Osama Siddique’s Snuffing Out the Moon leaves us with a disturbing thought that is pertinent to the Orwellian world we now inhabit.
A superficial reading might dismiss Osama Siddique’s debut novel, Snuffing Out the Moon, as a well-crafted but contrived effort. There are enough reasons to arrive at such a hasty conclusion since no cohesive plot is visible and the storyline is jerky. Event ‘A’ does not follow event ‘B’ and ‘X’ does not come before ‘Y’. In fact, the writer seems to have broken every rule they teach you in creative writing to put together this engaging and disturbing tale that criss-crosses the past, present and future.
That Siddique does that and delivers an engaging narrative of considerable depth is what makes his work stand out. Snuffing Out the Moon is, by any yardstick, bold and original in its architecture, high on imagination and has an urgency that is remarkable. What else can one say when within the space of the first 67 pages – in six pithy chapters – the reader is taken back to 2084 BCE and then transported to a futuristic world in 2084 CE.
This opening tour, which sets the template for the story, offers a broad sweep that takes in its stride Mohenjodaro, Takshashila, Punjab (during the Mughal Empire), the 1857 uprising and Lahore in 2009 before culminating in 2084 CE with the Water Conglomerate (South Asian Corridor, Zone 15).
It is a challenging canvas, although Siddique’s narrative is not a historical novel in the conventional sense since it does not attempt to religiously recreate history. What the novel does instead is to explore the evil that resides in humans. Call it our baser instincts, but it is a force which manifests in acts of authoritarianism, cruelty, despotism, greed, bigotry, racism and discrimination. These, in turn, lead to wars, genocides and eventual self-destruction. This narrative of dark forces and catastrophes has not changed over time and there is nothing to suggest that it won’t happen in the near future.
History tells us that civilizations which once flourished were reduced to ruins in the suicidal march. Snuffing Out the Moon seems to suggest that the rise of evil is repetitive across eras and is cyclical. Are we then, despite all the scientific and technological advances, slowly but surely heading towards our own self-scripted apocalypse?
The disturbing thought that the book leaves us with is pertinent to the Orwellian world we now inhabit. A world where governments are becoming increasingly authoritarian, intolerance is on the rise, misinformation is being wantonly disseminated and weapons of mass destruction are waiting for the trigger.
And yet, despite the human propensity to commit hara-kiri, each era holds out hope in those who dared and will dare to dissent and challenge the system. In Mohenjodaro (circa 2084 BCE), Siddique presents us Prkaa, a young man who is disturbed by the growing political power of the priestly class and the unhealthy influence they wield over the common folk. Some four thousand years later, Air Rider and combat specialist Prashanto Adam Farooqui is distressed by the brutal doctrine of ‘Seek and Render Harmless’, which effectively means ‘Hunt Down and Kill’ that the Water Conglomerate ruling the world employs against Regressives –the ‘pathetic and forgettable debris of previous eras’. In present-day Lahore (2009 CE), we encounter the widow Rafiya Begum who doggedly fights a legal battle against all odds.
There are six protagonists across eras who wage battles. They either stand up for truth, challenge the system, question the legitimacy of religion, defy dogmas or simply exploit the exploiters. They are not all heroes and do not always emerge as victors. But they have one thing in common – they live by their convictions. The book, as its promo succinctly puts it, is a cry for freedom and a call for resistance.
There are several observations/descriptions in the novel that transcend time and are relevant today as much as it was in the past and possibly, in the future too. Here is sampling from the Mohenjodaro of the book:
“Public rituals were elaborately structured, grandly orchestrated and took place with such regularity that there was now a cluttered calendar of sacred days and prescribed practices. Citizens were persuaded to recognise that it would be foolhardy of them not to imbue every important personal act with sacred blessings…The officiators of the new religion thought it fit to play a cardinal role not just in the domain of the spiritual but also in that of state, politics, commerce and even in the private lives of men and women. And who was to question them?”
Cut to Alexander Al-Murtaza Afaqi, a historian who suspects the Resident Reviewer Roy aka RRR (the Big Brother of the Water Conglomerate) of not only secretly subjecting him to a mind inquisition but also of spying on his dreams. Afaqi is guilty of writing objectionable research papers that probe the events that led to the rise of the new world order controlled by totalitarian and ruthless water conglomerates. This is Big Brother’s advice to him:
“Listen, old friend. You know that I have always been a straight talker. You need to get your act together. You can’t possibly imagine – increasingly cut off from things as you are –the furore after your last ramblings. I say without pause that you have been an inspiration – a muse for the new age, and a scholar both respected and readable. Don’t turn into an offensive and self-indulgent obscurantist…But much damage has already been done. Your latest tracts continued to raise eyebrows – the ones you refused to retract and which had to be necessarily suppressed. Some have not forgotten that. You need to make a suitable comeback; there will be no true forgetting, let alone absolution, until you do so.”
Afaqi is told in no uncertain terms to mend his ways and toe the line. He refuses.
Snuffing Out the Moon is a work of fiction that is dark by the very nature of the theme that it explores. But Siddique injects the narrative with doses of black humour that provide relief. Take, for example, the spiel given by a lawyer to Rafiya Begum for the slow movement of her property dispute case in a Lahore court:
“Rafiya Bibi, I will provide all the legal arguments, but the court staff also looks for some other arguments. It needs persuasion. It needs inducements. It needs well-timed encouragements or fairly soon one discovers that court proceedings have slowed down to a halt or that one’s case file has been accidentally lost or drenched in the rain or a key document carried away by a crow… I don’t really blame them – how is a person expected to feed his family with this inhuman inflation?”
But why did Siddique – a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a lawyer in New York and Lahore and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School – take time out from his academic pursuits and write a novel? According to him, fiction “provides tremendous flexibility” and affords space for themes which he could not accommodate in his legal writings. “Themes ranging, for instance, from ancient political landscapes to omens of impending evil to lives of petty criminality to literature as a weapon of protest to social media as a medium for hate mongering to environmental apartheids of the near future. Only fiction allows engagement with all this in one book. Such is its largesse. Hence the novel.”
Siddique’s debut has more than justified his foray into fiction. The moon, which has silently witnessed the waxing and waning of civilisations and the cyclic ascent of dissent, will vouch for that.
Ajith Pillai is a senior journalist, and author of Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary and Junkland Journeys.