it never delivers. The stage continues to be draped in darkness as the bell rings. Only after it dies, do Salman and Rabia appear on the stage weary of those false promises of a message, a news, in which their own fates and hopes seem to be suspended somehow. The phone ring leaves an air of haunting and fear on the stage. This haunting portrays the out-of-placeness of something or someone that frustrates the efforts of the people on stage to set everything right and do their normal business of living life. It seems like they are waiting for something or someone to deliver them from this ordeal. The absence of Zain/ Saad, we later find out, casts a long shadow of fear and haunting on the lives of Rabia and Salman and all their efforts to break free from it come to naught. 

There are multiple interconnected absences that create the cumulative effect of haunting, fear, and suspicion. The absence of communication conveyed by the ringing phones amplifies the affective weight of Zain’s/ Saad’s absence. The physical absence of Zain/ Saad and the absence of communication after the phone-ring create a haunting in which happiness seems almost impossible as all signs of a normal happy life are obliterated. “When was the last time you heard the sound of laughter in this house?” a frustrated Salman blurts out at Rabia. He feels “this house has shut its door to happiness.” In the absence of laughter and happiness in a home where no one really talks to anyone in the face of a forced disappearance of a loved one, all verbal exchange becomes a noise. A noise that indexes all those absences without narrating them. The first scene ends in the same way as it opens, with Salman’s persistent “hello, hello, hello…” failing to elicit any response, and leaving behind an eeriness that is impossible to quell. 

The sound of the phone-ring without resulting in actual conversation, symbolizes a general lack of communication through dialogue at multiple levels. The state has stopped listening to the demands of its subjects and instead forces them into silence. The individuals are unable to communicate effectively in the face of an imminent threat. In this ominous setting, the phone-ring symbolizes fear, threat, and a general discursive and symbolic void that threatens by refusing to communicate. It indexes and feeds into the unequal power relations that not only define the spaces of the home where people’s intimacies feel distant and divided, but the larger landscape of national politics that delineates everyday life and the fears, hopes, and anxieties of the people. We somehow know that Zain’s/ Saad’s is a forced disappearance, not a voluntary absence, even though it is never clearly spelled out for us. His absence signals a breakdown of rational, discursive exchange not only between the people and the state, but among the members of a family, too. The state apparatuses, unwilling to listen to the demands and dreams of the ordinary, attempt to silence their voices. It results in an intentional blockage of verbal communication, where one party has the power to withhold the speech of Zain/ Saad and let out a mere “hisss” to take its place. The power to withhold communication is one that is ominous and threatening. The hiss that sounds through the phones is not silence, it communicates fear and threat and makes Zain’s/ Saad’s absence much more scary and exemplary for those who would decide to question the state in the future.   

Papa’s malfunctioning hearing-aid represents another facet of this communication breakdown. Although human faculties are supposed to be augmented by technological devices, the absence of meaningful communication questions their utility. Instead, these devices end up communicating frustrations, fears, noises, and anxieties. Multiple auditory gadgets—including phones, hearing-aids, microphones, megaphones, and other instruments—are used for the purpose of effective communication but they fail to perform their only objective: communication. Technology is entangled in the social relations of inequality and oppression. In an uncanny reversal of their roles, the technological devices end up producing fear and frustration instead of connection. Papa’s hearing-aid blanks out the jarring noises and becomes receptive to a non-existent dastak while the dastak falls short of its promise of bringing someone to the door. The empty promise of the dastak is reminiscent of the fake promise of the auditory devices, and eventually with the false promises of the state that still claims to provide peace and security. The auditory device is unable to produce communicative certainty, while the state fails to provide security and individual liberty. This grand failure of communication represents a general breakdown of the social order which is now stitched together only by oppression. An oppression that produces fear, suspicion, and an eeriness that haunts the hearts, homes, and hopes. 

Fears, Suspicion, and Hauntings

The motif of “dastak” or a knock at the door is also very common in Urdu literature in Pakistan, especially in progressive Urdu literature. dastak—without anything or anybody following it—is generally interpreted simultaneously as a despair and a call to continue the struggle. It represents that in-betweenness of being is suspended between an utter failure and a possible success. The connection between “dastak” here and the one in progressive literature could be drawn based on Zain/ Saad’s progressive politics which could possibly be the reason he was picked up by the state (within the state).

