April 19, 2018

Of Romance and Ridiculousness: Sara Naveed's The Story of Us is such an experience

If you looked at the one star rating and you really don’t want to read a full-length review explaining why this book was like an extended torture session, here is a gif to explain what I felt during my reading experience:



But if you’re brave enough to find out just WHY this book might possibly give you a permanent eye-roll, then read on.

This story features Meher, our heroine, who is not exactly the smartest chip on the block. Meher goes on a trip to Pakistan’s Northern areas with her friends, gets separated from them and ends up falling for the guy (our ‘terrorist’ hero Sarmad) she spends the rest of her trip with. Does this plot sound familiar? Well then, congratulations to you have for having seen Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge, only the most famous Bollywood movie of all time. But unlike DDLJ, beloved by many and a classic for the ages, the only test this book will pass is the test of ‘how many clichés can one story hold?’

If you don’t believe me, if you think there’s a limit to how many formulaic scenes one measly story can indulge in, feast your eyes on the following:

Cliché number 7: Heroine trips and falls into hero’s arms:

She suddenly tripped—her arms tightly wrapped around my shoulders and neck. This little accident brought colour to her already pink cheeks. I could smell her fragrance and hear the loud thudding of her heartbeat. For an instant, our eyes locked.

Number 17: Hero stares broodingly out the window (to give the cliché extra oomph, an unlit cigarette):

He was leaning against the window pane staring outside. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips.

Number 35: Hero uses sports/art/other random activity as an excuse to put his arms around the heroine:

Sarmad stood behind me and made me hold the origami in my hands. Both of us released it into the air together and watched it float.

Number 57: Heroine drops cup in dramatic shock:

As I overheard their conversation, the tray fell out of my hands, spilling the coffee all over the marble floor. I froze on the spot.

Number 64: Hero and heroine’s hands almost touch:

He looked at me for a long time but I kept my eyes down. Our fingers touched for a brief moment when he took the suit from my hands.

I’m going to stop now. It was hard enough reading it without having to relive the whole experience. I’m sure you get the point. Basically, if you’ve seen enough Bollywood movies, you don’t need to read this book. And you especially don’t need to read it if you have the slightest appreciation of an actual, sensible plot, because you certainly won’t find it here.

Sarmad, the ‘terrorist’, is going to the northern areas to blow some place up. (The terrorists, in this case, being the very-originally-named ‘Mullah and his gang’. That’s the name of an actual terrorist organization, I literally couldn’t make this up if I tried. It’s like the least amount of brain cells were involved in actually being creative in this book, or trying to move past stereotypes.) On his way the bus next to him gets into an accident. He saves a girl because, apparently:

No face had caught my attention the way this girl’s did. I had never felt attracted to any woman in my life before. Her aura was bewitching. There were old memories attached to her presence. It felt as if I had some strong connection with her. A lost bond.

So, you know, insta-love. Then after jumping down a ditch after her, he, world-weary traveler who has explored the dark, deep corners of the world, gets promptly lost two minutes away from the main road. He roams the ditches, bumps into an excessively generous family (no time to talk about this frankly weird-as-hell family because this review will be taken up by the special snowflakes that are our two protagonists), and then pretends to be this random girl’s husband in order to stay at said family’s house. Cue lots and LOTS of clichés, barf-worthy cheesiness, and unnecessary drama which frankly could have ended a lot sooner. The end.

Now I would compare this to fanfiction since fanfiction is famous for being written by amateurs, except I’ve read fan fiction better than this. It would actually be insulting to fan fiction to compare it to this utter shitfest. And it’s not only because the plot is senseless or the writing is amateurish (more on that later). The basic problem is that our protagonists are both insufferable idiots. I cannot stress on this enough. Meher is a moody, spoiled brat while Sarmad is volatile, indecisive, and frankly too much of a misogynist pig to be the hero of this story. They have no redeeming qualities, and not even the saving grace of good writing to fall back on.

