June 14, 2018

Of Dishes and Disappointment: Shazaf Fatima Haider's Pavlova is way too biased

(This is Review Part 1 of the Anthology titled Breakups)

I really liked Shazaf Fatima Haider’s firstfull-length novel, enough to have some leftover goodwill lingering on for this review. Which I think I needed, because my usual reaction to fiction that delves so deeply into the representation of religious figures is discomfort. That’s primarily because in terms of religion, the lines between valid representation and stereotyping blur so much that it’s hard to tell when the author’s personal biases are creeping in.

In this story, a young woman spends an afternoon making a decadent pavlova, delicious and sweet, but a visit from her mother with a friend in tow ruins the evening for her. Saira, our protagonist, seems like the perfect keeper – the kitchen is clean, the interior decoration is classy and refined, the dessert made to perfection. In the midst of her preparation of the coulis, her guests arrive.

She opened the door and in walked her mother, a small woman with smiling eyes, head covered with a thick scarf. Behind her was Aunty Tasneem, clad in black from head to foot. Small slits in the face revealed sharp, pointed eyes, raking Saira and her surroundings, assessing, taking stock. It was remarkable how much a niqab could highlight the eyes, and the sharpness behind them.

Now see, here’s where my disquiet creeps in. Because we have enough islamophobia in this world – and of course the image of the niqab-wearing woman is directly under attack by this threat. The assessing, judgemental look, the sharp eyes. I don’t need any more misogyny in my life, and I definitely don’t need to be reading about how religious people are more likely to be condemnatory and unforgiving. You could argue that there are people like that in this world, and you could argue that it’s just this story that represents them this way. You could even argue that the mother, smiling and clearly friendly, also has her head covered. But here’s my rebuttal: first, the dangers of the single story are many. We have enough people in this world physically and verbally attacking niqab-wearing woman for stories like this to not carry some weight. Second, the presence of Aunty Tasneem in this situation is stronger in this story, by which I mean that the mother’s obvious faithfulness is not as explicitly connected to her warm, welcoming personality. Aunty Tasneem, however, is clearly shown as hypercritical and disapproving, and using her religion to further that poison within her.

There are all kinds of people in this world: of course the disparaging female who cloaks herself in the piety of religion to spew hurtful things exists, and I know, because I’ve met her. But these people are also three dimensional: they are kind to strangers or they love gardening or they help those who are sick. The character of a woman who is shown as religious and mean, and only that, is a disservice to the current climate of fear that all Muslims live in. And make no mistake, Aunty Tasneem is consistently vicious. As soon as Saira’s mother and Aunty Tasneem settle down, the latter begins to question Saira’s life choices, most particular her lack of children – even though poor Saira explains that a car accident has not only killed her one child but rendered her incapable of conceiving. Undeterred, Aunty Tasneem uses that opportunity to hold forth about the importance of moderation as Saira’s mother, excited about the pavlova, goes for a second helping.

“Beta, don’t mind if I say something. I only tell you this out of love for you and your mother. It is the Will of Allah to grant his Momineen with family, to extend the empire of Islam. But we must make ourselves worth of His Grace. Obedience is key. As is abstinence. Only by forsaking worldly pleasures does one become a Momin.”

I’ve met countless people like these – you can’t escape them in Pakistan. People with a holier-than-thou attitude, who use the ‘I only say this for your own good’ line to lecture you endlessly about your life choices. My problem is not with the fact that this character exists; it’s that this character seems to be the only representation of Muslims within this story. And the only representation in most forms of media. We already have movies bombarding us with images of the Islamic terrorist; do we need more conservative, high-minded sermons from such versions of Islam? We do not.

Aunty did most of the reporting – how Mrs. Naseem was having a tough time with the Arabic and Mrs. Mobashir had stopped wearing lipstick and nail polish since it was haram to do so and Parveen had quarrelled with her mother over the cutting of hair, it being unIslamic and all.