The absences in the play produce a cumulative fear that pervades every aspect of life in Karachi casting a shadow of eeriness all around. The play weaves together the impacts that haunting, fear, and ecology of violence produce both materially and affectively. For example, fear haunts the family at the center of this story in multiple ways. It shrouds everything and every character. This fear emerges from the ecology of violence that seeps down to the minutest details of life and landscape. Life—including laughter and dreams—in this family and home are on hold until the spell of fear and suspicion can be lifted. We cannot know with certainty when and if that might really happen.

Zain’s/ Saad’s absence haunts the house in multiple ways. His absence defines the affective and material milieu in which this small family of five attempts to survive and stay out of trouble. Zain/ Saad has been missing for more than three years and although there are very slim chances of his return, his parents and wife cling on to the  hope that he might. That hope gives the ominous phone-rings their salvaging character of a potential harbinger of his possible return. That hope, alongside material hardships and constraints that are rooted in a complex family dynamic, also make the characters endure more pain by continuing to stay under the same roof until Zain’s/ Saad’s return. It is that hope which moves the mother to defy her older son, Salman, by participating in a protest demanding the release of the disappeared persons. However, pursuing this hope also creates more palpable risks. We learn that Salman may have received a threat to Zara’s life which puts the familial relations under more stress. The family is torn between the difficult choices of prioritizing Zain’s/ Saad’s safe return or Zara’s safety and survival. This difficult situation puts unimaginable stress on the relations within the family. As Ammi (mother) decides to participate in the protest against Salman’s directions, Salman accuses Ammi of jeopardizing everyone’s safety for the slightest hope of Zain’s/ Saad’s return. Papa and everyone else in the family seem beholden to Salman for he is the only earning hand in the house. Salman feels not respected enough for what he does for the family. The stress of Zain’s/ Saad’s absence poisons the everyday relations of trust, love, and care. The family becomes an allegory for a society where traditional moral order is teetering under the burdens of resource scarcity, inequality, and political oppression. 

In this oppressive ecology of doubt, fear, and inequality it becomes increasingly difficult for the traditional moral order to continue functioning. There are fears of not being understood or wrongly understood. Salman, Zara, Mother, Rabia, Papa all feel betrayed, or that they have been misunderstood, or that they could possibly not be understood at all. The only people who were most likely to come together in empathy were Salman and Ammi because they faced direct threat to the lives of their children. However, that becomes harder as Salman prioritizes Zara’s security over pursuing Zain’s/ Saad’s return and Ammi blames him for that very reason.  

There is the fear that the conventional moral and political order might collapse entirely. Papa and Ammi fear that Salman might not respect them because he has been put in a position of having to pay up their debts, and also because he has been implying that they do not care for his child’s life, which has been endangered by their younger son. Their economic dependence on Salman goes against the traditional moral authority that they have over him being his parents. This is very much obvious in the interactions between Salman and Papa. Papa’s inability to communicate fully and clearly is partially a result of him being suspended between his financial dependence on his son and his moral authority over him. This is more obvious in Ammi’s interactions with Salman. Ammi does not feel that her moral authority over her son would make him listen to her. That is why she makes Papa talk to Salman, but stays around to steer the conversation. The traditional moral authority confronts the new realities of economic and political order and appears severely challenged. This results in uncertainty and confusion and ultimately miscommunication. 

There is also the fear of the total loss of government and political order as “the organization” takes over. The deliberately unnamed organization, which can be read as Pakistani Military, has taken precedence over all other state institutions. The only institution that keeps the semblance of political stability as the weak state cracks along religious, ethnic, and politico-economic lines. The military, however, works according to its own logic of power. As the state authority weakens in the face of growing political and economic inequality, the military uses more and more force to keep the system working. Public consent to the sovereignty of the state is secured through coercion which reveals the system teetering under its own unmanageable weight. In the absence of public trust, the state loses its authority, and this is the possibility that haunts the play. This possibility could potentially turn into a redrafting of the social contract between the peoples and the state that prioritizes equal freedoms and opportunities for all, or it could turn into a more oppressive rule by the military oligarchy. Sadly, the second possibility seems more imminent. 

