May 30, 2019

Of Culture and Society: Being Pakistani by Raza Rumi (Book Review)


I’ll admit that I really wanted to like this book, primarily because the author has been appreciative of my reviews. It’s obviously not a very valid place from where to judge a piece of text: there’s a reason I don’t like to review stuff by people I’m even casually acquainted with. But a friend had it lying around and I knew I would be reading it eventually, so I figured why not. I figured I’d try to be as impartial as possible. 

Still, I hadn’t expected how very bored I would be. I mean, a book about Pakistan’s literature and subcontinental TV shows and South Asian music hypothetically sounded like a good bet. I might not be a fan of non-fiction but when the topic is captivating enough or relevant to things I love talking about, I’ve been known to take an active interest. Case in point, Rumi’s previous book Delhi By Heart, and one of the major reasons I decided to start his second book. Unfortunately, this time it seems all the charm has worn off. Completely. 

There’s some major obvious reasons for why it didn’t work. First, given that the book is a collection of previously published articles, it’s highly outdated. Most of the articles in it were printed more than four or five years back, and talk about stuff that’s moved much forward in time and in context. It’s no fun reading a 2010 article about amazing women like Fahmida Riaz without the mention of her death in as recent a time as November of last year (and having worked with her as an editor of the stories she wrote for children, it somehow felt doubly offensive). It’s pointless reading about the pioneers of Pakistani pop like Alamgir without mentioning how musical platforms like Coke Studio are revolutionizing a new generation’s relationship with our country’s older music. And it’s frankly irritating to read articles from as far back as 2010 without the very acute awareness that the world has moved much ahead, and that the text could have done with much updating. 

Even besides the fact that most of the content feels horribly obsolete, there’s also a certain lack of connection between the various topics being offered. Even though there’s been a clear effort at trying to arrange them under certain loosely defined categories (devotion, literature, and arts being what the editor and author seem to have wanted to focus on), the fact of the matter is that all these texts were written at different points in time, with the author wanting to focus on very different things in each speech or scholarly article he has chosen to share. What that leads to is a constant repetition of certain themes and sentences, especially in the introduction portion of each text, which quickly got boring. That, coupled with the fact that there seems to be no smooth transaction from one article to the next, and we’re very obviously left reading a bunch of loosely connected pieces of text. 

But of course all of these things could have been forgiven if the content itself had been very fascinating. I’ve been known to forgive a multitude of problems in any text when faced with the prospect of a well written, heartfelt piece of non-fiction, but those words unfortunately don’t apply in this case. I mean, there’s some good stuff, and I stayed pretty captivated by certain texts, such as those that talked about Asim Butt’s fascinating activism, the amazing miniature artwork being produced by Shahzia Sikander, or how public architecture in Pakistan is intertwined with the religious and the political. Unfortunately, the good stuff is few and far between, and is the only reason the book managed to creep its way from a one to a two star rating. 

There are definitely some people out there who could potentially really like this book, and I do believe there’s a market for titles such as these. Unfortunately, I’m not that reader, even though the blurb convinced me otherwise. While I’m all for encouraging a healthy and vigorous discussion about Pakistan’s culture, whether that be literature or music, music or TV shows, I need something with more nuance for it to captivate my attention. Given that I left this book lying on my side table while I finished two other books, I’m going to give this a very, very hesitant recommendation. 

May 22, 2019

Of Short Stories and Society: The Mercurial Mr Bhutto and Other Stories by Maheen Usmani (Review)

Maheen Usmani’s debut, The Mercurial Mr Bhutto and Other Stories, might be the beginning of her fiction writing career, but it is a strong beginning and one she has used to her advantage.


Unlike a full-length novel, the short story collection is a form that allows writers to explore a variety of different things, changing their characters and endings at will, all in the same book. It also allows for a level of creative fulfilment without the larger investment required in plotting out a longer novel.


