August 02, 2018

Of Adultery and Aimlessness: Rubab Masuri's Four Broken Strings is a completely pointless novel

Here is a list of reasons why I didn’t like this book:

·         Plot what plot: A woman named Penny has a boring, loveless relationship with her constantly-travelling husband. She gets a job, falls for a man at said job, is in complete denial about her feelings. Makes out with said man, gets mad at man when he tries to talk about their relationship. Gets mad when he tries to get some distance from her. Gets mad when he gets engaged. Ends up being friends with this man, and going back to boring husband. Do the characters grow through this year? Are there lessons learned? Do we ship for anyone ever? Are there any conflicts worth caring about? Nope, nope, so much of the nope.

·         Boring main character: Penny is a caricature of all the horrible tropes that we hope we never see in a woman anywhere. Doesn’t have any strong, healthy friendships, doesn’t like her own company, has no habits or interests to bolster herself up, can’t maintain interesting conversations, has no smart opinions, and is overall such a pointless person that it’s amazing that she’s the protagonist of a whole novel, much less the side character in a zombie apocalypse story who gets eaten first, sparing us all her annoying presence.

·         Misogyny everywhere: Our protagonist judges all other females constantly, has no strong friendships with other women, can barely stand to be civil to her mother or sister in law, indulges in casual misogyny almost constantly, believes women are responsible for keeping a man in a relationship happy, judges the hero for reading a ‘girly book’.. I could go on and on, but I won’t, because such ingrained sexism and patriarchy is exhausting to deal with, and I just can’t.

·         Pointless love interests: Both Penny’s husband and the guy she likes are so tedious that it’s amazing that she is conflicted about choosing between them. What even is the appeal? Her husband barely appears, unless it’s to fight so horribly with his wife that he wilfully breaks apart the one guitar that she actually loves. The love interest, Kabir, is the most unremarkable, lacklustre character ever. It’s hard to feel much about his existence, much less ship them with our heroine. In a story where the main point is the conflict in love, the story spectacularly crashes and burns.

·         Poor chemistry: I get that complex, well-written relationships, even about adultery, can be amazing, can be literature worth analysing and praising. Even though I feel strongly about how horrible adultery is, one of my favourite novels is about a love triangle, and a couple which breaks up because of the adulterous wife. But though Love, Etc. could also be said to be about relationships and nothing else, it still says everything it needs to says about narratives of choice and the complications of love in such beautiful ways. In this story, unfortunately, there is no explicable pull between Penny and Kabir, two unremarkable characters who do less falling in love and more spending time with each other because they’re bored and apparently can’t make good life decisions. Where’s the spark, the chemistry, that undeniable pull so that you want to look away even as you know they’re going to crash together? What makes Penny want to be with Kabir even though she knows she shouldn’t? Absolutely nothing.

·         Really, really bad writing: Can’t stress this enough. And I mean this in more ways than one: bad in terms of sentence structure and flow, and also really, really poor in terms of the words themselves. At one point in the story the word ‘you’ is written as ‘u’. ‘Nough said.

·         Crazy punctuation: The misuse of commas is insane. I understand that commas are a pretty subjective thing; as an editor, the fights I fight are less about spelling – although those do happen – but more about punctuation. Commas are the bane of my existence day in and day out, so to see them used in so horrific a manner does something to my insides, and not in a good way either. I had to fight the itch to take a red pen and start crossing them out. 

The bad stuff went one and on: our characters make fun of people with disabilities, with the word ‘retard’ used as an insult almost constantly. There is barely any complexity to motivations for why people do things. The romance is lacklustre. You are, of course, welcome to read the book itself to ensure that all the things I’ve mentioned are actually true. Usually I quote direct passages from anything I review to provide a reference point or some proof of what I’m talking about, but having read this book once, I could not inflict upon myself the sort of torture required to go through it again looking for extracts. I mean, even masochism must have its limits.

 If you had to grade this novel on a curve, it’s slightly better than the worst thing I’ve ever read. But being slightly than the actual worst doesn’t actually make anything better. Please, do yourself a favour, and stay far away.

July 22, 2018

Of Breaking and Boredom: Mongrel's Book of Voices is a very weak anthology

I don’t care much about prose, and I didn’t care much about this anthology’s first entry. Clutter by Indian writer and poet Uttaran Das Gupta, is, well, nothing to write home about. Or it could be the next big thing, I don’t know. His works have appeared in a number of places and have been shortlisted for a bunch of awards, so presumably it must be good, but unless I really like something - like the second poem in this collection (To The Child by Yusra Amjad) – I’m not interested. Amjad’s work, a 16-line poem with four quatrains, is most effective near the ending, and calls for deeper analysis and discussion.