This is obvious in the screams and suspicions of the characters, the urgency and anxiety in their actions, the words they utter or swallow, the feelings they show or hide. All are haunted by the fear that those who silenced Zain/ Saad could silence others. The existing and impending silences envelop the noises that the characters produce. The auditory gadgets, that liven up to diffuse a “hisss” through their electric throats into the perfect calmness of life and cast a spell of fear, seem to be the tools in the hands of those who can so unscrupulously violate peoples’ right to life and privacy. The hearing device in Papa’s ear is haunted, too, as he starts hearing a knock on the door[2]The motif of “dastak” or a knock at the door is also very common in Urdu literature in Pakistan, especially in progressive Urdu literature. dastak—without anything or anybody following it—is … Continue reading while struggling to hear noises around him. 

The dastak simultaneously remains a hope and a threat. For Papa, dastak is a reason to avoid the stress, torture, and cacophony of the present moment, and to look towards the future: with a hope that somebody at the door might relieve them from their pain. However, dastak could also bring in more threat, as the phone ring brings for Salman. dastak being a heralder, a foreteller, is also a call beyond the present moment and an opening into the future. Life’s insistence to go on despite the unbearable weight, fear, and suffocation of the present. This insistence on life is reflected in Rabia’s possible pregnancy too. Despite the fact the social world is totally arrayed against it, a new life might be growing in Rabia’s body. 