But don’t take my word for it. I could point out the numerous irritating things Meher she does, but I’ll let you come to this conclusion yourself. Here is Day Two of her having known Sarmad, a guy who has proven himself to be a consummate liar in how easily he pretends to be her husband:

‘It’s okay if you don’t want to share anything with me. But I don’t know why I don’t feel awkward sharing everything with you,’ she said, looking into my eyes.

Girl, what you need are some lessons in basic security and what stranger danger is.

Somehow, I no longer felt scared in his presence; I felt comfortable. He was my saviour after all. He couldn’t be dangerous.

Let me just repeat: this is on day two of the guy who has so far lied to her, refused to give her his cell phone, snapped at her, ignored her, and been both rude and standoffish. It does not compute.

Here is Day 6 of their meeting. Literally the sixth day since they’ve met:

I sat still on the bed, tears rolling down my cheeks. I started weeping. I’d never missed him so much till now. It was like a part of me had gone missing.\



It just gets worse and worse. I mean, when you lose someone you were particularly close to, what do you miss? Surely their conversation, their particular way of being, their very personality, yes? And yet, here’s Meher when she thinks she’s left Sarmad - the one true love of her life - forever:

My heart lunged in my chest as I realized that I had been separated from him forever. I would never see his beautiful face, never look into his deep eyes and never touch his skin again.

Face, eyes, skin. Talk about priorities.

Now here’s Meher after her engagement to her cousin. She’s found Sarmad again through a mixture of unicorn magic and more stupidity than usual. Her thought process:

He slowly took my hand and interlaced our fingers together, without saying a word. I didn’t stop him. Why would I? How could I?

BECAUSE YOU ARE ENGAGED. For God’s sake.

If I am not able to find him, I’ll die.


The funny thing is that Sarmad must be her one true soulmate since he’s almost as idiotic as her. I, of course, have twelve gazillion examples of his fine personality, but here are some of his particularly shining moments:

‘No . . . I’m fine, thanks,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t need your help.’
‘Don’t overreact and just hold my hand,’ I said, getting irritated at her childish behaviour.
She shot me a nervous glance. 
‘Step down!’ I told her. This time it sounded more like an order.

Ooh my uterus is all a-quiver with this rude-as-hell behavior. Who wouldn’t fall in love with such an asshole? Not me! Sign me up for the I-have-low-self-esteem train on its way to I’m-eternally-doomed-and-don’t-know-it platform.

Misogynistic douche is just one part of his winning charm though. This man is a world-weary traveler, who’s been everywhere and seen everything. And how does he react to attending one simple wedding?

Everything was new for me. I had never seen a proper family gathering or a religious festivity, let alone a wedding.

Even his basic maths sucks! At one point in the story we are forced to suffer through flashbacks (once again, another stupid plot point that will not feature in this review because of the utter magnitude of all the other bakwas). In this flashback, his mother had eloped when he was three, and his father has been a single parent for six years. How old does he think he is? Eight.


The problem is that this feels like it was written by someone who’s read too many romance novels and nothing else. All those descriptions, trite and overused, that usually go into describing the hero and heroine are present here. ‘Brooding’ for the guy, ‘dainty’ for the girl. Flawless and perfect and ‘washed hair’ (once again, I kid you not) and soft lips and on and on for both of them. At least Twilight went all the way out there with its claims of Edward Cullen’s perfection. At least that novel had the decency to provide a cover in the ‘he’s beautiful because he’s a vampire!’ plot line. This book has no excuses for its stereotypical descriptions, which also extend into the setting.  You know how you read an essay by a seven-year-old and they talk about the cool air and warm sunlight and green trees and fast river, and there’s literally no descriptive synonyms anywhere?

The beautiful sight of the gigantic mountains, roaring rivers and fascinating waterfalls brought a smile to my face. I seemed lost in its endless magnificence.