And I made sure to keep my love safe
Stored away in a cool dark place
My sweet, please believe I cannot explain
How it is grown so sour and strange.

But sandwiched in between these two pieces is Shazaf Fatima Haider’s Pavlova, one of the weaker pieces of this anthology, and such a disappointment to me, since I really liked Haider’s previous novel. Being followed up by just-fine poetry did her story no favours, with New Delhi-based poet Akhil Katyal’s two mediocre poems leading to one of brilliance. His third contribution to this anthology, He was born in 1948, so he’s, at eight lines and more concise than his previous two poems, is unexpectedly good, and definitely recommended reading. I’ve also rarely heard Pakistani cultural figures like Nusrat Fateh Ali mentioned so endearingly in prose, so it was a nice change.

What was also pretty nice was that the next entry Uremia - a super bland and completely pointless story about an old patient obsessed with a nurse - was by a Saudi Arabian writer, which meant I didn’t have to bother reviewing it in detail. Abdullah Wesali won the Saudi Novel Prize in 2016, which means he must write well, so I don’t know what went on over here.

What’s surprising is that I found myself liking the poetry in this anthology more than the prose, which is quite weird, cause I always thought I wasn’t much for poetry. Still, Shandana Minhas’s Dear 24-year-old is smart and well-written and worth discussing. But since I’m crap at properly analysing any forms of writing that aren’t in paragraphs and with a proper beginning, middle, and end, I’m going to leave four lines of her work here, and hope they suffice.

My problem with pedestals is
I’m alive,
So call it what you will my ascension
Is just crucifixion without the nails.

Or maybe I spoke too soon when I said that the poetry was impressing me, because following up from Shandana Minhas was Moeen Faruqi with two average, forgettable poems. I’m not even going to bother talking about them because I don’t have that kind of time in my life. Unfortunately, I had to make time for Amna Chaudhry’s Sonny and Steven, a prose piece of remarkable pointlessness. Nothing interesting happens in this story about a wedding photographer, and nothing much continues to happen until the very end. At this point, I was just turning the pages hoping to come across something worth reading, and Aziza Ahmed’s two-page comic was a welcome relief. Written on two pages facing each other created a great duality for comparison on both sides, with one side under the heading ‘I am my computer’, and the other ‘My computer is me’. It wasn’t particularly original, but the graphics with the text were compelling enough for analysis.

Sadly enough, we had a very short stop at the station of things-worth-reading before we got to ‘critically acclaimed’ (this is directly from the Author’s bio) Egyptian writer and translator Mohamed Abdelnabi’s piece. Titled Like a Novice Disciple, it was a collection of 60 epigrams from a longer work, and I’m sorry to say that it made absolutely no sense to me. It must have made some sense to someone somewhere, presumably, since it’s been published, but witness:

Oh his hand, his fingers, who is he?
I, too, tried to be in love, my goat!
Even on the body of insomnia I left my bite-marks.
Don’t ask for my last word, let me live.

Ookkkay, what now? I’m assuming that’s supposed to be deep, and throws up multiple interpretations if you dig in deep. The thing is, I’m not reading this for my English literature class. I’m reading this for a sort of surface level, mindless pleasure, and I’m not mood to figure out what the hell a goat is doing here. Next, please.

Bina Shah’s Peter Pochmann Goes to Pakistan, which could have been great cause I like Bina Shah, except turned out it was an excerpt. An excerpt from what though? No novel of that name has ever actually been published. Googling this title brings up a 15-page excerpt from this unpublished manuscript present in amagazine, and a mention in a 2012 interview with Claire Chambers, who was looking forward to reading this. Chambers must still be waiting, since Shah’s next upcoming book Before She Sleeps says nothing at all about any Peter Pochmann.

At this point, I was just skimming - couldn’t wait for this anthology to be over - which might be why Rimsha Amjad’s poem Uncoiling did absolutely nothing for me. It was when I got to Soniah Kamal’s The Party Giver that I finally found something worth reading in this anthology. Told from the point of view of a mother celebrating her son’s fifth birthday party, Kamal creates depth and character in a very short period of time, in one I personally thought was the best entry in this anthology. 

