A modern classic of Hindi literature bows in English.
Parrots, metaphorical and literal, flit about this shaggy tale originally published in 1995 by the renowned Bhopal-born writer Ahtesham. “Zamir Ahmed Khan couldn’t understand how an entire species of bird could fall from grace for such a small act of ingratitude,” writes Ahtesham early on, noting the parrots’ failure to attach themselves to humans with doglike bonds of affection. Besides, Zamir notes, “to raise a parrot“ is proverbial for nursing a bad habit. Something is wrong with Zamir, but he doesn’t quite know what, and he never quite figures it out. The start of the story finds him calling on a gold-toothed Doctor Crocodile, who can find nothing wrong with him apart from a certain existential ennui. Not reassured, Zamir stumbles through life, encountering one parrot and one bad habit after another, while Ahtesham explores the lives of his fellow Muslims in ways that would sometimes seem to approach heresy: Here a woman returns from a hajj to Mecca glad to have survived the throng, saying scornfully, “Everyone goes through the motions, but no one has the brains to get the hidden meaning behind.” There Zamir, having learned to drink alcohol and commit indiscretions of the flesh, misunderstands the meaning behind a woman’s dark confession; “I didn’t tell you all this just to make you my secret keeper," she yells, throwing a volume of Freud at him as he makes good his escape. “Booze is as far as it goes!” he laments. “No gambling, no women. That’s the limit!” Alas, the limits are permeable, and if Zamir ends up no less discontented, he learns to appreciate simple things such as counting “flocks of birds as they flew from one end of the sky to the other,” even in the face of the disaster that put Bhopal on the map.
A sometimes-picaresque, sometimes-somber, always memorable portrait of life in all its glorious complexity, no matter how wearying.