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Tanoli: Review of Teen Sanki: News On Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cover of first edition of Teen SankiParallels between Teen Sanki, a series of four novels by Ibne Safi written in 1975, and the current situation in FATA started getting noticed around 2008. I (Khurram Ali Shafique) mentioned them in my online writings as well as the television programme 'Geo Kitab' aired in January 2009.

A few weeks later, I came upon this write-up in the 'Kolachi' section of News on Sunday, the weekend supplement of The News International. It seems that the writer, Mr. Tanoli, was not aware of my statements and arrived upon same conclusions independently.

This well-written piece which beautifully captures the essence of a difficult matter is being included in these archives as "a tribute to the foresight of Urdu writers" (which is an epithet used for Ibne Safi's novel in this write-up).

Urdu Fiction that has sadly turned to fact

Urdu writer Ibn-e-Safi may have written his action novel "Teen Sanki" in the 70s but what he wrote then is strikingly true in present day Pakistan. His book is a tribute to the foresight of Urdu writers, some of whom wrote about conditions in the country which have unfortunately come true, beyond our wildest imaginations.

Published in 1975, "Teen Sanki" is set in a fictional place called "Shakral" located in the tribal areas and revolves around a horrific experiment carried out on the locals by foreign elements. Decades before anything of the sort was seen in the area, the novel mentions cameras that can transmit images from deep in the forest.

It was penned at a time when there was no hint of the trouble that would rip the tribal areas apart in the decades to come, but it rings hauntingly true in today's era of the War on Terror. Teen Sanki begins with the disappearance a group of men who had gone into the desert.

Tribal chief Shahbaz Kohi, along with six companions, goes missing and is last seen going to Rehban, a place in tribal areas, to investigate the mysterious disappearance and return of 11 tribesmen. The 11 men eventually return from the desert, but start to behave very strangely. Without telling anybody why, they isolate themselves from everyone they know, and even start to shun the company of their families.

Meanwhile, a shocking realisation dawns upon the locals as a number of them begin to change their appearance. They act and talk like normal human beings, but their body begins to sprout thick, dark fur, until nobody can deny that they have been transformed into gorillas. Through all of this, Ali Imran, the hero of the novel, remains wearily unsurprised.

"What can I say?" says Imran, the hero of the novel. "Anyone who can make an atom bomb can surely turn human beings into animals for entertainment."

The villains of the novel are foreign, and when Imran plaintively asks one of them why his tribal area has been chosen for the experiment, he receives a chilling reply: "The local are uncivilised and believe in superstition, but more importantly, we have space to do it here. It was a perfectly harmless experiment. Everything was being done for the welfare of humanity, but the present circumstances have made bloodshed necessary."

For all his shortcomings, this foreign character makes an insightful comment. "These people cannot tolerate anything that doesn't conform to their religious views."

If anyone in the novel could have foreseen this, it is Imran. Previously, Imran had warned a younger native that Shakral would run into trouble unless it learns to cope with the modern world. When the tribal chief snaps, "I can't trust foreigners!" Imran replies, "You have to. These Western people have an astonishing attitude. When one of their groups fires at us, a second group is ready to give first aid to the injured."

The violence in this previously peaceful area escalates to a point where both sides hold hostages. Evocative of today's political "with us or against us" frame of mind, the leader of the foreign mission issues an ultimatum: if our prisoners are not released, the whole area will be bombed.

Whether or not the area is bombed is left to the reader to find out, but what is certain is that the events that must have seemed so unrealistic at the time have proved to be prophetic today. As noted fiction writer Shakil Adilzada says of Ibn-e-Safi, "He had great vision and wrote about things that weren't present then but happened later."

Adilzada, ruefully adds, "Writers can often imagine what will happen in the years to come, but compared to the West, fiction writers in Pakistan receive no importance at all." There are novels that exist strictly in the moment, and there are novels that are ahead of their time and read as though the writer could peer into the future. "Teen Sanki" has a firm place in the latter category.

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