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.