Set in an imaginary Eastern land, Hammad Rind’s Four Dervishes centers on four strangers as they gather around a fireplace to exchange stories while taking shelter from the rain. The book merges magical realism with dastan, a form of oral storytelling with origins in medieval Iran: the book’s title is borrowed from the “Tale of the Four Dervishes”, a dastan by the 13th century Indo-Persian Sufi poet Amir Khusro.
The story begins with a power outage, as citizens are about to settle down one evening to watch the nation’s favorite television show:
It was a ritual, a tradition, a ceremony of almost religious status and one of the few which bonded our people together, providing them with icebreakers for chilly, awkward social occasions. During that one hour, life would come to a standstill, nothing happening – all kind of activities, idleness, progress, regression, frolicking, skirt-chasing, fornication, petty crimes, misdemeanors, even felonies – yes, during that one hour burglars would refrain from breaking into the shiny marble bungalows of patricians; murderers would spare the lives of their victims for those sixty minutes.
Although sorrowful at the recent departure of his love interest, Zuleika, the narrator nevertheless finds humor in the discomforts of the power cut. Venturing into a cemetery to pass time, he witnesses a small group of individuals conducting a burial. As thunder and lightning give way to rain, Zeno the gravedigger beckons the small group to take shelter inside his hut. The strangers sit on a rug by the fireplace, surrounded by towers of classical books. It soon becomes apparent they are in the home of an erudite gravedigger, which becomes the perfect setting for the story.
We first hear the tales of Leila, an aristocrat from a land of “hardworking, hairy and superstitious” people. She narrates tales of her childhood and the strange custom she underwent in which she was made to marry a book to save her family from losing their ancestral lands:
After the reception, I was taken to the nuptial chamber to wait for the arrival of my husband. Around midnight my mother came in holding my groom in her arms. She laid him on the flower-laden bed. I glanced at him blushingly. At least he was thick—so thick that you could use him as a dining chair. I touched his cover and found it velvety.
And of Freydoune or Freddy, raised in the West by a mother who wishes to hide all traces of her own heritage in raising her son, only to drive him further Eastward to discover his origins:
My parents, and especially my mother, never uttered a word about their past. Although they never said anything explicit about her roots, I was tacitly made to believe that they were a local couple. However, when I attained more understanding about my surroundings, especially after I was enrolled in a school, I started to see potholes in this version of their wordless story. For instance, my mother had a slow drawl in her accent and her mannerism which I had grown up seeing as normal was slightly different from that of the other women I saw around me, such as my schoolmates’ mothers.
The story then shifts to the tales of Zeno, the gravedigger and finally Zoltan, a criminal with a dark past. In the storytelling of all characters, the author uses humor and folklore in his application of magical realism to the traditional dastan.
Four Dervishes invokes the magic of storytelling as a temporary diversion from the humdrum of daily existence and an escape into another time and place through the lives of others. At times these places seem otherworldly. The pace follows the dastan style of storytelling as it meanders from one tale to another. While characteristic of this distinctive style of oral storytelling, at times this technique requires the reader to pause to follow the storyline.
Hammad Rind was born in rural Punjab, Pakistan and is a linguist, fluent in eight languages. Greek and Italian as well as Turkish, Persian and Arab words appear throughout the book. Four Dervishes is testimony to his passion for language and world literature and evokes not just Eastern classics of the genre such as One Thousand and One Nights but also Chaucerian tale-telling.
Farida Ali @farida_art is an art historian and writer. Her work has appeared in Scroll and elsewhere.