Anu Kumar reviews the works of Moazzam Sheikh, a US-based writer and translator of Pakistani-origin.
1. A Letter From India: Contemporary Short Stories from Pakistan; with an introduction and edited by Moazzam Sheikh, Penguin India, 2004
2. The Idol Lover and Other Stories of Pakistan by Moazzam Sheikh, Ithuriel’s Spear, USA, 2008
3. Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories by Moazzam Sheikh, Weavers Press, USA, 2014
At the outset, a disclaimer: this isn’t a review, for it really cannot be one. Instead it is an attempt to write about a book and try and configure a writer’s journey through this. As it indeed happens, I contributed one of the blurbs this book carries on its back cover; that clearly didn’t say enough and so the need for this elaboration.
The cover of Cafe Le Whore and other Stories, Moazzam Sheikh’s new collection, his second one, appears to evoke the lead story. It is replete with bright haunting colours but still strikes an elusive tone, almost like the narrator’s repeated encounters with his dead mother in a city cafe and his later frustrated search for her, intertwined with his meetings with a down and out whore.
The story strikes in places a hysteric fun pitch, that makes it a racy read but then you come up short against a certain melancholy tone which is what this story leaves you with.
A short story for the most part has a lineage, not in just what it says but even in how it is written, and because an explanation for why I wrote a blurb for this intriguing, wonderful and hard to place collection must be convincing, it must begin with some of Moazzam Sheikh’s translated stories in A Letter from India (Penguin 2004).
Moazzam’s introduction for this earlier collection talked of his efforts searching for contemporary short stories from Pakistan and how surprisingly difficult it turned out to be. As these stories show, there is a rich heritage of stories, not merely in Punjabi and Urdu, but in other languages, other locales and by writers, largely forgotten but skilled craftsmen of the form. The collection included many voices unfamiliar to the Anglophone reader, and Moazzam’s journey was in quest of a literature, that existed in different languages and dialects from regions even marginalized, most of which had long remained hidden or was ignored; it was also an attempt to show the different narratives that are possible, even within the short story.
Perhaps the lead story, ‘A Letter from India’ is an apt title for the book too, for despite the divisive politics that created two countries of one, homes and hearts are always hard to divide; languages and a shared history will persist across divides and form a common heritage. In this story Intizar Hussain writes about a nephew gone missing. You’d think its a litany of woes but as he narrates the story of a family in decline, of one part of the family gone over across the border and old ties and traditions breaking, you hear the anguish of sudden and inexplicable loss. It is a story that Moazzam Sheikh captures in its every complexity: The tone, the highs and the lows of one single life, the meandering note that lingers, and you can even see the narrator’s every hesitation and pause.
The short story, to make things obvious about this collection, is a complex format. There is nothing universal about a story, it has every quirk and quality, not merely as to where it is born but where it has travelled, the influences it has picked up. It will carry the village in it, and go on to reveal the state of the world. It will have within it a revelation of a human life or more, and even the many selves of one life laid out in a few pages. What is especially unique in these many stories, translated by different writers, is the many guises that humour can appear in. Some places it fairly crackles off the page, in others it is bawdy, and irreverent, and in still other places, it comes with the tinge of melancholy. And none of it is lost in translation.
‘Mangoes in the Time of Winter’ was originally written in the Saraiki language, a dialect spoken in western Punjab by Ashu Lal. In this instance it has been translated by Moazzam Sheikh and Amna Ali, and begins when a narrator, described as a stranger finds himself in a new neighbourhood and curious to find out where a club is. This is in itself an interesting technique for the narrator’s omniscience or even prescience is taken for granted all too often. As is the usual conversational practice in several South Asian settings, he is regaled to a rambling history of how the club came into being, how from a wrestling ring, it became a sweet shop and various other things. It is when Lala shows the narrator the secret refrigerator and the mangoes stored away in winter that the stranger knows he has won over something or someone.
It is a story that in a critical sense could not ‘travel’, but the lone noble figure of Lala has its replicas in stories across the world.
Moazzam Sheikh’s first collection of short stories appeared soon after. There was something novel (pun unintended) in the stories that make up The Idol Love and Other Stories. The early stories somehow appear of a continuous piece with the earlier translated stories, almost in terms of honouring this tradition, and then the stories make a gradual shift: moving places, locales, settings and also in the choice of narrators. In the early stories, there is the same attention to atmospherics, the brutality and coarseness of everyday life of struggle, and then the sensitivity that underlies this all. You can in every story hear the rain in the streets, the heat searing the desert and the anonymous streets of the western city. The midway point in this collection, as it were, comes in the story, ‘The Barbarian and the Mule’ (which also appeared in A Letter from India).