This lacking in the language is so unfair to the beauty that is Pakistan’s northern areas. I mean, just LOOK at this:

Kundol Lake-Swat Valley
or this

Fairy meadows
or just google Swat valley, Mardan, Murree, Gilgit-Baltistan. These places are gorgeous and worthy of much better prose. This lacking in the description of the local settings extends into the lacking of the local language too. On Page 18 of this 300+page book, we get an explanation for what nan is. Now Indian food, and correct me if I’m wrong, is pretty easily available in all corners of the world, and nan is literally the most common Indian food item there is. And yet:

Nafisa cooked shorwa for us, and everyone sat on the floor cross-legged and ate it with nan—unleavened, flat bread.

But fine, so this book panders to a non-desi, western audience. Bigger, better authors like Kamila Shamsie have fallen prey to this pandering, and it’s part of a bigger problem about whom we write for. That’s all fine and well, but then the story continues with the following text and no explanations:

May Allah be your nigehbaan.’

Now how is a non-desi reader supposed to understand that? Or for that matter words like ‘acha’, ‘ji’, ‘baqerkhani’, ‘parathas’, etc. Even common Urdu sayings are used in English, without any actual explanation for the context, or why they’re being used in the first place. 

‘There he is. He has a long life!’ Rukhsana smiled.

For the uninitiated, when you’ve been talking about someone and they suddenly appear, it implies that the person has a long life ahead of them. Sort of a desi version of ‘talk of the devil’ except, you know, a bit nicer. So how the hell do you use an Urdu proverb without providing any context and expect your reader, to whom you so gently provided a nan definition, to understand this? Just who was the editor for this text is what I want to know at this point. Even if you ignore this inconsistency in describing Urdu terms, consider the following sentence:

I talked to Amma and told her about my tour. I made up a long story, but also felt bad for lying to her. I couldn’t do anything else. I promised to return soon. After talking to her, I felt relieved and pleased.

That, right there, is what you call an unholy mess of a paragraph. This book is also FILLED with adverbs. No one will ever just speak or say or nod. They will ‘say sarcastically’, ‘laugh happily’, ‘snap angrily’, and my personal favourite:

Haider said in a low voice, to which I nodded affirmatively.

He nodded affirmatively. As opposed to, you know, nodding to show negation, which is a particularly famous expression in the land of NOWHERE.

I found his personality peculiar; something weird but indescribable.

It’s basically just bad writing. Someone with even the simplest idea of editing could have fixed this. Conclusion: writing overall -> so much of the fail.

But even WITH ALL OF THAT, I was willing to give this book a chance if the romance was passionate and intense and kept me hooked. I mean, in a romance novel, surely that’s the most important aspect, right? And yet, it was the romance that was the biggest fail. Not only is it a case of insta-lust, but also suffers from a more-beautiful-than-the-sun- syndrome. Meher is, according to Sarmad, the most beautiful, perfect specimen in the history of the universe. And he uses that to his advantage by staring at her like a creep every time he’s asleep.

Every single feature of her face took my breath away. I surely hadn’t seen a more beautiful living creature than her. I stared at her face for a few more minutes.

Someone needs to tell this guy (whom she’s known for all of two days) that the Twilight-esque ‘I watch you while you sleep’ is less likely to induce affection and more likely to trigger stalker alerts. Here is another fine example of their budding affection:

As soon as her fresh scent hit my nostrils, I felt mesmerized. She let out a silent gasp when my shoulder touched hers.

And if the brilliant word play doesn’t do it for you, consider the following ‘twu wuv’ connection (ten points to you if you got this reference):

The entire night, with our minds, with our hearts and with our bodies, we made love. Pure love.

Pure love? Did that sentence just end with ‘pure love’? What are we, thirteen? GOOD LORD.

I have a love-pain relationship with her. Love that caused more pain and pain that changed me.