Unfortunately, this stereotyping also bleeds into another equally over-used trope: that of the gossiping desi auntie. Recently my group of friends were discussing the title Trust No Aunty, and how one of my friend’s mother had pointed out the sexism inherently present in that book. It’s true though: you might know the gossiping aunties – I certainly do – but the stereotypical representation of them as doing nothing but that is such a disservice to them. It’s certainly their most irritating quality, but once you notice how heavily invested we are as a community in defining women within those boundaries, it starts to get alarming. Once again, the defense here is that women like Aunty Tasneem exist, to which I say, once again, enough with this boring pigeonholing already.

“Tell me, Saira,” the older woman asked, her voice not without malice since she knew well the answer to the question she was about to ask. “How many children do you have?”

Millions of girls all over the world are being asked this question. I myself have been subjected to it at least twice a day ever since I got married. But we need to move past stories that only tell this story. And I know for a fact that Shazaf Fatima Haider can write really well. It’s clear that her command of the language is excellent, and her flow is very controlled. I just wish she would write something better.

June 10, 2018

Of Bhutto and Boredom: Sabyn Javeri's Nobody Killed Her is the next Bollywood masala drama

There’s this shelf I have on Goodreads which I call ‘Good idea, bad execution’. This novel is the lord and master of that shelf.

Weirdly enough, I can’t exactly pinpoint why it’s that bad. On the surface, it looks so good. Two complex female characters whose main focus is politics and intrigue and each other. It can’t get better than that. Except, turns out, it very much can.

Nazo, our protagonist, is the personal assistant to Rani Shah, who is heir to a political dynasty. Except that for this title, you can replace Rani Shah with Benazir Bhutto and Nazo with Bhutto’s real life political secretary Nahid Khan. I’m not sure how closely this book follows the bond between these women, but most of it is pretty parallel in terms to politics, husband, scandals, etc. In retrospect, the reason I didn’t love this book at all might have had to do something with its political leanings. I’m not a big fan of politics, and I’ve never pretended otherwise, so a book only retains my attention if it’s unusually compelling in terms of its intrigues in government dealings - The Goblin Emperor, while not set in our times, has the best political intrigue set-up I’ve ever read, even if it is a character driven novel. This book did not manage to make its politics compelling enough, or for that matter make me care about its characters enough. Which is quite sad since Pakistani politics can make for great entertainment, given their crazy, often unbelievable, and mostly volatile nature.

You slammed the telephone into the wall after yet another call about delayed elections. You slapped a party worker reading a paper that blared the headline ‘No Polls Ahead’. You knocked off the radio when it announced conditions were too hostile for electioneers. You nearly smashed the TV screen during the General’s address in which he told the public that he simply could not put the country’s future into the hands of corrupt and power-hungry disbelievers – in other words, politicians. But it was only when the bastard announced that women could neither vote nor contest for office that you broke down.

Again and again I am amazed at how frustrating and boring reading this book was, given that there were so many things on the surface I could have loved. There were paragraphs in the text that I wanted to highlight, but they came so rarely and the book stretched on for so long that by the end I was just begging it to end. Even though we follow the story of Nazo, a refugee whose family has been killed by a military dictator (a stand-in for General Zia-ul-Haq), and through Nazo the story of Rani Shah, whose father (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, of course) has been hanged by said dictator, it still manages to retain none of the fascination with history while meandering on in the manner of a never-ending soap opera.

In a discussion with one of my friends, she pointed out that this story could be a really good TV series. It has enough twists and turns that a really good number of episodes could be made out of this. I agree, but also disagree because while the twists and turns are multiple, they are also multiple. My god, they’re never ending! I got sick of waiting for the book to end and the drama to finish. It’s all a circle of Rani being incompetent in Nazo’s eyes, who attempts to take the narrative into her hands with some political manoeuvring, who then finds out Rani had her own plans, so she plans something in return, and on and on and on. And even while I’m talking about this I realize how interesting it possibly sounds, but I remember the death-defying boredom I felt while reading it, and just no.

Suddenly you looked up at me and said, ‘Nazo, do you think I can do it alone? Do you really believe in me?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘More than myself.’
‘Then let’s do it. It’s now or never.’

We also need to talk about Nazo’s obsession with Rani. Obsession is really an understatement here; Nazo’s mania when it comes to Rani’s life and her presence and her habits borders on creepy. At one point in the book Nazo is accussed of Schizophrenia to explain her obsession, which gave me all sorts of bad vibes for possibly really bad representation of mental illnesses.