dastak

ghup andhere meṇ sāṇs letī

nā-dīda khaṭ khaṭ

tārīk duniyā meṇ sarsarātī

havā kī dastak

yeh kyā jahaṇ hai

jahaṇ andhere na jāne kab se 

chahār jānib tane hue haiṇ

na jāne kab se

ham apnī ānkhoṇ kī raushnā’ī meṇ khvāb sīṇche

savāl oṛhe

sarāpā chup se thame hu’e haiṇ

hamārī nazareṇ 

hamārī qismat kī tīrgī se ulajh rahī haiṇ

hamārī nabzeṇ

ghaḍi kī ṭik ṭik se bandh gayī haiṇ

ham ek dūje kī chaltī sāṇsoṇ se

zindgānī kashīd kar ke

siyāh jeboṇ meṇ bhar rahe haiṇ

har ek lamhe meṇ mar rahe haiṇ

koī to āye

kahīṇ se āye

hamāre āngan ke band kivaṛon ko khaṭkhaṭāye

azāb rut kā tilism toṛe

sarāb dhartī ke zard mausam meṇ jān chhiṛke

to khvāb jāgeṇ

savāl jāgeṇ, to jī uṭheṇ ham

har ek lamhe meṇ rang bhar ke

sharāb-e hastī ko pī chukeṇ ham

magar yeh ḍar hai

āseb chhūṭe, hamāre khasta kivāṛ jāgeṇ

to us taraf bhī 

vahī andhere hī muntazir hoṇ

ham apnī āṇkhoṇ meṇ khvāb sīṇche

tārīk rāhoṇ meṇ chup khaṛe haiṇ

havā kī āhaṭ pe chaunkte haiṇ 

دستک

گھپ اندھیرے میں سانس لیتی 

نادیدہ کھٹ کھٹ 

تاریک دنیا میں سرسراتی 

ہوا کی دستک

یہ کیا جہاں ہے 

جہاں اندھیرے نہ جانے کب سے 

چہار جانب تنے ہوئے ہیں

نہ جانے کب سے 

ہم اپنی آںکھوں کی روشنائی میں خواب سینچے 

سوال اوڑھے 

سراپا چپ سے تھمے ہوئے

ہماری نظریں 

ہماری قسمت کی تیرگی سے الجھ رہی ہیں

ہماری نبضیں 

گھڑی کی ٹک ٹک سے بندھ گئی ہیں

ہم ایک دوجے کی چلتی سانسوں سے 

زندگانی کشید کر کے 

سیاہ جیبوں میں بھر رہے ہیں

ہر ایک لمحے میں مر رہے ہیں

کوئی تو آئے

کہیں سے آئے

ہمارے آنگن کے بند کواڑوں کو کھٹکھٹائے

عذاب رت کا طلسم توڑے

سراب دھرتی کے زرد موسم میں جان چھڑکے

تو خواب جاگیں

سوال جاگیں تو جی اٹھیں ہم

ہر ایک لمحے میں رنگ بھر کے

شراب ہستی کو پی چکیں ہم

مگر یہ ڈر ہے

آسیب چھوٹے، ہمارے خستہ کواڑ جاگیں

تو اس طرف بھی

وہی اندھیرے ہی منتظر ہوں

ہم اپنی آنکھوں میں خواب سینچے

تاریک راہوں میں چپ کھڑے ہیں

ہوا کی آہٹ پہ چونکتے ہیں 

दस्तक

घुप अँधेरे में सांस लेती

ना-दीदा खट खट

तारीक दुनिया में सरसराती

हवा की दस्तक

यह क्या जहाँ है

जहाँ अँधेरे न जाने कब से

चहार जानिब तने हुए हैं

न जाने कब से 

हम अपनी आँखों की रौशनाई में ख़्वाब सींचे

सवाल ओढ़े

सरापा चुप से थमे हुए हैं

हमारी नज़रें

हमारी क़िस्मत की तीरगी से उलझ रही हैं

हमारी नब्ज़ें

घड़ी की टिक टिक से बंध गयी हैं

हम एक दूजे की चलती सांसों से

ज़िंदगानी कशीद कर के

सियाह जेबों में भर रहे हैं

हर एक लम्हे में मर रहे हैं

कोई तो आये 

कहीं से आये

हमारे आँगन के बंद किवाड़ों को खटखटाये

अज़ाब रुत का तिलिस्म तोड़े

सराब धरती के ज़र्द मौसम में जान छिड़के

तो ख़्वाब जागें

सवाल जागें तो जी उठें हम

हर एक लम्हे में रंग भर के

शराब-ए हस्ती को पी चुकें हम

मगर यह डर है

आसेब छूटे, हमारे ख़स्ता किवाड़ जागें

तो उस तरफ़ भी

वही अँधेरे ही मुन्तज़िर हों

हम अपनी आँखों में ख़्वाब सींचे

तारीक राहों में चुप खड़े हैंहवा की आहट पे चौंकते हैं

The dialogues refuse to name with any certainty what the spectator may want them to name. They refuse to break the shackles of silence or endless questions by saying what we might think needs to be said. The narrative is haunted by a silence which is the absence of the story it does not tell. Chup does not say or name that which it is expected to say or name. It communicates through affect what it declines to utter in words. Silences, absences, fears, hopes, desires crawl in the bones of the one who receives the  story.  The audience becomes imbricated in the script as we take in the sheer irony emerging from the characters’ attempts to seek happiness or freedom even as they are trapped in fear. The script embodies the threat. Chup’s artistic excellence and its fierce honesty demand accountability from the reader, the director, the actor, and the spectator: to scream out that which remains unnamed and unsaid.

The play casts an artistic spell on its audience who scream out in silence, “I know where Zain/ Saad is. I am afraid he might not come back and I hope he does, and I am scared. I feel it. In the cells of my skin. In the throbs of my heart. I know the power that produces such precarity and I can feel it myself.”  

In her reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Avery Gordon describes how the American society and landscape are haunted by the ghost of its slave-pasts which determine its present and futures. These buried “ghostly matters”, says Gordon, must be acknowledged, named, and confronted if the American society wants to materialize its dream of more equitable and just futures.[3]Gordon, A. F. (2008). Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. University of Minnesota Press.

Chup both portrays and confronts “ghostly matters” that haunt contemporary Pakistani society. It is the ecology of violence that has diffused down to the level of individual life and familial relations.

What is this ecology of violence?

