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.