“An important book” – Kahani: Short Stories by Pakistani Women – edited by Aamer Hussein

This collection of short stories has been compiled exclusively from work by female Pakistani authors. While the stories seem like a cry for the liberation of Pakistani women from the social constraints of their world, they are also in many ways stories without gender because the underlying themes are universal. Death, exile and memory: all of these are explored through the experiences of female narrators. What these stories, each one unique in its style, say about these themes is charged with the weight of Pakistani culture: its religious constraints and ideals, its views on women and its political past. We therefore get a taste of the impact of these constraints on the lives of women and the families they rear; like the constant erosion of water on rock it seems unavoidable, and it always ends in pain.

‘The Sin of Innocence’, by Umme Umara, takes up the subject of exile, which, for many families, was the result of the partition of India into two countries in 1947. Pakistan was born at that time, and because the division was made on sectarian grounds, it inflamed tensions between Hindus and Muslims and obliged thousands of people to abandon their homes and move. ‘The Sin of Innocence’ recounts the experience of a child uprooted from her home and sent to live the other side of the border. As the father puts it, “Nothing is possible here any more”. They are living in a “foreign country”, urged by economic constraints to make the move even if they didn’t want to.

“Then one day they all stood on the platform waiting for the train to carry them from the foreign land to their own country.”

While things start out hopeful, and the family tries to bury the old memories and recreate some new ones, the reality of the new country does not let them. They cannot “graft themselves on this soil”. The old freedoms they used to have are lost in this new landscape where even their language is suppressed.

The partition of India was a mess, and the reason it happened is still a subject of contention, and one the British government would rather forget. Whatever the individual efforts of men such as Mountbatten may have been, the broader political picture tells a familiar story of colonial manipulation. The outcome of this politics runs through ‘The Sin of Innocence’ like a knife. The father, who had “sought salvation in a future for his children” prays to be “spared a burial in this land”; the ending is a bitter one indeed.

The female condition, for Pakistani women, is summed up in ‘Voyages of Sleep’ by Azra Abbas. It is a series of vignettes, beautifully composed, full of sadness and poignancy. The cry for liberation comes through here; the desire to escape can only be fulfilled in dream time:

“Because, sitting by our mother’s sides, we would be stitching clothes and a spicy, dust-coloured odour would be emanating from kitchens”.

When they leave their maidenhood behind and enter the forest of womanhood to “quench their thirst from snake-filled ponds” it is only the night of dreams that will release them from the “suffering of hapless days”.

The next experience of marriage in ‘Tempest in Autumn’, by Hijab Imtiaz Ali, is no less discouraging. A wife has made a bad marriage; as the shadows of the dark season close in on her there seems only one way out: murder. As her friend unconsciously encourages her to take the only liberating step, the tempest howls a warning. But the tension breaks, the impetus is lost, for a while; although the danger is perceived, we wonder how long it will be before it is entirely disregarded — as the author points out, “the mysteries of the night were growing, growing”.

The final story of the collection, ‘Hoops of Fire’ by Khalida Husain, suggests a powerful antidote to the female condition. As a woman is abandoned by her husband, her friends rally round with words of comfort. Only the narrator holds back. The accepted reaction is to commiserate, to admire the “treasure of tears” that every woman weeps like a circus dog leaping through a ring of fire on command. The difference between what is expected and what is felt causes the narrator to choose a leap into the unknown over social conformity. The final jump through the hoop of death is one that must be made alone. There will be no false comfort, no false hope, but there will be liberation.

Any Cop?: An important book, not just for Pakistani women but for anyone who sympathises with the feminist cause.

 

Lucille Turner

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