15 May 2011

The Life's Too Short Literary Review

Not a glimpse of home
By a coincidence, I was listening to Coke Studio – lying in bed, willing myself to recover from a mysterious affliction – while I read this book.
Coke Studio is a Pakistani television series that features live music performances. I enjoyed some of the tracks and was struck by the different global influences on indigenous Pakistani music, in particular the specific sounds and rhythms of 1970s Hindi film music and of course a major contribution from Sufi music too.

It provided the perfect setting for these stories which are also distinctively Pakistani with their own set of varied influences. Baby by Mehreen Ajaz, for instance, is about a couple on the verge of pregnancy: he’s twenty and she’s barely nineteen; both are new to sex, both clumsy and awkward. We never learn their names or where they live – but it’s a place with an Andy Warhol exhibit and you can buy pretzels, so probably nowhere near Pakistan. Settling Affairs by Rayika Choudri tells us what happens after Khalida Begum Sahib, who lived till the age of eighty-three, died. Her father was English, a businessman who met her mother in India, married and converted to Islam. She was twelve when they moved from Bangalore to London. At twenty-one she married an Indian and they moved from London to Salzburg at the time when Europe was recovering from the effects of the Second World War. So even though this story does afford peeks into various aspects of Pakistani life, there is a cosmopolitan feel to it. Ruth and Richard by Madiha Sattar is an unabashedly New York story – but this has penetrating glimpses into Pakistan too.
The winning entry, Lucky People by Sadaf Halai, has a traditional middle-class couple alongside a modern one, and could just as well have been set in India. The same could be said of my personal favourite, Mir Sahib’s Hairdo by Danish Islam, which does a great job of juxtaposing slapstick with sophisticated humour while exploring male vanity in a characteristically subcontinental environment. Still, I did feel that the stories in this book transported me to Pakistan – its cities, its countryside and villages. It introduced me to Pakistani people from every socio-economic background and with very varied values and schemes of existence.
As I do with every encounter with anything to do with Pakistan, I looked for echoes of home. One set of my ancestors came from Sindh, and Partition created in their descendants a community without any place they can call home. The awareness that there is indeed a region on this planet where Sindhi is spoken on the streets is one that creates strong and contrasting feelings in me. I’ve never found those echoes I’m looking for before, and, quite predictably, did not find them here either.
All the stories in this volume are exceptionally well written. They are the finalists of a writing competition across Pakistan held in March 2009 by the Zohra & ZZ Ahmed Foundation. There was no entry fee, and a prize of Rs 100,000 was offered for the winning story. The judges were Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie. The book itself is artistically designed, and includes a collection of colour photographs depicting some incongruities of life in Pakistan, and a page of early notes from Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, I suppose in his handwriting. There's a translation of Urdu pulp fiction, Challawa, by Mohammed Hanif, which I enjoyed immensely, and the first chapter of Musharraf Ali and Michelle Farooqi's forthcoming graphic novel Rabbit Rap. So in all, a good dose of glamour too.

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