It’s not just the romance that makes you want to throw the book out of the window. It’s that Meher and Sarmad don’t have any sense of a connection: Consider the deep, heartfelt, understanding conversations between these two that occur throughout the book:

‘Wait.’ I stopped midway.
He turned to look at me.
‘What now?’ he asked, shrugging.
‘I’m hungry,’ I said, a little embarrassed.
He heaved a sigh and then looked away.

Fascinating. The lives of the young and in love are truly sparkling with joy and energy. In another scene, they’ve just had an awkward conversation, and she finds him later smoking in the room. Behold:

I came up with an idea to lighten the atmosphere and cheer him up.
‘Do you know a cigarette a day reduces your life by eleven minutes?’

Maybe the poor girl doesn’t know what the words ‘lighten the atmosphere’ mean? But fine, maybe they’re both awkward individuals forced to live with a stranger, and these are beginning days, so maybe I could forgive this. But once these two are spilling their life’s secrets to each other, their conversations must get better, right?

‘How could the army help me when they were the ones who killed my father?’ he asked.
I shook my head. ‘That’s not true, Sarmad. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding. Your father was killed in an encounter. The army would never take an innocent person’s life.’

What? WHAT? I get patriotism and supporting your armed forces, but to think that those in the army don’t take innocent lives is bordering on delusional. Here are three links I found within a 2-second google search about soldiers killing innocent civilians but anyway. So our hero and heroine have found something to disagree about. Do they fight and yell and have a passionate falling out because of their divergent opinions? Do they vainly try to convince the other person why they’re wrong? Do they respect the other’s opinion and let it be?

‘Whatever, Mehru. You shouldn’t worry about it. It’s not your headache. Just forget it.’

I mean. Why was I even expecting smartness, you know? You’d think that many pages into the story, I should just know better. Even the characters themselves give us reasons, again and again, to believe that they’re dumb idiots. Here’s Meher after finding out that Sarmad might have been involved in killing her brother:

‘Stop reminding me of what you’ve done! Stop telling me you’re nothing but a monster!’

Here’s Meher two seconds later, when Sarmad tells her he will drop her at her parents’ place, where she’ll be safe.

‘Do you think I’m safe with you? With a monster?’

These people have got issues with their issues is all I’m saying. They constantly doubt, accuse, indulge in pointless angst, and the questions, oh my god the questions. Half the book is like an episode of Twenty Questions, except it most definitely isn’t fun. For our lovely protagonists, self-doubt is the way to a content life. Don’t believe me, read it for yourself, in one example out of many:

Sarmad: Despite not being allowed to have feelings for someone, I had lost my heart to her. What should I do about it? How should I get back my heart from her? How would I stop thinking about her? How would I live with the fact that she would hate me for the rest of her life?

Meher: Why was I crying? What made those tears flow out? Why did I have feelings for a person who did not belong to me?

Because you are an idiot. That’s the only explanation.


Finally, I could go into a long rant about the ridiculous sexism this book is dripping in, but I will just quote one final, slightly longer scene, and leave it at that. Meher, freshly showered, is adjusting her dupatta in front of the mirror. She puts it on her shoulder, the way some Pakistani women wear it, only to be interrupted by our hero.

She nodded as she stared at me. I took her dupatta in my hands and began to unfold it. She watched me with amazement. I spread out the dupatta and put it across her head, covering her hair. ‘It looks good here,’ I whispered, observing her.

Oh the smacks this boy deserves. This reeks of men protecting women’s honour by making sure they are fully covered. I’m all for women covering themselves from head to toe if they want, but that’s the crux of the argument. IF THEY WANT. And what was our heroine’s reaction to this patriarchal bullshit?

Mehar blushed at her reflection in the mirror.

I can't take anymore. I'm out.

Recommendation:

This book is one long list of what-the-hell and eye rolls and this-is-too-lame-to-swallow bakwas. If you are really in the mood for some desi bollymood-movie-stylez cheesiness, I recommend Karachi You’re Killing Me by Saba Imtiaz. But whatever you do, avoid this like you would avoid being roped into tea-making duty on Eid day. You’ve been warned. 