Comprising of 10 stories, Usmani uses the form to try her hand at incorporating real-life figures and events into her writing, melding fact and fiction together in interesting ways. The very first tale—after which the collection is named—shows a child’s perspective of the political scenario during the reign of Pakistan’s first elected leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. With a father who is a staunch supporter of Bhutto, our protagonist is too young to express her own political opinions, but is affected nonetheless by administrative decisions taken under him, such as when she’s forced to study Sindhi. These small-scale ripple effects of government diktats on everyday life are very well represented for a debut story, culminating in a horrifying scene where anti-Bhutto extremists force the father to call Bhutto a dog as they burn tyres and block roads to protest against a political leader whom our heroine’s parents hold so dear. Post Bhutto’s execution, the heroine finds herself facing the same man who once held a burning branch to her father’s face, with a sudden twist ending that one doesn’t see coming.


Unexpected endings crop up quite regularly in the collection. The second story, 15 Seconds of Fame, features an MBA student failing spectacularly in the job market. When offered an interview by a professor who catches him cleaning tables, our protagonist feels hope for the first time in ages, but his day takes a turn for the worse very quickly. Caught on camera as he climbs a ledge to escape a burning building, he becomes a spectacle for the gossip-hungry masses glued to their television screens. As with all her stories, Usmani writes an ending that is both poignant and unpleasant, pointing out the realities of our lives while also showing how very cruel our lives have become. The author uses the unpredictable ending again to great effect in Fifty Shades of Grief, a tale which features a funeral and the murderer lurking right there amongst the mourners. While the idea of changing the reader’s perspective at the last moment is a particularly favourite trick of a number of writers, few can carry it off with aplomb.


The fact that the writing stays focused on the characters rather than on the plot plays out well for certain tales where ‘what’ our protagonist is doing is of the utmost importance. Giving characters a significant amount of agency is always a good risk to take, because it ensures that we’re dependent on the character to keep the narrative flowing. However, sometimes a little outside intervention is also necessary for stories to have some weight besides the internal monologue of people in whom—because of the short narrative—we don’t have enough time to feel truly invested. For instance, in High Tide and Maestro, two stories which talk more about missed opportunities and regrets than about a significant event in time, the writing fumbles, unable to deliver enough of the depth required to truly pull the reader in.


Some stories feel weak and could do with some revising, such as Home Sweet Home, written from the point of view of a bureaucrat whose wife’s expenditure on their home after his retirement verges on the absurd. While the story is a quick, painless read, it isn’t clear what the author aims to gain out of her writing. This sort of meandering in the plot, without a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, can be found in other tales in the collection as well, such as the ironically titled City of Lights, which discusses that most basic of all Pakistani experiences: electricity woes. But sometimes even when there is no point to the story itself—such as in Small Change, a bittersweet reminiscing about a larger-than-life friend to whom the protagonist is making her way back, only for us to find out that maybe the friend is not in this world anymore—such stories, while not heavy on action, manage to retain a sentimental sense of nostalgia.


It is the last story that is the most hard-hitting, featuring a flashback in which a woman recounts her own experience of sexual abuse. With heated global conversations ongoing about trigger warnings and whether they should be used or not, it is stories like Usmani’s Baby which will ensure that there is space in Pakistan for these discussions as well. Whether the story is extremely well-written or extremely discomforting remains to the reader to decide; what is important is that Usmani treats the subject matter with a nuanced dignity, managing to make the act seem creepy and invasive without coming across as titillating or controversial for the sake of controversy. In a collection full of interesting tales, this is a strong ending.


Almost all the stories in the collection, from the one about Bhutto to the one about load shedding, seem to have some basis in the reality of living in Pakistan. In fact, there is a strong sense that particular scenes within the stories themselves are the starting point around which the rest of the plot and the characters are drawn. This isn’t to say that there are singular points of intense description and plot movement in the tales, but rather that the author seems to have found inspiration in a particular moment in time, maybe even a personal experience of her own, which then finds expression in her stories.


And because these are well written, the whole story then gains a degree of authenticity that can be hard to evoke with a short word length. What also helps is how short the narrative remains. Almost all the stories wrap up within a few pages, allowing the reader to never get bored with any extended scenes. Overall a strong collection, one can only hope that Usmani’s writing will continue to improve, providing us with possibly great Pakistani literature in the future.


***


This review was originally published in Books and Authors on 19 May, 2019.