Refugee didn’t look too happy to have me back in his kitchen, but I ignored his grumbling. After all, I was back where I belonged. In my rightful place. With you.

At the beginning though, I was quite happy with all the female protagonist focus. In fact, in terms of the Bechedel test, this book passes with flying colours. They talk about Rani’s relationship with her corrupt, manipulative husband (a stand-in for Asif Ali Zardari), and Nazo’s relationship with a soldier, but their conversations don’t just revolve around men. There are discussions about politics and women’s rights and how Rani is being controlled and how Nazo doesn’t understand the pressure of governance. Both these women are distinct in their opinions and their ways of being, and yet – I really can’t say it any other way – they are also so repetitive and bland and boring.

You were not the only one who’d lost interest in the General’s hide-and-seek elections. It was your pregnancy that dominated the media more these days. In fact, even the uncertainty of the elections was drowned by it. Instead of ‘Will he or won’t he call the elections?’, the question on people’s lips was, ‘Will she or won’t she quit after motherhood?’ It was hard enough for people to digest that a woman was vying for the top position, but a mother-to-be, out of the question.

What’s amazing about my dislike for this book was that it tackled so many important things in terms of fighting for the rights of women, which is an issue that’s particularly close to my heart. I’m waging a daily battle with sexism and misogyny wherever I go, so books which address this war path I’m on help balm my wounds. You would think this book would have been a welcome relief, because it’s very honest about how politics is a tough path to navigate for a woman. In fact, in terms of their gender, Rani and Nazo repeatedly traverse a path few have travelled before them. And again and again they discuss things that are so repeatedly frustrating about living in a country like Pakistan.

Truth is, Madam, if I was getting raped, it’d be better for me to kill my rapist than to go knocking for justice on the door of a society where a raped woman has to provide four eyewitnesses!

And while we’re on the topic of being frustrated in Pakistan, let’s talk sexuality! I remember back when I read A Case of Exploding Mangoes and just about fell off my chair at the realization that there were gay characters in it. I’m used to homosexuality in the books I read by our Western counterparts, but reading about it in the context of characters with Pakistani names is a whole new experience. So the fact that we had a bisexual protagonist in this book was still controversial and rare enough for me to be amazed at the fact that Sabyn Javeri actually fully embraced that part of Nazo’s being. And it wasn’t just hinted at either, so you can’t accuse this book of queerbaiting.

The maulanas were on your case. Every day a new slander on your character, a new insult, a new rumour. If you even stood next to a man, they had you sleeping with him. If you were photographed talking to one, you were deemed his mistress. If you were caught looking at one, he was proclaimed your dirty secret. Even the women around you were not spared. They dug up old photos of you and Yasmin in New York and proclaimed you lovers. Strangely, we were never linked.

So, ok, lgbtq representation, complex female characters, and lots of discussion about the right topics. And yet, so bad. So blah. How? I don’t get it. I’m tempted to blame the length, except long books have never put me off. Maybe it was the format of the book: in present time, Nazo is being blamed for orchestrating the assassination of Rani (this really isn’t a spoiler though), and is standing in court defending herself, while a lawyer attempts to question her in what is the most ridiculous court room dialogue ever. Now I’m no legal expert; my whole exposure to lawyers and judges has been ridiculous TV shows or pulpy thrillers. But there’s a difference between a scene in a courtroom that I want to read and a scene written for an Indian Star Plus serial. It’s hard to explain just how bad the courtroom drama was without you having read this book.

Prosecutor: I can see you hesitating. What is it? There is something you are not telling us. What are you holding back, Miss Khan?
Defendant: Some things must be held back. Should be held back, Omar Sir. With time, those unspoken words and secrets become like the air we inhale. Totally unnoticed but wholly necessary.

You can almost hear the dramatic background music, the camera zooming in, the wind blowing through the defendant’s hair as she holds forth on this spectacle. For god’s sake, it’s a court room. Can we cut out the dramatic dialogues, the cheesy pointlessness? Where are the facts, where is the smart back and forth? Where is the actual scene of importance?