April 12, 2018

Of Djinn and Anthologies: The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories is just amazing supernatural stuff

(This is a complete review of the Anthology titled The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories)

First of all, can I just say what a brilliant cover? It might not be the most bright and colourful, but it so perfectly represents the subject matter that any other cover would have been a disservice to these stories. With its dark shades and wisps of smoke, it’s just perfect for the supernatural creatures found within the pages of this anthology.

The stories contained within this compilation, which could easily have been a mess waiting to happen, manage to impress pretty much most of the time. Mahwish Murad, whom I knew of beforehand because of her weekly Tor.com interview podcast Midnight in Karachi, has co-edited this ‘jinnthology’ with Pornokitsch editor Jared Shurin, and while a few of their choices verge on the disappointing, most are brilliantly picked. This is particularly because across the spectrum of the twenty stories and singular poem included in this collection, almost all manage to tackle these particular supernatural creatures in twenty completely different ways.

Djinn, jinn or genie, every culture has their own interpretation.

Going into this book, all I had in my head were the local stories I have grown up with, the witches with their feet turned backwards and women in white who stand on the sides of lonely roads on dark nights, mixed in with some confusing jumble of information imported from abroad about genies who reside in lamps and grant three wishes. Besides a few supernatural books featuring jinn (The Amulet of Samarkand and Alif the Unseen being literally the only ones I remember), I haven’t read much about them, so it was fascinating going into this anthology being open to new ideas. 

Perhaps this is the lingering impact of Richard Burton and Disney’s Aladdin and other Orientialist interpretations, but the djinn have always been firmly portrayed as the other.

Even though the first eponymous poem by Hermes and translated by Robin Hermes left me disappointed, that quickly changed with Kamila Shamsie’s Congregation, a story about a boy who finds out he might have more than a passing relation with the jinn he accidentally sees in a mosque. While Shamsie’s work features both good and bad jinn, in the next story How We Remember You Kuzhali Manickavel flips the tables by making the protagonist one of the humans who ruthlessly torture a jinn. This story, with its flashbacks, evokes a sense of timelessness and nostalgia that was great to read. 

We remember your magic. Maybe that is the obvious thing to remember about you. We never tell anyone about it, though, not even each other, because it is hard to talk about now that we are older. The words don’t make sense in our mouths, and once they are said, they just hang there, and they are ridiculous. It’s not something you can put words to.

A few of the stories I disliked outright: some for their weirdness (The Sand in the Glass is Right by James Smythe), some for their incomprehensibility (History by Nnedi Okora, Emperors of Jinn by Usman T. Malik), and some because they tried too hard to do something creative and failed (Authenticity by Monica Byrne). Some stories I just wasn’t in the mood for (A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar) while some were too filled with purple prose and obscure descriptions for my liking (Black Powder by Maria Dahvana Headley). A few had a passing resemblance to a good idea (Queen of Sheba by Catherine Faris King) while others were excerpts from previously published works (Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman, an excerpt from his famous novel American Gods).

There were a few which I could tell held potential but got lost in what they were trying to say. Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North focuses on three men convinced that the Sultan’s favourite mistress in his harem must be in control of jinn, for how else can she wield the power she seems to have over their ruler. Certain that Hurrem must have some powerful supernatural entity under her control, the three men attempt to call on their own jinn, with somewhat unexpected results. While the premise of this story is interesting, the execution left something to be desired. In fact, North’s story, like the story by Sophia Al-Maria, is ripe for an in-depth discussion, if it had been more fleshed out. In Al-Maria’s story The Righteous Guide of Arabsat, a young, newly-married girl is thought to be a jinni by her husband, who is worried about her voracious sexual appetite. This was one of the few stories which discussed how promiscuity is disguised as supernatural possession, along with Helene Wecker’s Majnun, whose execution of the story - of a young boy possessed by a promiscuous jinni who is trying to seduce her old jinn lover – isn’t as effective as the idea. I had also really wanted to know whether stories would tackle the idea that in rural areas and even in some urban ones, possession by djinns is a common explanation for what are considered deviances from the sexual norm i.e. anyone expressing even the slightest propensity towards any sexuality that doesn’t conform to the male-female relationships strictly adhered to in some societies. Al-Maria discusses this only fleetingly, in a storyline entirely disconnected from our main plot.