May 01, 2019

Of Asia and Ambition: Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Book Review)

This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning.

Mohsin Hamid is one of those writers who gets better at every re-read. I’m not really sure if that’s a compliment or not, given that not many people find themselves inclined to go back to books they didn’t love in the first place. The only reason I went back to Moth Smoke was because I hadn’t reviewed it the first time around, and it’s the same with this book. If I hadn’t had this compelling reason, I might never have opened any of Hamid’s works again, and might have missed the opportunity to enjoy it more fully. And while one could make an argument for there being too many books on our To-Read list to bother with ones we’ve already read and discarded, I’d say that some books get better as you get older, so that the things teenage-you didn’t enjoy suddenly become much more nuanced.


Written in twelve parts, this particular story is written as a self-help guide, where you, the reader, are also the protagonist. You travel from your father’s village to the metropolitan city, all the visual and auditory references clearly meant to mark it as an example of rural to urban migration in Pakistan. There you experience Pakistan’s ridiculous public education system, join a religious organization in your university, and eventually become a rich if corrupt owner of a shady water bottling company. Unfortunately, since the book is written at a distance, there’s none of the introspective questioning over morality that I wanted to read about. In fact, it feels like we experience a chunk of the story without actually establishing any emotional connection at all, which is one of the most major letdowns of the whole endeavor.


“The fruits of labor are delicious, but individually they’re not particularly fattening. So don’t share yours, and munch on those of others whenever you can.”


I’d be the first to point out that Hamid’s writing feels very contrived most of the times. With almost all his books, you are constantly aware of his form of writing and the trick he’s trying to play on the reader, which should detract from the experience, but somehow doesn’t. I’m not sure how this happens, since usually I prefer the writing to be effortless and for the writer to be almost absent from the page, so that all that’s alive to me are the characters. But while this book constantly makes you aware that you are being talked to, the plot and characters are strong enough to carry the momentum forward until you forget how pretentious you found this very form of storytelling at the beginning. 


I’ll also say one thing: Mohsin Hamid has a great editor. As someone who is both a reader as well as an editor, I’ll say this for sure: long sentences are tricky little buggers. But while this book indulges in them liberally, there was never any point where I felt the odd little hiccup that a misplaced comma or semi colon produces. It was clean, faultless writing, all smooth transition from one idea to the next. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my enjoyment of this book had less to do with the characters and plot and more with how well structured each sentence felt. Some sentences were even a whole paragraph long—a writing trick I’ve usually seen as not encouraged, and not usually well executed. But it’s clear that in the hands of those who know how to write, it can work well. 


I still didn’t love the book. I think it’s just a matter of Hamid writing stories whose complexity of text I can admire without caring about the characters at all. He doesn’t manage to make me awed enough to recommend the book to others, and also doesn’t create protagonists compelling enough to root for. So while it’s a good book, for a passably good enough experience, I can’t say much more than that. 

April 04, 2019

Of Weak Prose and Weaker Characters: Typically Tanya is the most pointless book ever (Book review)

I did not think it was possible for books to be this pointless, but I guess you learn something new every day. What fascinates me is that not only did the author write this and think ‘Ah yes, something worth publishing’, he must have then proceeded to show it to friends and family, the way one does, who also, for some absurd reason, said ‘Yes, this is a great book’. Then this book wound up in the hands of an editor, who also—and we’re approaching acute disbelief territory here—thought this could be salvaged. Then this book went out into the world, and people parted with their hard earned money for it. The only saving grace of this whole fiasco is the fact that I borrowed this book instead of buying it.

I mean, I’ve read bad books before, but I’ve rarely read any which tried so very hard to be funny and relevant and failed so very spectacularly. Tanya, our eponymous heroine, is what I imagine the author wanted to write as a crossover between Bridget Jones and Saba Imtiaz’s heroine in Karachi You’re Killing Me! But while Helen Fielding got the humour and the cheesy shipping right, and Saba Imtiaz was spot on with her desi references, Kehar unfortunately got almost all of it wrong. 

