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 naïve, 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.

May 09, 2018

Of Soldiers and Stereotypes: Hisham Sajid's Snowflakes had the potential to be great

This was quite the most pretentious piece of writing I’ve read in a while. It was also, unfortunately, self-involved in the most appalling way.

I understand that one of that most oft-repeated (and contentious, I should add) advice in the literary world is to write what you know. I also know that writing can be a way of placing yourself into a narrative which you can’t live through (fan fiction, say, but even that can be brilliant without the author being visible). But to write a story about a boy who waxes philosophical about the type of people in this world is about the worst form of conceit from a male author. At least try to be a little original; I have no patience for a repetition of the canonical white male author and his ramblings.

Zahid, our one-dimensional protagonist, has apparently been sinning like every ‘modern day sinner’ (what does that even mean?), so to calm his mortal soil he ventures to the mosques sometimes, where he meets an old man who for some unknown, obscure reason likes to sit and have tea with Zahid. This, from that moment on, is a platform for our protagonist – and through him, our author – to ramble on about their views of humanity. And I’ll admit that that could be interesting if the conversation was sparkling, the ideas new, the writing smart and witty, but nope, nope, and nope overall.

Zahid stared into his teacup – it was almost empty. He could see the granules of tea bathing in the shallow pond of doodh-patti. He swirled his cup and marveled at how similar life was to a cup of tea; once you drink all the sweet liquid, all that remains is the bitter, dark reality!

My god. If you didn’t roll your eyes at that horror, you haven’t read enough good literature yet. And while good literature can be subjective – as is this piece, which someone somewhere must have thought worthy of publication – there are still certain things I prefer a story have to keep me engaged. Unfortunately, this story had none of that. Zahid’s philosophical rant about the four categories of humans is listened to by the old man, Dilbash Uncle, who then interrupts Zahid to talk about his own experience as a soldier, and how being a soldier makes it impossible to put people into categorizes. So interesting. Much wow. Not.

“I am sixty-one, boy, and yet I could never claim such superior knowledge… and you know why? Because the world is infinite, the people in it are infinite.

It could have been great, but it wasn’t. There could have been better plotting and character development, but there wasn’t. We could have been faced with depth and understanding in this conversation, but we weren’t. Turns out that the writer needed an audience for his pseudo-intellectualism, and I guess it was a matter of time before some magazine gave it to him. Shame it had to be the only good one in Pakistan though.

Skip this, I’d say.

Snowflakes by Hisham Sajid is from Volume 16 of the magazine Papercuts, a biannual literary magazine by Desi Writers Lounge, a South Asian community of writers.

May 06, 2018

Papercuts: Sidra Zia's The Man in the Qaraqul Cap does not inspire

Well. Guess we’re back to the same old disappointment after all.

In the middle of the humid summer nights, when it rains, I look out of the latticed window and dream of open fields.

I wanted to like it. I really did. But the first sentence carried so many clichés that I groaned internally: humidity, rain, gazing out through windows, fields. All it needed was mangoes, a setting sun, and a girl with henna on her hands and her face covered by a dupatta. South Asian stereotypes check, check, and check.

But I’m always willing to give stories the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this was supposed to be a self-aware piece, critiquing the stereotypes while using them. But if it was supposed to be subversive or a parody, I missed it entirely.

I want to run to the roof where my brothers and father sleep when it does not rain, and jump up and down and scream a little. This is not normal, surely. These strange, impulsive desires are not those of a respectable girl from a decent Indian Muslim family.

The sad thing is that it hits on so many of the stereotypes, that if the author had just been aiming to be a bit more unconventional it would have been brilliant. Written from the point of view of a young girl who is about to get married, it talks about her arranged marriage, her grandmothers, the cries of partition in the air, and Jinnah (the actual man in the qaraqul cap, as should have been obvious, looking back). And it manages to talk about these things while being very, very boring.

The problem, if I do say so myself, is that all of these things have been done to death. A girl who feels stifled by the limitations imposed by society; partition and Jinnah’s fan base; arranged marriages. And while I’m not necessarily against repetition of the same themes – I firmly believe that all stories have been told before, and are just being repackaged into newer, different forms all the time. Rather, what we need is a new look at an old tale. The Bride by Bapsi Sidhwa talks about almost the same thing, but it manages to talk about so much more than this. The bride in this story, in stark contrast, is insipid, uninspiring, almost invisible. Which is funny since the story is told from her perspective.

I should be crying for home and my family like all brides do, instead of weeping quietly at a predictable future.

The thing is that the story really tried. It talked about grandmothers and their fates. It talked about having a progressive husband, and about living in purdah, and about how girls and boys have their fates decided for them. It touched upon voting rights in the west and the cry of a separate homeland in the subcontinent. And it managed to do all of this in the dullest way possible. The writing was weak, and the plot even weaker.

Overall, to read a better version of the same story, check out Bapsi Sidhwa. You can give this one a miss. 

Tall Man with a Qaraqul Cap by Sidra Zia is from Volume 17 of the magazine Papercuts, a biannual literary magazine by Desi Writers Lounge, a South Asian community of writers.

May 03, 2018

Papercuts: Shumaila Hashmi's Hunger is one of the best short stories I've read in a while

Good lord, that was really good! That was so good. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed that.

My surprise comes as a surprise even to me. I think – no, I know – that I didn’t expect these stories to be any good. Stories in magazines rarely manage to captivate me; short stories even more so. But this one was, unexpectedly, amazing.

Featuring only three characters – and one barely there - throughout the narrative, the story has a strong beginning, middle, and end. Aslam, whacked with a ruler by his mother at a very young age for surreptitiously reaching for food, never forgets that moment. His relationship with gluttony and, as an obvious consequence, with abstinence, totally defines his life. Growing up with the idea of fat as an ugliness that he must get rid of, Aslam defines his life in terms of how physically fit he is.

After years and years of being the fattest man in the room, Aslam had finally sweated, ran and dieted away the extra chub.

This obsession affects his relationship in other ways as well: he falls for Amna, who understands dieting and self-restraint, who has also practised eating less in order to stay in shape. But while the relationship is happy, and content, there is another, darker consequence of their happiness that makes it harder for both of them to co-exist. Faced with a steady diet of romantic bliss, both start putting on weight again. In an absolutely great twist on the ‘love swelling you up’ notion, both characters in Hashmi’s story gain weight as they progress, and that weight is not nothing; it’s another character taking up space in their love story.

A normal man may have reacted to this with fortitude. What does it matter if you’re a tad overweight, so long as you’re happy? But Aslam wasn’t a regular man. He had spent too much time sweating and suffering to lose weight. He had sacrificed way too much.

It’s very hard to not actually give the ending away, given that the story is so short, so it’s imperative that I stop here. But I feel like this was one of those instances of storytelling where the short length wasn’t an injustice to the subject matter. When people used to say that a story was ‘short and sweet’ or ‘just the perfect length’ I never actually understood what that meant until I read this piece by Shumaila Hashmi. Well written and with great control over the language, this story has something to say. Definitely recommended.

Hunger by Shumaila Hashmi is from Volume 17 of the magazine Papercuts, a biannual literary magazine by Desi Writers Lounge, a South Asian community of writers.