Another equally promising story was by Jamal Mahjoub. Duende 2077is a murder mystery in a sci-fi setting, with supernatural elements creeping into the narrative, but the strength in world building was let down by the weak characters. Characters which let down the story were also in Glass Lights by J.Y. Yang, whose brilliant idea and great writing was bogged down by its insipid protagonist. In Yang’s story the main character Mena, who finds out that her grandmother was a jinni, spends her time in wish-granting and self-pity, making the lives of the people around her better while resenting them their happiness. While on the surface, this story of a bitter, conflicted jinni with a soft spot for happy endings sounds pretty awesome, the final result didn’t hold my attention much.

Mena wondered if her vanished grandmother, the djinn, had ever thought of reshaping the world so it was more amenable to her. A world of hot wind and bursting stars, where women walked strong and brown and proud over land that sang to their bones, where the fires that burned in their veins were lights in the firmament, and not threats to be smothered into nothingness at all costs.

A few of the stories, however, really were just so damn good I would be willing to read a whole book based on the premise within these particular stories. The Spite House by Kirsty Logan features jinn who, having become corporeal, are forced to find any shelter they can, and one of them ends up living in spite houses – houses built not for comfort or residents, but in order to grab land or needlessly take up space. The plot is as interesting as Logan’s characters, and as intensely readable as another equally fascinating tale: Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain, in which a young boy and a jinn decide to set up a restaurant in the slums. Set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian reality, Hossain’s world is richly imaginative and a breeding ground for a million other tangential plot lines. Along with Bring your own spoon, which is the strongest in terms of world building, is K. J. Parker’s Message in a Bottle, a story about a man whose decision about opening a particular bottle literally becomes a matter of life and death for his whole civilization. Parker, whose story is set in the same world as his fantasy series The Fencer Trilogy (or is it an extract from the series?) is another name for British author Tom Holt, a seriously funny, criminally underappreciated author whose books I have loved for ages, and when I realized Parker and Holt were the same person, I understood quite clearly why I loved Message in the Bottle so much. 

The contender for the title of my favourite story in the anthology was a close content between Reap by Sami Shah and The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice by E. J. Swift. Shah’s Reap features a jinn possessing a girl who comes back to take revenge from her assailant, while Swift’s Apprentice has a ship possessed by jinn, and a young apprentice who promises to remove them all entirely. Both these stories are strong in their own rights: While Reap moves fast and builds momentum,Apprentice won more points for its fascinating mixture of science fiction and fantasy. Reap appealed to me because of its desi setting, while Apprentice places its characters in a sci fi setting, and uses this setting to incorporate all the elements of horror and fantasy within one ship. 

It was widely acknowledged that Mars was infested with jinn. Allah might have made the red planet specifically for them; they loved its dust, its volcanic landscape and boundless plains.

Out of all the stories, these two I would definitely be willing to read more of, and with these short stories, both Sami Shah and E. J. Swift are now names I’ll be keeping an eye out for. And if that isn’t the whole point of an anthology – to introduce you to amazing writers you hadn’t known of before – than I don’t know what is. 

Recommendation:

We have wish-granters and shape-changers, immortals and spirits, hoarders and hermits.

