Riffat Hadia’s Pinjray Mein Parwaaz is framed against the background of an era when the tortured souls of men flapped their wings wildly to break through the barriers of the captive inner self, for this is the age we live in. The writer unwinds the enigmas of human existence and the ultimate solution with a positivity and sensitivity that can only come from the pen of someone who has fought the battles of life with spiritual antidotes.
Given her credentials as a devotee of the Inayati Order of Sufism, Hadia’s is a representative, persuasive voice about spiritual experiences. Yet her book reads like a fairy tale where the human condition is painted through the eyes, emotions and actions — warts and all — of birds and animals. It is a bold experiment indeed, leaving the task of codifying its genre to the reader’s imagination. Take it as a parable of humans trying to break free from earthly shackles or a simple fable; either way, the book invites deep thinking.
Hadia’s fettered Nightingale, the protagonist of this absorbing novel, has known no life save one of oppressive captivity. The possibility of unhinging the chains she was born into is a surprise gift sprung upon her by Nur Pari, who will ultimately lead her to freedom. But before that, our heroine must weather the travails of annihilating the ego in true Sufi tradition. It will not be an easy journey. There will be tests to endure, physical and emotional pain to withstand and a maze of mysteries to unravel. Scholastic lessons will be imbibed, exciting discoveries will be made. There will be an arduous search for truth, breakthroughs about the reality of life and both fair and foul will have to be taken in stride.
In sync with the human condition, the Nightingale initially has no idea of her options or if there is any cure to her predicament. She is resigned to enduring the agony of captivity. It is only after her chance encounter with Nur Pari, a prototype of the Sufi master, that the clouds begin to part. Thereafter opens a new world but, though it beckons enticingly, it requires complete allegiance to a teacher who is gentle, yet also a demanding master brooking no truancy. Just as she is poised to take flight, the Nightingale — like her human archetype — is dragged into a series of misfortunes through mismatched matrimony. This allegorical marriage puts her back into a world beset by greed, where might is right. The pain of uprooting brings its own unmitigated persecution, coupled with unjust oppression in a milieu of ignorance and tyranny where mystifyingly, the persecuted, and not the persecutor, is the one at fault.
Hadia’s all-encompassing solution to this suffering is the stuff of ripening, transcendent dreams coming of age under the tutelage of a spiritual master. Slowly but surely, she unfolds the mysteries of transcendence into a superior, satiated state of existence akin to the ‘Nafs-i-Mutmainah’, which is the zenith of existence. The Nightingale’s flight to freedom is ridden with lessons that seem at times harsh and exacting, but are gently explained away by the reality that adversity must be borne by the seeker on the road to peace. Patience, perseverance, grit and single-minded devotion are the essentials for spiritual fulfilment. The inside story is that the spiritual syllabus is deliberately designed to be tough by the masters, so as to bring an awareness of the Creator’s reality, the essential truth.
Hadia’s protagonist in this absorbing tale of suffering countered with perseverance may be a mere bird, but the relevance to the human condition is very much in tune with the Persian poet Fariduddin Attar’s legendary magnum opus, The Conference of the Birds. Once awoken to reality, the Nightingale, like her human counterpart, is curious and desirous of seeking the truth. She is keen to unravel the knots. She readily imbibes the wisdom of the sages brought to her by the teachers encountered on her journey.
The flight of the Eagle teaches negation of the egotistical self, a rising above the mundane. The battle between the Serpent and the Eagle brings the realisation that the dispenser of life and death is none but God. The erudite commentary of the Pigeon about the mystical impact of zikr [devotional recitation] brings the understanding that the Creator’s being is infinite. At Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s mausoleum, the music accompanying the dhamal [dance] is a metaphor for the universality of faith, erasing the barriers framed by religion and ethnicity. The Teacher’s explanation of the Urdu alphabet Alif to her students sitting under the banyan tree becomes occasion to discuss Bulleh Shah’s spiritual sagacity and the ethics of meditation.
These and a wealth of similar exposures ultimately lead the Nightingale to master the true meaning of life, putting an end to her travails. She is now the victor in a world of woe, revelling in inner peace, content with her station in life. The repressive ego, the cause of so much misery, has at last been subdued. The soul has been cleansed. The stage has been set for the final flight. The halo of the ultimate truth is within reach. What more could mortal man want?
Pinjray Mein Parwaaz is Hadia’s debut into prose fiction. She has chosen to write about a mystifying, often misinterpreted subject which has had too many pseudo-exponents. That she has managed to bring out the spirit of Sufi ideology would not be an understatement because hers is a treatise based on knowledge of the subject, and very readably written. The message is clear: The Sufi path, and the fruition of the wisdom that comes with it, is fraught with difficulties. It requires discipline of the highest order. Yet it is not beyond human reach. Although a complete story in itself, Pinjray Mein Parwaaz is the first part of an intended trilogy. Let us hope Hadia remains steadfast in her ambition.
The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development. Currently she teaches Content Writing and Editing for Journalism at Lums Lifetime Learning Programme