Defendant: All I can say, Your Honour, is that politics is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby.

Oookay you crazy.

It’s just not good, that’s my point. It could have been so much better, but stupidity keeps cropping up. Take, for example, the random Urdu word that appears here and there. Now historically Pakistani authors have had a very complicated relationship with writing in English. They either italicize every random Urdu word, or they start describing what Eid is or how a dupatta looks or what qorma is made of. The problem with writing in English is, of course, the problem of whom your audience is. That, and also what your publisher’s policy is in terms of different languages. Overall though, most books remain consistent throughout, except of course in Nobody Killed Her, five random Urdu words come up. Why? If you’re going to write your whole damn book in English, what is with the five pointless words in another language?

but you know what they say about gold dust and lust – two things one can’t hide, chhupay na chhupti.
Idiocy galore. I rest my case.

Recommendation

It tries to do a lot of things right, and my best friend quite liked this book, so it’s clearly a matter of opinion. Personally, I could have done much more interesting things with my time than slog through this crap. Try it if you feel like you must.

May 28, 2018

Papercuts: Fatima Khalid's Home Calling is as bad as Catcher in the Rye

Good lord. If that wasn’t the most pointless story I’ve ever read, then I don't know what is.

Most stories, they have a plot, and characters, and most importantly, a reason for being. The author sets out to tell you something, and you either like the message or you don’t, or you like the execution or you don’t. But this story presumably exists in that grey area where it’s mere existence is questionable. What, I ask you, does this story try to say? Absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell.

Ibrahim, a drifter with no ties back to his home, with no family and no girlfriends and a married sibling with her own life, is roaming around somewhere. We don’t know where or what he’s doing or who he’s hanging out with. He’s doing something. In between, he thinks about a parakeet that a neighbour had loaned to their mother. Their mother loved the parakeet. Once their mother died of cancer – am I being too spoiler-y? Can one even be giving spoilers for short stories? – Ibrahim and his sister let the parakeet go, in one of those rare well-written paragraphs that accidentally crop up in here.  

A week after she passed away, his sister had suggested they release it and he had agreed. They had done so together, standing on the porch of their parents’ home on a pleasant afternoon – one of those rare occasions on which they were alone together, united in what they had turned into a symbolic farewell to the long, difficult years of illness that had plagued their house lately.

Now, ten years into the future, Ibrahim dreams about going home. Why? I’m not really sure. And what will he even do when he gets home? For that matter, what exactly does Ibrahim do? I have no idea. The amount of things I didn’t know in this story were mind boggling. And while I’ve read stories where the background mattered little and the intricacies of personal details mattered even less (for example, Shumaila’s The Hunger <- LINK, an excellent piece of writing), in this story where nothing much is happening anyway, it looks prominent and awkward.

Maybe it’d be better in the form of a novel. The writing certainly isn’t all that bad. It’s just the content itself that gave me vaguely Catcher in the Rye feels. No idea what the story is trying to say, or even where it’s trying to go. With both Catcher in the Rye and with this story, I have to wonder what the appeal to the publisher was. And why someone would write this. I guess some things are just bound to remain a mystery.

Home Calling by Fatima Khalid is from Volume 14 of the magazine Papercuts, a biannual literary magazine by Desi Writers Lounge, a South Asian community of writers.

May 20, 2018

Papercuts: Saqib Mansoor's The Lonely Tracks is the right kind of vague

This one was what you’d call a story with potential. It wasn’t necessarily writing that you’d write home about (hah!), but it also wasn’t half bad. There were ideas there, and an attempt at characterization, and even a climax. And even though I’m not usually a fan of stories that leave things to the interpretation of the reader, I still fairly enjoyed this one.

Jerome Barlow, a thief on the run, finds himself alone on a cold night running across mountains and hills, trying to escape his pursuers. They come with guns and dogs and he drags his cold body on and on until he reaches, inexplicably, train tracks in the middle of nowhere. Another man named Mackwell stands there waiting with a ticket, with no station around for miles and no sign of a train coming. When it finally does arrive, a sinister man descends with a thick ledger, to scrutinize our hero and his wayward company. And if the train in the middle of nowhere, with its dark windows and its silent passengers, wasn’t creepy enough, the ticket keeper really puts the stamp of eeriness on the story by knowing the name of the passengers before they pronounce it themselves.