Even the blurb is misleading. Tanya does, in fact, sleep with her best friend’s fiancĂ©, and her best friend does then get jilted at the alter because her man runs away with yet another woman, but none of that plays a significantly large enough role in the plot for it to be the focus of the blurb. In fact, after having read the book, it’s hard to see what the main plot was. Mainly it feels like a portion of a twenty-something woman’s diary through one random, uneventful portion of her life. Sure, things happen, but it’s hard to see how they are meant to make a cohesive whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Mostly this has to do with the characters themselves, who feel dreary and purposeless. Starting with the protagonist, who never once managed to make me laugh, to the whole cast of characters around her, all of whom I cared about not a whit, almost all the players in this story were too weakly drawn for us to care about. Tanya’s separated parents create a very limited depth of feeling in Tanya, and her mother is a caricature of an overprotective, nagging woman who regularly shrieks and is dramatic for no reason at all. Tanya also regularly jokes about sending her mother to a mental institution, in a joke that feels less like a realistic depiction of a child frustrated with their parent and more in the grey areas of inappropriate and politically incorrect. 

Political correctness is a thing that the author clearly cares about a lot, in that he seems to have the right ideas about what women can and cannot do. But unlike in Imtiaz’s novel, where her character smokes in the open to make a point without being didactic, Kehar’s writing comes off as moralizing. In fact, in almost all things that should have been seamlessly inserted into the narrative, there is an obvious attempt to include that particular event into the book. This is especially true for all the political events that Tanya and her friends refer to. Of course, it makes sense that a newspaper editor’s life would be dictated by the things happening in their city and country and in the world at large, and even Pakistanis unconnected to the reporting of news get affected by the politics of a country, but there is so obvious a gap in the natural flow of the story and the mention of these updates that they feel forced. I don’t want to see the author trying so hard and ultimately failing, because to me, as a reader, I end up suffering from second hand embarrassment. Effortlessness, I guess, is what I was looking for, and what I did not find. 

Usually when I review something I add quotes from the book itself, but with this title I was basically struggling to just end the torture. I checked how many pages were left at least fifty seven times after I reached the last quarter. That should give you some idea of how invested I was in what was going on in the story: mainly, not at all. Tanya’s on again off again love affair with her friend Hafeez (whom I kept confusing with her boss Hassan) and her weird, antagonistic friendships with the other women in her life feel too convoluted to care about. Tanya doesn’t seem to actually like any of the people in her life, casually backbiting or being disdainful about almost everyone she comes in contact with, which makes us care about them even less. Even when the author attempts to do something right, such as introduce a gay character into the narrative, he spends more time setting up the character to show what kind of person Tanya is in response to his gayness rather than create a complex, three dimensional character in Adam. 

Another thing I do when I write a review is trying to figure out exactly whom I would recommend the book to. Even if it’s a bad book, I consider the masochist, or the reader with nothing else to do. For this particular book though, I couldn’t think of a single person I’d recommend it to, because unlike other particularly horrible ones I could mention which were so bad so as to be a complete experience (Sara Naveed and H. M. Naqvi come to mind), this book is just boring and badly written. But then I realized that this book is perfect for the amateur author, because if crap like this can get published, than anything can. Which means we all have a very good chance! In fact, probably more than just a good chance, because of the aforementioned absolute crappiness of this book. 

So there you go, a positive note to end this review, and now I will proceed to eject all memories of the time I wasted reading this while sobbing about its mind-numbing atrociousness to my husband. At least there’s one person who was quite amused, and who enjoyed my periodical ranting about the whole thing.

March 25, 2019

Of Wars and Vengeance: Sami Shah's The Havelberg Djinn is a good addition to South Asian supernatural fiction

I’ve been suffering from a severe case of guilt about not reviewing part two of Sami Shah’s duology, and because I’m an active procrastinator who also falls apart after missed deadlines, I’ve decided to do something that makes no sense, which is to review another short story by him.

I’m aware that by doing this I will have in no way completed my actual task, but I have a horrible feeling that it’s been too long since I read the duology, and the dual expectations of finishing the review vs being unable to write a detailed, in-depth analysis might relegate this task to the list of incomplete things I vaguely stress about.

