August 29, 2015

Of Sci-Fi and Family ties: Usman Tanveer Malik's The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family is both confusing and fascinating

In her heart was a steaming shadow that whispered nasty things. It impaled her with its familiarity and a dreadful suspicion grew in her that the beast was rage and wore a face she knew well.

The only proper response I could muster after reading Usman Tanveer Malik’s short story ‘The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family’ was, “Huh?

That’s not to say that the short story is bad, per say. Or even that it’s somewhere in the vein of boredom-inducing. It’s a good story. I think. It could even have been a great one, had I managed to understand a little bit of it a little more clearly.

First published in Qualia Nous (a compilation of short stories, novelettes and poetry that focus on themes of sci-fi and horror) this short story is part science textbook and part complex fictional calisthenics on the part of the author. And while the science part manages to remain somewhat easy enough to follow, the story telling part sometimes went straight over my head. And yet I managed to enjoy reading it. Which puts me in that weird realm of not knowing how you feel about something, and liking it anyway.

The story

Tara and Sohail are siblings living together in an unnamed location somewhere in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, in a rural area dominated by agriculture and drone attacks. Sohail, whose wife Gulminay has been killed during a drone strike, is hurting and angry and determined to take revenge. Tara, older and worried and convinced he will die, is trying to convince him not to go.

“What if you go to them and die? What if you go to them like a steer to the slaughter? And Ma and I — what if months later we sit here and watch a dusty vehicle climb the hill, bouncing a sack of meat in the back seat that was once you? What if …”

The rest of their story, as it follows Tara and her journey to the City, is told in portions, shifting from one location to another, with each shift accompanied by a scientific reference which fits perfectly in retrospect. Tara, a widow who loses her mother soon after her brother’s departure, is one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve read in a while: a narrator who fluctuates between reliable and unreliable, who is both sympathetic and hard to relate to.

They drew back from her, from her late husband’s mention. Why not? she thought. Everything she touched fell apart; everyone around her died or went missing. There was no judgment here, just dreadful awe.

Usman Tanveer Malik uses the setting of the City to wondrous advantage, managing to talk about both man-made horrors like suicide blasts existing parallel to the destruction caused by natural disasters like flooding. The story does its job in showing how both these events cause massive catastrophes, wrecking lives everywhere.

Tara and Wasif witnessed it daily when they went for rescue work: massive upchucked power pylons and a splintered oak tree smashing through the marketplace stalls; murderous tin sheets and iron rods slicing through the inundated streets; bloated dead cows and sheep eddying in shoulder-high water with terrified children clinging to them.

It was near the ending that I started to reread paragraphs, wondering what the hell had just happened. It is at this point that the author starts to mould science and myths together, piling worlds on top of worlds so that my brain had to fight the reflex to say ‘this doesn’t make any sense’, mainly because I was also thinking, ‘this is quite interesting’.

Sohail tried to smile, and in that smile were heat-deaths of countless worlds, supernova bursts, and the chrysalis sheen of a freshly hatched larva. She thought he might have whispered sorry. That in another time and universe there were not countless intemperate blood-children of his spreading across the earth’s face like vitriolic tides ready to obliterate the planet.

Near the end, something happened, and something else also happened, and then anti-matter and matter joined together. Maybe? I guess. I’m pretty sure. But it was all quite fascinating, to say the least.  

The characters

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I’m going to the mountains. I will take some bread and dried meat. I will stay there until I’m shown a sign, and once I am …I will arise and go to their homes. I will go to them as God’s wrath. I will —”

Even though it is Tara whose story we follow, Sohail’s vehement desire to rain destruction down on the people who killed his beloved wife is one of the catalysts of the story, and so Sohail becomes a major part of it, even though he comes for only a little while. And it is Sohail’s vengeance that will finally bring Tara back to the mountains in the end, just as it was his leaving that made her eventually go to the City.

“What will you do now?” they asked, gathering around her with sharp, interested eyes. She knew what they really meant. A young widow with no family was a stranger amidst her clan: at best an oddity, at worst a ripe seductress.

Tara, though. Tara is an unapologetic protagonist, if one could faithfully say that of characters. Even in the limited constraints of short story writing, she manages to be a fully rounded person, complex in her emotions and three-dimensional in her desires and fears.

