Prince Chilli: a critical analysis

By Our Online Desk

I was least prepared for this candid disclaimer in the author’s preface to his astonishing novel, Prince Chilli, by Ibn-e-Safi the great pioneer of detective novels in Urdu, who passed on 40 years ago today, in Karachi. Astonishing! because while this novel can be read as a relatively enjoyable romp of romance and intrigue, it deserves to be much better known as a social satire chronicling the social and cultural background of Pakistan in the 1950s and 1970s.

Ibn-e-Safi carved a universal reputation for himself and the genre of detective fiction in Urdu across the subcontinental divide in the space of a relatively short life. However, merely to define him as a writer of pulp potboilers does no justice to his considerable talent, for he was also a poet and satirist of no mean accomplishment.

That’s the impression I got from Safi’s son when I met him in Lahore two years ago, one month into the monsoon season, in the first week of August. After all, 2018 was Ibne Safi’s 90th birthday, and then I wanted to write something about his work. But instead, unconsciously, I gave up the dream and went on to other things.

At the outset, one must understand and appreciate that the tradition of a social or political satirical novel in Urdu is not very old. However, that is not to say that there was never any satire in Urdu fiction. If we are to take Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor’s word for it, then the first-ever Urdu novel that was a social satire was Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s dystopian Bees Sau Gyarah (the year 2011), which will celebrate its 70th anniversary of publication in September this year.

At the outset, one must understand and appreciate that the tradition of a social or political satirical novel in Urdu is not very old. However, that is not to say that there was never any satire in Urdu fiction. If we are to take Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor’s word for it, then the first-ever Urdu novel that was a social satire was Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s dystopian Bees Sau Gyarah (the year 2011), which will celebrate its 70th anniversary of publication in September this year.

This intelligence enables Safi’s attempt to study only the second novel of Urdu, intended as a strictly socio-political satire. Both novels were originally written in the 1950s; both readers and critics were neglected, perhaps overshadowed by the more illustrious careers of their creators in humour and detective stories, respectively.

Unlike Akhtar’s novel, Safi’s Prince Chilli has an interesting publication history, which enables the reader to put the novel in the perspective of two important periods in Pakistan’s political history. In the preface to the novel, Safi informs us that he originally wrote the first part of the novel, titled Zulfen Pareshan Ho Gayeen (The Tresses Became Scattered), in 1958, while the second part together with the first was published in its present form in 1977, almost two decades later. The date on the expanded edition is November 1, 1977.

These years are important – 1958 was the year when Pakistan’s first military dictatorship under Ayub Khan came to power, while the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown in July 1977 by Pakistan ‘s third military ruler, General Zia-ul – Haq.

In view of this background, the novel is essentially a story of those powerful groups that are spread throughout the country as student unions. Such student associations are used by politicians, officials, police and powerful individuals for their respective purposes.

Most students are drawn to student politics, and their influence and value is also greatly increased. Along with the student organizations, this story also unveils the greed/lust for money, power and influence and the family fights for the same thing. Actually, Chilli is not the name of an individual but a condition which can overwhelm anyone.

The late 1950s-the era when the novel was written-was a turbulent time in Pakistan’s history. It wasn’t the ideal time to be a student. Pakistani colleges have faced immense social and cultural challenges. Even before the anti-labour, anti-student military coup of 1958, Pakistani students were facing a host of issues such as rising tuition fees, inadequate or nonexistent library facilities, and lack of better classes.

These issues pointed to the need for the establishment of a proper university, and it is for the fulfilment of this aim that the leftist Democratic Students Federation (DSF) came into being in 1953. The government responded by founding a parallel organisation called the National Students Federation (NSF), consisting of the old nationalist student wing of the All India Muslim League (AIML), the Muslim Students Federation (MSF) and conservative students, to counter these demands.
Indeed, in the novel itself, the main protagonist Raees-ul-Hasan is shown as being enrolled in the second year of college for as long as eight years.

Both students and professors are wary of him. He is a day scholar but chooses to remain in the student hostel. Then there are social problems on campus like gambling through card game which are ignored by the warden to preserve his own privileges.

It may also be noted here that a rather poignant symbol of the contrast between the old and the new is that Prince Chilli, the eponymous character of the book, is willing to shave off his beard in exchange for being patronized by his newfound ‘Chacha’ Raees.

This patronage comes into play when Chilli ‘s father disinherits him by coming to learn that he’s shaved off his hair, and the prince can’t afford his school fees and mess charges. Nonetheless, Raees has access to the fund he has set up for the Children’s Raising Association of Incompetent Children!

In October 1958, Ayub Khan became Pakistan’s first military dictator and promptly banned student unions and student politics. In 1962, the student movement in Pakistan, like its counterpart in India and around the world, split into pro-Peking and pro-Moscow factions engaged in a tussle for power, which benefited a new entrant to student politics, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Socially too, many college students, like the eponymous character of the novel, had begun arriving from the rural and conservative countryside to cities like Karachi, where they were indoctrinated by the likes of NSF and IJT. It is impossible to understand the novel’s subsequent story without these political and social developments in the Pakistan of the 1950s and 1960s.

So, Prince Chilli uncritically accepts Raees as his leader in return for the benefits of patronage. One such benefit is his introduction to a tawaif tastefully named Haqiqat (reality). During their first meeting at her Kotha, she asks him to visit her often. He ends up falling in love with her.