That being said, there’s something so great about reading Sami Shah’s works cause his stories are so Pakistani. As a voracious reader growing up, I suffered from a lack of representation in the Sweet Valley and Hardy boys I inhaled religiously, so to have moments you’ve grown up with being merged into a story is such a bittersweet experience. Reading Sami Shah feels like reading a story by a cousin whom you might have spent your summer vacations with, because he’s writing scenes and feelings from the same memory bank that I pull all my experiences from.  

Everyone in the family knew Phuppa could see djinns.

Every Pakistani family has at least one distant relative that all the kids know of who could speak to jinn. In my case, it was a man we called ‘jinn nana’, who, common family lore goes, once breathed on my hand when I came home dirty and sweaty from playing outside, and out came the smell of roses from my cupped palms. Of course, it’s entirely possible that he was particularly dexterous with a hidden perfume dropper, but it’s cooler to imagine the first version rather than the second.

“It always shakes my toe just before dawn and I wake up, Sami pasha,” he would say. 

The idea of these humans using jinn as friends as well as servants is part of common parlance in Pakistani households, including the ‘they wake me up for prayer’ idea that Sami introduces at the beginning of the story. From there though, we veer into a completely different territory. And because I was going into this story without having read a blurb, it’s entirely possible that the path this story took could have been jarring, but Sami leads us expertly from present-day Pakistan back into the past, using an uncle telling a bunch of kids a story about their ancestors to drag us back into history.

Mostly though, most Pakistani authors focus on selected years in the country’s history: primarily on the 1947 partition, with a few more titles based on the 1965 war or the 1971 separation. India features prominently in these stories, usually as the protagonist, but Sami does something different, and by extension much more interesting. He keeps going backwards even before the split of the subcontinent into two countries, dragging us back to the time when British colonial powers ruled this land mass, and World War 1 was raging on.

True, almost all the Indian soldiers fighting for the English in the Great War were doing so because the British Raj demanded it of them and they lacked the independence to refuse. However, Riffatullah Shah was perhaps the only Indian to volunteer.

Even as I read this story, slightly surprised at how far back in the century we had jumped, the author managed to retain a level of authenticity in his tale. Given the unexpected coincidence that I’ve been reading about the atrocious treatment of Indian soldiers by the British during the World Wars—Winston Churchill’s disdainful but contentious ‘they breed like rabbits’ comment about the 3 million dead Indians during the 1940’s Bengal Famine comes to mind—this story could not have come at a better time on my radar.

The British commanders treated the Indian soldiers horrifically, often using them as human shields behind whom the sons of England took shelter, then denying them basic rations so that the British could eat double portions. 

Riffatullah, the brother of the great grand-father of our narrator, gets caught during the war and transferred to Havelberg, a town in Germany, where two interpreters, a big meaty man and his vicious partner, go around being cruel to literally everyone. Surviving on barely any food and reluctant to socialize for fear of spies in the camp, Riffatullah becomes friends with Omar, the only other Indian present. The men bond over their shared love of Hyderabad and the memories they had of the place, until Omar complains of hunger one day, and gets brutally beaten up for it.

It is at this point that certain similarities between this story and Sami Shah’s entry in the anthology The Djinn Falls in love and Other Stories started to emerge. In both stories, a character wronged becomes possessed and comes back to take revenge. Even the descriptions used sounded eerily similar, although one could argue that almost all supernatural creatures look almost the same across the genre (vampires pale and pointy, dwarves stout and leathery, etc. etc.)

Riffatullah looked at Umar, and Umar looked back, but there were no eyes. Where he should have had eyes, were twin flames, flaring and growing outwards.

I have to admit though, reading The Djinn Falls in Love opened up a world of possibilities to me about the kinds of fantasy we could experiment with in a South Asian setting, and Sami Shah is probably one of the few authors I know who are already doing that experimenting, proving it true with stories like this one (Usman T. Malik is another, but his stories verge slightly from the fantasy into the realm of magic realism, whereas Shah’s story stay grounded primarily in the supernatural).

This is not the most amazing thing ever written, but it’s a good piece, solid and entertaining, and the writing is at ease, which is a weird compliment to give, but there you have it. I’d recommend this.