The ecology of violence is constituted by ecological scarcity and social inequality. By ecological scarcity, I mean the lack of cultural, technological, and natural resources that are required for the sustenance of a happy and healthy society. In such circumstances, political strife to acquire more resources becomes a permanent feature of social life and landscape creating an ecology of violence. As political and economic inequality worsens, poorer communities are pushed further away towards resource deserts while wealthier communities and powerful organizations are centered around the resource oases. In places like Pakistan, where this inequality reaches extreme levels, economic and political relations are etched onto the landscape. We find islands of plenty in the vast seas of scarcity. Most of the resources are enclosed by the civil-military elite in Pakistan who use state apparatuses for their private and organizational gains. Nowhere is this enclosure more real than in the concreteness of such places as military cantonments. And so, we see Salman telling his crew that everybody needs to have a valid ID to enter the cantonment area. This unequal access is secured through violence and power. That is, deep social inequities and emotional trauma are produced through force, and this production of inequities and wounds complements the very forces that produce it. The oppressive state is produced through the creation and maintenance of these inequalities. 

In other words, violent power exploits the environmental commons as well as social resources of a society where graded inequalities of caste, gender, class, and religion have been normalized. Force nourishes and guards these inequities and ensures that the ecology of violence can thrive. The violence seeps down to every possible place and is expressed in the ordinariness of  everyday and intimate human relations. It can be seen, for instance, in how much Papa’s brother’s betrayal determines his relationship with Salman who is paying Papa’s debts, and the manner in which both Rabia and Zara are differently caught between the economic relations and the economy of relations.

This ecology of violence forces difficult choices on the characters. There is no clear template of a normal happy life. All the characters are forced to make difficult choices to secure their happiness and survival. In such ecological and economic scarcity, individuals are forced to choose between their own happiness and their family members’ or social group’s good. For example, Salman dreams of a better life in Dubai… His idea of happiness, however, clashes with his obligations towards his parents who are wedded to their house in Karachi that carries within it the hope of their son’s return. Similarly, the family is committed to Zara’s education, but it is her movement to and from school that exposes them to the most explicit bodily threat. And, Rabia is pulled between her obligations to her parents and her in-laws, as well as between her emotions and desires. She is torn between her connection to Salman and her marriage to Zain/ Saad as she yearns for some semblance of a fulfillment whose lack she feels but whose form she has never known. Papa and Ammi are torn between their hopes for Zain’s/ Saad’s return and their fears for Salman’s life. 

This whole sociospatial assemblage which constitutes this ecology of violence  makes it difficult—almost a sin—to seek individual happiness. The family is thrown together into a pact of grief and sadness which its members can defy only at the risk of being utterly selfish. Perhaps, it is only Zara, the person who is the most at risk, who can take liberties with this pact: As the youngest member of the family, she is allowed to not fully understand or abide by the terms of the ecology of violence. Yet, for the family as a whole, life in the ecology of violence is on hold. It is suspended between the hopes that will never materialize and the fears that will never be fully revealed but will continue to remain imminent. 

This story is set in Pakistan, but it could be equally true in Indian-occupied Kashmir or Pakistan-occupied Balochistan, in a peasant family in Pakistani Punjab or a day laborer in Multan, Mumbai, or Manila. Indeed, the ecologies of violence that it embodies define everyday life in countless places whose membership in the “global south” may depend on these haunted affinities. The Becketian quality of Chup’s characters and dialogues lend it an existential feel. The mechanical living on of a family between fear and hope reveals nothing but the absurdity of the compulsion of living on. In this living on throbs the longing for survival, a ceaseless hope for a better future for all.


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Notes

Notes
1 I think in Hamlet, the device of Play within the Play, affords a similar imaginative space and technique. It enables a story of murder, violence, and erasure to emerge from within the archives of the very state and its sovereign memory that so strongly tries to repress and erase it. It is this other story of power that haunts the state by animating an aesthetics of resistance.
2 The motif of “dastak” or a knock at the door is also very common in Urdu literature in Pakistan, especially in progressive Urdu literature. dastak—without anything or anybody following it—is generally interpreted simultaneously as a despair and a call to continue the struggle. It represents that in-betweenness of being  is suspended between an utter failure and a possible success. The connection between “dastak” here and the one in progressive literature could be drawn based on Zain/ Saad’s progressive politics which could possibly be the reason he was picked up by the state (within the state).
3 Gordon, A. F. (2008). Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. University of Minnesota Press.

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