This collection, featuring authors from countries like Pakistan to Singapore, London, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and more, provides a wide variety of tastes for all its readers. There are a few points of dissatisfaction for me, primary among them being the lack of exploration of mental illness being misdiagnosed as supernatural possession. But overall, I really liked almost everything in here, and I definitely recommend it.

April 08, 2018

Of Djinn and General Messiness: Usman T. Malik's Emperors of Jinn makes no sense whatsoever

(This is Review Part 3 of the Anthology titled The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories)

I think Usman T Malik’s charm might be wearing off on me. His fantastical, allegorical, slightly off-kilter stories were interesting at first, purely because they were new and different, but by the third makes-no-sense plot line, I’m ready to throw the towel in and admit that maybe he and I are just not meant to be, story-wise. 

What’s weird and inexplicable is that I would still read the next story that he writes. Even better if he wrote a full-length novel, because there is something enjoyable about his writing style, something very genuine in his descriptions of things. It’s just that a lot of those descriptions sometimes pass right over my head, which makes me realize that I’m one of those readers who’s just not that into vague, ambiguous endings and only-slightly-implied plot twists.

In Emperors of Jinn, the penultimate story of this anthology, Malik uses two teenagers spending an end-of-summer weekend at the family farmhouse on the outskirts of Lahore to explore their fascination with jinn, and their own family history of possession. Zak, at thirteen, and Saman, at fourteen, become the catalyst when Saman becomes interested in a gruesome-looking ritual found in Zak’s grandmother’s book about jinn. 

There’s also lots of other stuff happening in the story. There are twins who are quite obviously not corporeal (this isn’t a spoiler, this is fairly obvious pretty early on); there’s a possessed sister and a young peacock thief who may or may not have been sexually abused (I could have done without the vague hints of sexual assault that made me feel uncomfortable and contaminated); there’s a very confusing, mysterious protagonist; there’s a jinn summoning. Lots of stuff going on with minimal clarity, at which point I had given up and was reading the text just for the sake of reading it. 

Mystery is power, the bearer of mysteries most powerful of all. That which precedes is Secret. That which proceeds is Empire.

Of all the stories I’ve reviewed so far, this one is the hardest to properly comment upon, primarily because I didn’t manage to understand much of what was happening. I was inclined to be generous and blame the fact that by the second last story in the anthology, maybe I had had too much of this particular subject matter, but since the confusion is pretty common upon reading any of T. Malik’s work, I feel like I should have seen that coming. I guess ten points to this story for the very desi reference to the character Zakoota from the popular 1993 Pakistani children’s TV series Ainak Wala Jin, but overall? You can give this a miss.

April 05, 2018

Of Djinn and Drones: Sami Shah's Reap is the perfect blend of supernatural and horror

(This is Review Part 2 of the Anthology titled The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories)

Reap might rate as one of my top five favourite stories in this anthology, which makes me super excited to read Sami Shah’s Djinn-Son Duology, one of Pakistan’s rare urban fantasy products. While I was already excited about the fact that Shah had tackled a genre previously untouched in Pakistan’s English literature, after reading this short story by him I’m going to go into Fire Boy (the first part of the duology) expecting brilliant writing as well. 

Reap is story number eleven in a twenty-one part compilation, and being placed right in the middle was excellent for this anthology since the stories right before Reap were either too boring, pointlessly long or completely incomprehensible. Reap brings the anthology back on track, with the entries following afterwards being equally as fascinating both in terms of plot as well as writing.

Grant, our protagonist in the story, is part of a small team using a MQ-9 Reaper Drone for surveillance of a village in a north-western region of Pakistan. His job: to analyze the footage visible to the team through the six cameras of Reap. And while the duty itself involves keeping track of the inhabitants of a cluster of houses, Grant and his team mates find themselves getting involved in the lives of the residents. 

They knew that eleven children lived in House 4, each a year apart. They’d given them all names as well, and could tell them apart just by how they moved.