“This is not your train,” he said flatly and slammed the book shut.
“This cannot be,” said Mackwell woefully. “I’ve been waiting for more than twenty years.”

There are hints of magic realism here, or out-and-out supernatural stuff. The train includes corpses of children, and scratches on walls, and a ticket serial that numbers in the billions. There are quite powerful strains of Hotel California by The Eagles, a song that affectively managed to creep me out at a very young age with its proclamation of ‘You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!'

To be fair, the ending is all kinds of vague, but for some reason, that’s fine in this story. You can tell, even as you read, that it’s not vague in order to be deep and mysterious but rather in order to let you interpret it however you want to. Which is a big change from whenever I read Usman Tanveer Malik’s stories, which manage to leave me utterly confused. I still recommend Tanveer Malik though, because he has great command over the language, and I definitely recommend any future works by this author, because there’s a possibility that he might create great stuff whenever he gets down to writing seriously.

Barlow fired at him, once, and then once again. The bullets penetrated the skull, leaving in their wake two wide openings. The conductor did not topple over. No blood oozed from the wounds. There was no cry of pain. “Yes Mr. Barlow, you have indeed earned your ticket,” was all Barlow got from him.

Even though we don’t find out anything else about Barlow – early life, family, personality, preferences – there’s only so much space a short story has in which to bring its characters to life. As a thief who made the mistake of staying an extra day with the people he was stealing from – why, though, did he stay that extra day? What did he steal? Where is he running to? – questions about Barlow rise and remain unanswered. The man he encounters near the missing train track, described as timid and wrinkled, also remains a mystery, and our final scene, where Barlow’s pursuers find an erstwhile flower growing near the train tracks, remains completely baffling to the reader. But these ideas, the characters, and the climax itself all feel coherent within the narrative. It only needed a bit of better writing to make it great. Recommendation: keep an eye out for Saqib Mansoor.

The Lonely Tracks by Saqib Mansoor is from Volume 15 of the magazine Papercuts, a biannual literary magazine by Desi Writers Lounge, a South Asian community of writers.

May 16, 2018

Papercuts: Sohail Rauf's The Commando is too obvious to be taken seriously

It probably says something about the Pakistani mind-set that in a magazine volume titled ‘Heroes and Villains’, the two stories I’ve read so far by Pakistanis have featured soldiers. It seems – in what I believe to be a very sad state of affairs – that the only heroes we can imagine are army folks. This is not only an epic failing of imagination, but also a massive disservice to the idea that being heroic doesn’t only mean holding a gun but rather having courage, resilience, and faith in the face of difficulty.

Dressed in olive-green camouflage army uniform, shining black DMS shoes shin-high with the trousers tucked into them, dark glasses and red beret set at a rakish angle, the commando symbolized everything the boy dreamed of: power, chutzpah, grace, precision, authority.

My god. Do all Pakistani men get a boner at the idea of a military man? What is this obsession with equating being a soldier with such machismo? But I digress. Let’s discuss this story.

We start off with our protagonist, a young boy named Kashif, who has gone to watch a parade with his parents. His mother, a member of parliament, has managed to secure them seats in the VIP enclosure, from where they plan to watch the pride of their family, Kashif’s older brother, march in the parade. Kashif is excited, there are lots of important people around, it’s a hot day. It’s like every other 23rd March or 14th August parade you’ve ever seen on TV if you’re a Pakistani and enjoying your national holiday at home. Then, the prime minister arrives. He watches the parade, awards trophies to the cadets, gives a speech.

The Prime Minister congratulated the graduating cadets and praised the Army for their service to the nation, but he sounded jittery. Leaning across Kashif, Papa whispered to Mama, “What’s wrong with him? Does he always sound hollow when he says things he does not mean?”