Raees drives him away from ‘Reality’ and into the arms of another patron, Sir Fayyaz. As part of the new arrangement, Prince Chilli is required to cultivate his new patron by excessively praising him for his chess moves at the exclusive Fairies Wing Club. An invitation to the birthday party of Sir Fayyaz’s daughter, Shahida, sets up a third avenue of patronage for Chilli. He begins to fall in love with Shahida and learns the art of buttering up her father by intentionally losing to him at the many chess sessions they have at the Fayyaz home.

Meanwhile, Raees himself is shown to be dealing with a revolt in his own ranks – a reference to the inter-union violence among students in the Pakistan of the 1950s. On at least two occasions, he is asked a question by Prince Chilli – why is Raees so kind and indulgent towards him. On the first occasion, Raees says that social service is his motto; on the second occasion he is a bit more specific and personal in that he ‘wants to defeat headstrong parents.’ Could these headstrong parents be a metaphor for the so-called paternalistic Pakistani state under Ayub Khan?

Raees, who had put a stop to Chilli’s love affair with ‘Reality’, actively encourages his pursuit of Shahida. Shahida also confesses her love for Chilli. Sir Fayyaz too is happy, but once he finds out that Chilli has been disinherited by his parents he tells him not to come to his house again.

After a hastily organised marriage – which, as the reader finds out, could not have been possible without the intervention of the interior minister – and eventual acceptance by Shahida’s father, the novel moves forward after Raees sensationally admits to Chilli that Shahida was once betrothed to him in childhood.

Prince Chilli is now ready to be exploited once again — not only by his wife but also by her sympathetic cousin, Naheed, who has ‘revolutionary ideas’ and, like his benefactor Raees, is hell-bent on avenging selfish old men, in this case, Chilli’s father-in-law, Sir Fayyaz. It also transpires that Chilli is a cog in the wheel, part of his wife’s scheme of being the leader of a group of strong and healthy women who will eventually kidnap men from the street. He is to serve as a guinea pig in this scheme.

A true comedy of errors ensues as Chilli flits from one patron to another – from would-be ‘comrades’ (while torn between Shahida and Naheed) back to ‘Chacha’ Raees, who apparently is ready with another plan for his beloved ‘nephew’: a sensational escape to idyllic Rajgarh, where he stays with a mystery partner in a hotel room before he is ‘rescued’ by a blonde femme fatale called Sonia who then conveniently disappears after depositing him in another dreamy place, ‘far across the horizon’, only to be accosted by the police on the charges of cocaine-smuggling and put in jail.

Meanwhile, Shahida has been persuaded to be at her husband’s side by a sympathetic housekeeper. Once again, the good offices of Raees ensure that Prince Chilli is swiftly brought out of jail and he is on his way to commencing a comfortable domestic life with Shahida.
Some of the political and cultural references in Prince Chilli refer to later developments in Pakistan, following the ouster of Ayub Khan by a powerful student movement across the country.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had become the darling of the NSF after the Indo-Pak war of 1965 and his public break with Ayub Khan; even the pro-government MSF began to support him. The 1970s became the golden era of student politics in Pakistan, though, unlike the 1960s, the student movement would never again be able to topple another Pakistani ruler.

It is tempting to compare the fictional Raees and Prince Chilli with the real-life Tipu, but Raees is too comfortably ensconced in the corridors of government and Chilli in domesticity for them to end up like Tipu!
Safi may not have seen the rise of the likes of Tipu, but the astute social critic and humourist that he was, in the novel itself he poked fun at the opportunism in the ranks of the socialists within the student unions and gently critiqued the contradictions within Bhutto’s party, which led to his overthrow in July 1977.

Then there are other social and cultural changes which Safi chronicles in Prince Chilli. Most of these changes took place with the ushering in of the Bhutto government. A more liberal atmosphere exemplified by cafes like the Fairies Wing Club in the novel; class conflict as highlighted by the romance between scions of the rural classes (Chilli) and women of the upper class (Shahida and Naheed); conflicts between the hereditary rich (Naheed) and the newly-rich (Shahida); and the independent and outspoken streak of Pakistani women, rebelling against their parents by getting involved with and marrying middle or lower-class men (the effect of women’s lib and its impact on Pakistani society).

The reader remembers that Shahida’s father tried to sabotage her marriage to Chilli, forcing her to move out of her paternal home eventually. Another interesting issue, namely the use of hashish among college and university students in the Pakistan of the 1970s, is lightly alluded to in the novel, with the Rajgarh police trying to unsuccessfully implicate first Raees and then his protégé Chilli in a case of cocaine smuggling.

The hippie culture of the time also manifests in the novel by way of Chilli’s decision to shave off his beard, as does the rise of ‘Gunda-raj ‘in the streets over ideology and over women. One can argue that Safi’s novel comes as close to depicting the populist-liberalism of the 1970s as some of the superhit Pakistani films of that period like Samaj and Aaina.

It is thus a huge pity that Ibne Safi is known in our midst more for his bestselling detective novels than for his poetry or social satire. In Prince Chilli, he identified a national condition that was and continues to be as symbolic of Pakistan as Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov was of 19th century Russia and Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was of the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in pre-World War II Germany.

Forty years on from Safi’s death and on the second anniversary of the elections that voted in Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan as I write this piece, he deserves our gratitude and appreciation for daring to interpret our national maladies with sparkling wit that is as instructive and relevant as it is entertaining.

(In Inputs with The Wire)

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