Unfortunately, we were right back to the forgettable poetry with Harris Khalique’s entry (I shall not return the borrowed dust) and then even more forgettable prose with Whiti Hereaka’s work (Papatūānuku). Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s five paragraphs of prose about partition and death I also didn’t care for - I’ve read SO MUCH partition literature at this point that in order for it to get my attention it has to be better than brilliant. Maryam Ala Amjadi’s 101 Synonyms for a Single Woman makes for an interesting discussion point but can you categorize this as literature? And so, in this anthology even casting itself as one? Cause that’s literally a list of synonyms with which single women are referred to, which makes for a great starting point for a discussion that never came.  

And because I was so, so bored by this point, I think Imran Yusuf’s Comfort Food in Karachi came across as less interesting than it could have been. The story of a couple having an illicit relationship killed by the family matriarch loses its shock appeal about the corpse being used as food cause I’d already read Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter. Dahl’s story features a woman who kills her husband, then cooks his body and feeds it to the detectives who come to investigate her missing husband. The first time I read this, I was horrified at this turn of effects. With Yusuf’s story, it’s a case of been-there-read-that, so I wasn’t as effective as it could have been. What was more effective was Soonha Abro’s An Evening of Illusions, where a moment of staring at someone and reminiscing culminates in a complete change in the last line, effective and powerful in retrospect.

As hard as I tried,
I couldn’t look away;
Until I had stared at you so long
That your forehead lost its angular shape
And became more rounded,
And I realised that

it wasn’t you.

I actually knew Soonha when we were working together, so I was worried about hating her work, cause that would mean I would have to write a horrible review. Fortunately, this is great writing. Mehr F. Hussain’s short story, on the other hand, is not great at all. A young boy, obsessed with his babysitter, is horrified when she leaves, and even more when he realizes she’s gone to get married. What I think the author tried to do was shock us with the age revelation, except the secret is obvious and the execution clunky. At this point, I was just glad that there were only a few pages in this anthology left, and with three poems (two average, one absolutely brilliant) by Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, we were finally, finally at the end.

I feel like I said this a lot but my god there were a lot of pointless entries in this anthology. The only positive I could find was the fact that none of the Urdu is italicized, which was such a welcome relief and probably one of the best parts of reading a book published by a Pakistani publisher. Props to Mongrel Books for having a style policy which doesn’t pander to a western readership. And here’s to hoping they pick better stuff next time.

July 17, 2018

Of Honour and Hope: Sanam Maher's The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is riveting stuff

More than a year after she made her last video or uploaded her last photograph, we are not done talking about what Qandeel did.

I’m so, so glad Sanam Maher wrote this book, because someone needed to. Pakistan is, let’s face it, a country bursting with issues that we don’t talk enough about. We’ve got more problems than we can count, and on top of that, we’ve got those who will choose to ignore our problems in favour of pointing at other countries and screaming ‘but they’re so oppressive/racist/RAPE CAPITAL!’ because apparently if we’re bad, all that matters is that we not be the worst.

But I digress. I’m glad someone wrote this book because the only places where we discuss the horrors of being a woman in Pakistan are the bland, overused stock phrases of newspaper articles. I’m glad because a smart, insightful look at the Pakistani social media scene in the form of a full length book is a very rare thing. I’m happy because the writing was controlled and the narrative structure well-formed. It was organized and not boring at all and it talked about all the right things without veering off into melodrama or too many facts one after the other. And mostly, I’m ecstatic that there were whole chapters dedicated to people like Arshad Khan (the Chaiwalla, for those who never bothered to learn his real name) or Nighat Dad, cool woman personified.

I thought the whole book would be about Qandeel herself. That’s what everyone who has seen the TV show about her life says, as an excuse to not read this text. But it isn’t, not really. Maher’s focus is not just on the linear life path that Qandeel followed but also all those who are affected by her, who interacted with her, orbited in her circuit. It’s about people who looked up to Qandeel as a role model or those who lost their credibility by affiliating with her. The focus of the story constantly circles wider, talking about people who, like her, shot to fame on social media, or like her, knew what cyberharrassment felt like. The woman who was in charge of the investigation after Qandeel’s death, the man who trained Qandeel in self defense, the parents who registered an FIR against their son, the woman who worked as a model and wanted to follow in Qandeel’s footsteps, the man who introduced Qandeel to the modelling business. They all feature in detail, talking about their own selves and most of all of how stark a presense Qandeel was in their lives.