It’s near the end of the day’s proceedings, when the colourful band is marching past, that the central action of the story builds. The prime minister, surrounded by members of the army, suddenly gets lost in the shuffle of Generals and commandos and other personnel on the stage. Kashif’s mother, horrified, rises to her feet and shouts but the commando guarding their enclosure, whom Kashif previously admired, suddenly butts his rifle at her chest, ordering the family to sit down as the prime minister vanishes from the stage. Annndd that’s about it. The next day, the family watches the news, which tells us absolutely nothing. Kashif cries in his room. The end.

I’m sure you can understand why, at this point, I was completely lost. What even had happened? Where did the prime minister go? Why was Kashif’s mother standing up and shouting? And what happened the next day, with the parents watching TV and Kashif crying? And also, what’s up with the bad writing? And almost no subtlety? And also, why am I even reading these short stories? Do I need to torture myself like this?

The answer to that last question is no, but since I’m too deep in this gutter to climb out now, let me point out all the blatant ways in which this story tries to be deep. It’s not actually deep, but it tries.
The father, proud of his wife for getting that special seat in the enclosure, turns on her later when she expresses disbelief over the previous day’s events. He is the archetype Pakistani citizen, willing to reap the benefits of democracy when it suits them, but still inherently sure that the army is right; simultaneously believing that the army is both incapable of doing something wrong, and if it does, then it must be for the benefit of the country. Criticizing his wife for what he believes is her over-reaction to something that never happened, he calls her na├»ve, and then a second later basically implies that even if it has, the government had it coming anyway.

He paused, then added, “Your Prime Minister was asking for it, by the way. Just look at your party’s performance. Their governance is so shambolic.”

He’s also unbelievably ignorant when it comes to the honesty of our media channels; a trait which I would like to believe most of us don’t share, but unfortunately I’m pretty sure is true. For the majority of Pakistanis, the biggest source of information is our TV channels; biased, reporting a quarter of the facts, and blindly trusted, these channels then use this to their blatant advantage. And yet, the believers continue believing.

“See, there’s nothing on the channels. Nothing has happened,” Papa said.
“The channels have been told to stay mum,” Mama replied, her voice fraught with anxiety.
“All the channels? No, the Army can’t do that, no matter how bossy they want to be.”

I mean, clearly the father is completely in denial: about the army’s possible motivations, about the fact that the army might be involved in any plays at the governmental level, and also, more importantly, about how much influence the army actually has. In direct contrast (and in Pakistan, only these two polarities exist or are of any importance), Kashif’s mother is democracy, or rather, the political process. Her gut instinct, to shout in alarm at the sight of the Prime Minister being manhandled, is the pillar of democracy raising hue and cry.

Mama later said that what followed was planned to be executed exactly in those moments, when people’s attention was taken up by the spectacularly loud and colourful band as it passed the dais at the tail-end of the parade.

She has no love for the army, in what is an extremely obvious attempt to personify our government’s lack of love for our own armed forces. Watching a cadet faint in the heat during the parade and rushed away, she replies with thinly veiled disdain.

“The Army is good at cover-up jobs,” Mama smiled as she whispered to Papa.

What’s funny is that the story doesn’t even attempt to be careful in its execution. Everything is obvious and in-your-face. The personification bears no subtlety.

 So are the Generals going to judge the government’s performance? Everyone’s performance? And who’s going to judge their performance?”

And last but not the least, our protagonist, Kashif, who is initially enamoured with the precision and orderliness of the soldiers around him. Kashif is, undoubtedly, a boring protagonist with no presence in the story itself. He is the innocent child, willing to have faith in politics and drenched in a sense of awe of the army. But his mother’s molestation at the hands of the soldier leaves him in shock, and we find him in the end in his room, bawling. Translation: innocence gets destroyed by the army. We get it, it couldn’t be more black and white. Enough already.

I realize I’ve managed to review in detail a story that I actually didn’t love, but there’s a reason for that. Back when I finished this story, I actually didn’t understand what the hell had happened, so I shared it with two of my literary friends, who proceeded to analyse it to the edge of the universe and beyond. We discussed and discussed and discussed and so most of the smart things I’ve said above were what they said. I take no credit: my only contribution to this whole piece is to tell you to not read this. That’s it. The end.