April issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

When it comes to writers of South Asian origin living in the West and writing in English, questions of categorization and classification invariably arise. Should their work be seen in the context of postcolonial literature or should they simply be known as English-language authors? Are categories such as migrant literature or postcolonial writings helpful or limiting? Amid such questions exists a significant body of work of South Asian writers writing about the immigrant expatriate community in the West, including works by Hanif Kureishi, Bapsi Sidhwa, Jhampa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie, among many others. Rukhsana Ahmad, born in Pakistan and living in Britain, has also been contributing to this body of work through her many plays, her novel The Hope Chest (2002) and now, with The Gatekeeper’s Wife and other stories, through her short stories as well.

The Gatekeeper’s Wife and other stories, published by the Lahore-based ILQA publications, is a collection of stories Ahmad has written over the years, many of which have been previously anthologized elsewhere. The stories offer a wide tapestry of characters with diverse experiences. Most of the stories focus on characters belonging to the British Pakistani community, such as Shah Bano, a teenage girl whose brother is in the British Royal Air Force and Chandra, a high class escort working in London. However, some stories also focus on characters living in Pakistan. In the titular story, Annette, the British wife of a Pakistani man spends her days in Lahore looking after the animals of the Lahore Zoo. In A Day for Nuggo, a house maid slowly realizes her rights as a worker when she befriends a fiery member of the Christian sweepers’ community.

Ahmad’s stories vary not only in setting but also in style and genre, ranging from the realist social drama to the bizarre and fantastical. In The Spell and the Ever-changing Moon, Nisa turns to a strange black magic-wielding woman who offers a spell for Nisa’s domestic troubles with her abusive husband. In Cassandra and the Viaduct, Cass’s recurring nightmare about a bridge in Derbyshire proves to be cruelly prophetic. Stories such as these as well as others are infused with a sort of eeriness, giving them a preternatural quality.

Interestingly, the immigrant characters of the stories are not as concerned with ideas of identity and culture as characters that populate other migrant fiction. These characters are struggling to understand the world around them, sure, but their concerns about a rootlessness and cultural displacement are almost peripheral to their experiences. This offers a different view of migrant communities, people who are comfortable with living away from their home countries. There are only a few references to characters having to adapt to a foreign culture, such as Kaiser shortening her name to Cass (allowing people to mistakenly think her name is Cassandra) or Salim, having lived in Manchester for a decade, finally reuniting with his children and thinking they looked “poverty-stricken and much darker than he remembered.”

Even though most of Ahmad’s stories are interesting and her characters distinct, for some reason I had trouble connecting with them. Maybe it was the somewhat detached quality of her writing, or perhaps I was a bit thrown by the surreal elements of her stories. Some of the stories were confusing, and this is compounded by the bad editing of the book which has let slip many random capitalizations and unnecessary commas which was very distracting.

Although less compelling than some of the other South Asian fiction out there, The Gatekeeper’s Wife and other stories still offer a fascinating insight into the lives of richly drawn characters, both those living in Pakistan and those living abroad.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue under the headline, “Migrant Tales.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.