Overall, though, it feels sort of pointless to talk about the content of the book itself, because doesn’t everyone already know about Qandeel? We’ve, after all, seen most or at least some of her interviews or YouTube videos. We all remember Mufti Abdul Qavi and the offer to Shahid Afridi and the appeal to Imran Khan. Most of us also remember when Qandeel’s real name was revealed across all the channels and the absolute madness that erupted every time her name was mentioned after that. But the way Sanam Maher has tackled her source material is extraordinary. I don’t claim to have read a lot of nonfiction, and memoirs or biographies have never managed to retain my interest, but Maher isn’t interested in just Qandeel’s life. We talk not only about Qandeel but about the society in which she lived and how it in turn was obsessed with and horrified by her. And by horrified I mean enough to have been happy when she was murdered. And enough to threaten Saba Qamar, the actress who willingly chose to portray Qandeel in a TV serial based on QB’s life.

Qamar reportedly received death threats for taking on the project and when the Express Tribune ran a trailer for the new series on its Facebook page, the post was flooded with hateful comments. ‘Like Qandel’s murder, Saba Qamar should also be murdered in the same way,” one male commentator wrote while another called Qandeel and Qamar ‘strippers and prostitutes’.

Maher’s work is also unflinching in its depiction of the media that some argue are what contributed to her death. If not the actual murderers, than accomplices for certain. It wasn’t, seemingly, the shame of what Qandeel had done, but how widespread that fame became, that led to her brother killing her. Our media isn’t exactly a responsible and conscientious medium on its best days. The slightest hint of a controversy is enough to send them into a mad frenzy. Once Qandeel’s real name was revealed, pictures of her passport appeared on almost every channel.

If Daily Pakistan is responsible for what happened to Qandeel, then so it every other newspaper and TV channel that ran a story on Qandeel’s real name and where she was from.

Other equally horrible stuff crops up elsewhere as well. The honour killing laws and their treatment, and the fact that they haven’t actually managed to make any substantial changes in the number of deaths.  Cybercrimes and how Nighat Dad is spending her days dealing with the utter craziness that is Pakistan’s web. Social Media, and how fame from these sources can be dangerous and toxic. The modelling industry, and how it crosses over into blatant prostitution. The villages where women are killed for any number of ridiculous reasons. Patriarchy and how it dictates the life of the majority of Pakistan’s population.

"We have a tradition here that every second or fourth day some girl is killed and thrown in the river. You media guys are creating hype for nothing."

I think the only thing that makes me sad about the existence of this book is that the people who should be reading it are probably not going to. I know loads of people who picked the book up and looked horrified at the (very cool) illustration of Qandeel’s face. And these are the very people at whom I wanted to shove the book to force them to read it. I feel like there’s a very tiny crowd, the ones who defended Qandeel in the first place, who’ll read this book and actually learn from it. The rest of Pakistan, misogynistic and patriarchal, will continue living in ignorance. And that is the saddest thing about this whole endeavour.

Today, two years after her death, the conversations still continue in the same veins, with the same groups saying the same thing. To us, she’s either a fighter, taking on patriarchy and misogyny front and centre, a woman who escaped the clutches of a horrible marriage and made a life for herself, or she is a wanton woman, an insult to our culture and a threat to our religion. Even with all the adoration and the vitriol poured on her in tandem, she still fascinated, with scores of Pakistani audiences unable to look away from the sort of drama the name Qandeel Baloch could stir. These two teams represent not just those whether we were with or against Qandeel but are also extensions of the Pakistani mind set, in conflict with itself over everything.  Here’s hoping that this book changes the landscape in terms of making everyone a little less ignorant about the realities of the world we live in. Definitely recommended.

Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

July 11, 2018

Of Jinn and Justice: Musharruf Farooqi's supernatural short story makes for great Islamic fantasy

Reading The Jinn Darazgosh was an interesting experience, because until recently the entirety of my exposure to jinn stories included the Disney version of Alladin. A genie that came out of a magic lamp and granted three wishes sounded like a brilliant concept, right up until last year, when my exposure to the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories as well as the trilogy Bartimaeus Sequence exposed me to a whole new side of the differently-spelled ‘djinn’.