Our story takes a turn into the supernatural when, amongst 11 siblings, one young girl named Mariam doesn’t return home from school one day. The local loner living in house number three reaches his place a bit later looking suspicious and scared. Grant watches as the young girl’s father and brothers set out to look for her, coming back at night desperate but defeated.

As the Reap team waits, debating whether it’s worth using Reap for further canvassing, a light emerges in the distance – from the same place where the school is, where the local man came back in a hurry, where Mariam’s relatives went looking for her. Soon the light transpires into Mariam’s body, hurtling across the ground at unnatural speeds, headed towards her village.

It was definitely Miriam; they could all recognize her despite the distorted mouth. Her lips were pulled back in a grin so wide it should have split her cheeks. The long teeth glowed with the same interior light. Her eyes, however, were dark holes in her face.

Appalled and transfixed, our protagonist watches as Mariam’s body reaches the local man’s place, but before she goes in and promptly disembowels him, dragging his body up to hang from the village tree, she looks up straight at the Reap cameras, as if aware of the presence watching her. And then all the cameras shut down. 

From there, the story plummets into a chaos of blood-thirsty revenge coupled with rising bouts of hysteria in our protagonist as the village reacts to the dead body. By the end of the story, both the ones involved in the village action as well as those watching from a distance find their stories coming together in a final, horrifying conclusion. At ten pages, this is one of the longer stories in the anthology, but it’s one of the definitely recommended ones. 

April 02, 2018

Of Djinn and Cliches: Kamila Shamsie's The Congregation is one of my favourite supernatural stories

(This is Review Part 1 of the Anthology titled The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories)

Kamila Shamsie is undeniably one of Pakistan’s biggest names when it comes to author popularity. Along with her counterpart Mohammad Hanif, she is the author I knew about before I knew much about Pakistani fiction. So it made sense to me that in an anthology about djinn which included stories by three Pakistani authors, her story would be the one near the beginning.

That being said, this isn’t one of Shamsie’s better projects. Maybe she works better with longer word lengths or maybe it was just me, but for some reason the magic usually present in her work, in books like Burnt Shadows or Kartography, seemed to me to be very distinctly missing from this short story about a boy who discovers that he might actually be related to jinn (or djinn, or genie; take your pick).


It certainly has a very strong beginning. Qasim, our young protagonist, upon waking up and rushing to the nearby mosque for prayer, accidentally ends up joining a contingent of praying jinn. The carpet is different, the hair on each head is bright red, and most alarming are the feet. 


There was a moment when everyone was kneeling and he alone stood tall. Then he saw it. The feet of every man in the congregation were turned backwards at the ankles.


My initial reaction to the feet being turned backwards was scoffing disdain, because that is the most cliché description of jinn I’ve ever read one. However, further reading of the anthology brought about a dawning realization that it might be a very desi version of what we think jinn look like, and isn’t that the whole purpose of a collection of stories, to show you how different people view the same thing?


Thankfully, the rest of the story is both original and at the same time a stark representation of our own society, which is fascinating since it’s a story featuring supernatural creatures. Even though Shamsie’s story is about Qasim and his relationship with jinn, the most interesting parts of this story are composed of moments when other people are relating events in the past to Qasim. His stepmother’s account of the time of Qasim’s birth or the fortune tellers contortion of Greek mythology into a jinn-related tale both take into account the world we live in while at the same time adding a fantastical element to them. 


“Castor and Pollux were twin brothers, but one was human and one was jinn. A jinn named Zeus had lain with their human mother in the guise of a firebird. Pollux, the jinn, was immortal, but his brother was not.”


Giving away the reason for Qasim’s close association with the jinn would ruin the essence of the story, and there’s only so much one can discuss in terms of plot points in a short story without giving the whole thing away. Suffice is to say that amongst the three Pakistani stories in this anthology, Sami Shah’s Reap is probably the strongest in terms of storytelling, but Shamsie’s is a close second, if only because she has the experience required to write a compelling story, and it shows.