Tara tried to weep and felt guilty when she couldn’t. Ma had been sick and in pain for a long time and her hastened death was a mercy, but you couldn’t say that out loud.

Usman Malik does a great job here in describing her time in the City, her love for education, her involvement in rescue work. Tara takes care of little children and converses with her uncle and studies Physics and biology with wide-eyed fascination, all the while thinking of the family she left behind, the brother she can no longer feel. She is multi-dimensional in all the right ways. And it is Tara’s character who will ultimately bring the story to its rightful conclusion, the only conclusion that could have fit.

“You know what I mean, Uncle. I love you, but I need to love me too.”

The writing

All at once their world was just too much, or not enough — Tara couldn’t decide which — and the weight of that un-seen future weighed her down until she couldn’t breathe.

The writing in this story straddles the line between brilliant and pretentious, sometimes falling this way, sometimes that. Some lines are pure gold, whether they be easy, comfortable dialogues-

“It’s a different time. Others my age who don’t realize it don’t fare well. The traditional rules don’t apply anymore, you know. Sometimes, I think that is wonderful. Other times, it feels like the whole damn world is conspiring against you.”

-or carefully constructed beautiful sentences.  

In a different time she might have mistaken his generosity for loneliness, but now she understood it for what it was. Such was the way of age: it melted prejudice or hardened it.

At other times though, it seems the editor’s pen slipped past the moments when the writing goes crazy, toppling either onto the side of the odd phrasing-

He ...looked at the sky, a vast whiteness cobblestoned with heat.

-or into the world of the WTF?! moment.

Once the children left, she went to the mirror and gazed at her reflection, flexing her arm, making the flame-shaped scar bulge. We all drink the blood of yesterday, she thought.

There are also moments when people say things that one would never actually say. There’s no ring of authenticity to some of the dialogues, which sound like florid versions of the beautiful sentences used in the descriptions in other parts of the story.

“Her name meant a rose,” he said... “Under the mango trees by Chacha Barkat’s farm Gulminay told me that, as I kissed her hand. Whispered it in my ear, her finger circling my temple. A rose blooming in the rain. Did you know that?”

Who talks like that, though? Really? Poetic prose as dialogues? Could have ruined the whole story, but thankfully it happens rarely. And there are more moments of skilful control over language than not, so overall it all works.

The Sci-fi

In Physics class, she learned about electrons. Little flickering ghosts that vanished and reappeared as they pleased. Her flesh was empty, she discovered, or most of it. So were human bones and solid buildings and the incessantly agitated world. All that immense loneliness and darkness with only a hint that we existed. The idea awed her. Did we exist only as a possibility?

This was the first time I was reading Pakistani Science fiction, and what better place to start than with a Bram Stoker winning one, right? That doesn’t change the fact that a lot of it passed over my head, even though I had come prepared to take in all the science and make sense of it.

In Wasif Khan’s yard was a tall mulberry tree with saw-like leaves ... She picked a basketful, nipped her wrist with her teeth, and let her blood roast a few. She watched them curl and smoke from the heat of her genes, inhaled the sweet steam of their juice as they turned into mystical symbols.

I’m not sure this even classifies as proper sci-fi. There are vague threads of magic realism, with slight hints of fantasy and maybe a tinge of horror as well. This might very well be one of the few genre-bending Pakistani fiction pieces.

“I know you,” she whispered to the Beast resident in her soul. “I know you,” and all the time she scribbled on her flesh with a glass shard she found buried in a patrolman’s eye. Her wrist glowed with her heat and that of her ancestors. She watched her blood bubble and surge skyward.

Even though the confusing aspects of it meant that a lot of stuff didn’t make sense, a lot of stuff still did. The story manages to survive even under the weight of its confusion, and the narrative doesn’t suffer even after reading sentences that defy all meaning. Conversely, the block paragraphs of textbook Science definitions are also wonderfully used, a parallel to the story of Tara and Sohail and their interlocking histories. In the end, the science and its relation with the fiction are worth the effort it takes to read the story.

Tara listened and tried to read between their words. Slowly, the hints in the midnight alleys, the leprous grins, the desperate, clutching fingers, incinerated trees and the smoldering human and animal skulls — they began to come together and form a map.
Tara followed it into the heart of the mountains.

The recommendation

Although confusing, the story has its finer points. Not the best thing I’ve ever read, but an interesting attempt nonetheless. Definitely worth a try.