The former anthology tackled djinns as both protagonists and antagonists in stories which showed them as more than creatures whose sole purpose was to fulfil the whims of fickle humans. The latter trilogy introduced me to the idea of levels of djinns as afrits and marids with varying powers and purposes. Around discussions with my best friend about the course she was planning to teach about these supernatural creatures as well as the recent burst of publication of books about djinns, I’ve come to realize that there’s a whole world out there beyond elves and dwarves when it comes to supernatural creatures.

Farooqi’s story tackles a side of fantasy that I wish I had read more of. In a world where jinn creep into the heavens to overhear the angel’s plans and come back to tell those who pretend to portend events, a jinn named Darazgosh works for an augur named Sarob. With augurs all over the world using these jinn to spy on angels to predict the future, Darazgosh is entrusted with the same tasks. He, however, gets more involved than allowed in his curiosity to see how what the angels have said will come to pass, setting off a whole chain of events.

Darazgosh went away after witnessing those events, but every night he returned to watch what went on in those places, and to await the time when God’s decree would be fulfilled.

Most of this story is told in a format I like to call the old-school-dastaan way of narrating. The dialogues are limited, and most of the narration in in the form of stock paragraphs that relate what happened in simple and clear language. With two lovers fated to die in the far distant future due to rains in the here and now, we follow the jinn as he keeps track of how these events come to pass.

It’s not a simple, one-generation narrative, with a story starting and ending with the life of one person. In keeping with the large-scale narration, the actual hero and heroine are the grandchildren of the people with whom we begin our story. An unhappy couple with a wife who bears a miracle child lead to our hero, whereas a verdant tree and the birth of a baby girl lead us to our heroine. Decades pass in the matter of minutes as people give birth and grow older, as deaths are faced and fates changed, and the next chapter begins, with Darazgosh watching over it all.

He again sent for Darazgosh and said to him: “Find out once more what is being said in the heavens and bring me the news!” Darazgosh again returned, and said: “The angels in the heavens say that the fortune of the kingdom is tied to the two slaves gifted to the king by a courtier.”

The story, which seeks to describe how the jinn were locked out of heaven, culminates in Darazgosh playing a more active part in the events than he is allowed. With an omnipresent narrator and a certain emotional distance from the story itself, this is not one of those tales where you judge them on how closely you felt for the characters or how three dimensional they were. Given that you barely get to spend a large amount of time with anyone beyond their functionality to the tale itself, what’s more important is the story, and how things lead to another. And overall, this makes for an okay reading experience. It’s not the best story I’ve ever read, and I certainly won’t remember it a month from now, but it also wasn’t a complete waste of my time, and I didn’t have to struggle to finish it. For reference, I’d suggest everyone should read this brilliant article by the author, where he talks in detail about the Islamic concept of jinn and their background. Recommended.

July 04, 2018

Of Children and Closure: Soniah Kamal's The Party Giver is the best entry in this anthology

(This is Review Part 3 of the Anthology titled Breakups)

Finally, a prose piece worthy of being added to an anthology. Kamal’s work is well-written and haunting, a good piece of literature amongst all the other mediocre entries. Focusing on a complex, intricate topic – the death of a child – and doing justice to it is a feat, and for once it has actually been pulled off.

Our protagonist, a mother of a young boy, is all set to host her son’s fifth birthday, but the complicated past of losing her first born to another birthday party ten years back keeps dragging her away from the present. Told in quick, fluid shifts between past and present, Kamal, who herself is the mother of three kids, has written this story with just the right amount of emotions to keep you invested without making you restless or bored with heartbreak. And even though I don’t necessarily believe that one has to live through an experience in order to write about it – one doesn’t need to be a mother in order to be able to write about a mother’s love -  the excellence of expression shown through Kamal’s words are undeniable.

The party, a two hour affair, are our heroine’s husband’s ideas. He’s determined to make a new life after the death of their first child, and our heroine’s relationship with her husband is an important part of the story, in a surprising turn of narrative that I liked. Usually stories about the death of a child, especially written from the point of view of the mother, seem to completely ignore the existence of the father.

He’d held her to a promise she’d forgotten which was that she was his wife first and then a mother, that marriage came before children, that she had to allow him a second chance at parenthood even if it was a second chance neither he nor she had asked for.

At such a short length, I’m always surprised when short stories manage to resonate so much, but Soniah Kamal is clearly an author to look out for. I’m glad to hear she already has a novel published, which means there’s good literature that I can now add to my TBR list. Definitely recommended.