November issue 2006

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 18 years ago

It is easy to judge a book by its cover. It’s also easy to judge one by its title. So if a man were to come across a book with “Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women” as a sub-title, it would be understandable if preconceptions of a book laden with unbridled feminist rants flooded his mind.

If he passed on the book, though, it would be a shame. For in this instance, the collection of short stories assembled and edited by Muneeza Shamsie is anything but a series of rants. And the World Changed brings together short stories and excerpts from previously published novels to create a compelling read. The Pakistani writers featured here provide sophisticated tales without sounding overwhelmingly righteous. Yes, gender issues are at the fore, but for the most part the writers don’t preach.

The lead-off story, however, is both appropriate and misleading of what is to follow. Shahrukh Husain’s ‘Rubies for a Dog’ is a fable with an overtly ‘girl power’ message. Inspired by ‘The Tale of Azad Bakht,’ originally written in 1803, ‘Rubies’ is less subtle and sophisticated in its message than many of the other stories, but its strength lies in its pure, captivating story-telling. Presented as a classic quest for justice and redemption, Husain weaves in themes of courage, loyalty and equality to create a relevant and inspirational tale.

Many of the selections are much more effective in showing how truly contemporary these women writers are, as the pieces are daring both in content and style. Soniah Kamal’s ‘Runaway Truck Ramp’ is a standout story for openly tackling the quintessential Pakistani taboo subject: sex. Her approach is both clever and candid. It’s candid for the relaxed manner in which she delivers the details of a fling that quickly turns ugly for a young woman because of her partner’s double standards and his view that she is just “practice.” The cleverness lies in how Kamal explores inbred and distasteful attitudes towards sex, for her heroine is not a young Pakistani woman, but a white American who hooks up with a charming Pakistani man.

In fact, several of the writers go further in their explorative approach of gender issues by creating stories that present male heroes. ‘Kucha Miran Shah’ by Feryal Ali Gauhar, ‘Staying’ by Sorayya Khan and ‘The Arsonist’ by Bapsi Sidhwa all cast men as protagonists, and we watch how they adapt to their changing worlds, and how the women in their lives are affected by their changing men. However, despite Sidhwa’s superb, tension-filled writing, it would have been more rewarding to see something new in this collection from the household-name, rather than an excerpt from a 25-year-old novel.

Others use unlikely male characters to act as witnesses to the changing times. ‘And the World Changed,’ the story from which the book borrows its title, is a penetrating look at the divisive nature of war on a local level, focussing on the observations of a five-year-old boy. Sabyn Javeri-Jillani describes a time before TV came to Pakistan, when BBC radio broadcasts drew a community together, only to later pull it apart. And in ‘Clay Fissures,’ Nayyara Rahman creates Pradeep Sehgal, “the adopted albino son of a Hindu merchant and a Eurasian seamstress,” to tackle themes of identity and home.

What is refreshing in this collection is how the book goes beyond Partition-era stories and those involving the marginalisation of women. The claim of “Contemporary Stories” is proven as the book presents women of all ages, classes, places and times, reflecting the growing Pakistani diaspora and a rapidly changing Pakistan, deeply in touch with the outside world. Women grow up and women grow old. Women witness change in the world around them, and explore their histories. And the writers’ Pakistani roots shine through as issues of God, the paranormal and tradition shade and enhance gender-coloured issues involving roles, worth and power.

Clearly, though, some writing stands head and shoulders above the others. ‘Look, But With Love’ is rich in detail and longing. In it, Uzma Aslam Khan captures and deftly uses one of the most unique features of Karachi, the colourful painted buses, to create a story of discovery and dreams in a city full of beauty and ugliness. Khan’s first line, “In Karachi, Salaamat learned new words fast,” is as compelling as her title, and as she draws you in, you are rewarded with full characters and flirtations with fantastical story-telling.

The most impressive bit of prose, though, might be the shortest. In ‘Surface of Glass,’ Kamila Shamsie shows in just three pithy pages why she has been widely recognised as one of Pakistan’s leading young writers. Her unique voice and playfulness are striking as she employs a maid servant and her abrasive relationship with the cook to explore themes of personal usefulness and faith. “So the cook knew — and Razia knew he knew — that cooks are for always and ayahs are for children.” When Razia’s son is not promoted, she blames and then confronts the cook. “He said, oh really, well, Allah’s will, here have some keema.”

This compilation is a feast of fresh fiction and helps to remind us that Pakistan has a wealth of strong fiction writers. Moreover, our women writers are adept at capturing — from every angle — the trials and events that shape us all: women, men and children. So, And the World Changed may be by women, but it is in no way exclusively for women.

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