A man and his son on a mule come face to face with a novice soldier who writes poetry and wants desperately to prove himself and belong. On the other hand, the father and son have been made strangers on the land that was once theirs. It is a story hard to read because of the humiliations heaped on the hapless trader but the child’s gesture of defiance brings everyone up short, even the story, it would seem. Moazzam can make in a fascinating way a story move and then allow it to stop and pause at places.
There is also the way he mixes aspects of the sacred and the profane, in some of these stories. In ‘The Idol Lover’, the soldier on the border imagines in his loneliness the school teacher he loves, and yet his mind always conjures up the sweeper woman he has had sex with. There is something almost similar in a different story, ‘Ache’ located worlds apart, in a San Francisco street, where the narrator falls in love with the woman on the other side of the street. He never knows her name, and tries to chat up her brother and a visitor for information on her. His love is never expressed but yet it has a rich interiority.
Sometimes he compares his desperation to a lovelorn actor in an old Hindi film, old Hindi songs play in his mind when he thinks of her in different contexts and he imagines up a range of situations when he actually runs into her.
But the ache of loss and the inevitability of parting has its own sorrow, especially in a love that is unrequited. What makes it more devastating to the narrator is how unaware she is of all this. But alone in his loss, all he can still think of is the experience he had with a hooker. The narrative never becomes doleful or self-absorbed because its eppered with wry, witty observations, that are even self-deprecatory.
In yet another story, ‘Kissing the Holy Land’ set in an airport lounge, the admires things American, every passing American reminds him of Presidents he had read of and admired, and in all this, he tries hard to save his own wallet. In no place, does this story ever descend into a self-absorbed soliloquy. In a less skilled hand, this would be inevitable.
Reading the stories in this new collection, Cafe Le Whore and other Stories was first an intriguing challenge. To surmise that Moazzam’s next collection would take on the natural trajectory of an ‘immigrant writer’ would be a careless assumption: an easy categorization readers and reviewers like to slot writers in. A writer writes about worlds he knows and in the process makes it familiar first for himself and then for his readers. But for writers from South Asia in the New World, home has at most times been a place left behind and/or recreated as a necessity; stories too can’t seem to move away from this home that a writer is forced to carry around.
But the stories in Cafe Le Whore defy easy characterisation and perhaps this is just as well. The first story, ‘Invisible Strands’, despite its mysterious name, appears an irreverent tale, bawdy in its adroit mixing of vegetables with the human anatomy. But in the course of the narration, the narrator’s resentment of Mark becomes somewhat complicated, and it assumes a strange note of melancholy. Mark, who loves most things German in certain complicated ways and whose favourite expression is Entschuldigen Sie, isn’t really what he appears. The narrator is deceived by his two unreliable friends and in the end doesn’t even trust his own reliable emotions.
The story in the ‘Film Librarian’ takes on many stories within one; it is playful and experimental, and in places there are just a few self-referential writer-ly tricks, hard not to acknowledge. For instance, there is the reference to Grace’s Pakistani co-worker at the librarian, and again when her Palestinian filmmaker love Ethejaj is given a book by a Pakistani writer called – yes, The Idol Lover and Other Stories. In another bookstore, she gives him a book by Mahmud Rahman, a writer who had left Bangladesh in 1971 and lived in Calcutta for several years.
But the main narrative of the book has to do with Grace’s encounters with an old woman who has made the library her home and in particular is attached to a certain book. She seeks Grace’s help to trace an actress who has literally disappeared for there are no records of her. Only when she is gone, Grace notices her resemblance to a black and white photograph of this forgotten actress, and it sends Grace on a detective mission to find her. In the parallel narrative of her own story, she mourns the loss of the pages in her diary, yet in turn these make up the last few pages of the story, so it leaves you wondering about the narrator’s identity.
Rosa in another story that bears her name is an illegal alien but the imperatives of survival and the crisis of living a hidden life, implies that even indulgence in one’s emotions becomes ‘illegal’ to her own self; to be indulged in very rare secret moments. This is the darker side of the immigrant story, those who live in a network created by illegal sharks and operators, in shady tenement buildings in a city’s neglected, forgotten sections. The fragile happiness Rosa experiences with Butt, a Pakistani whose family remains behind, appears threatened once 9/11 occurs. Her fear and memories of her earlier loss evoke the fragility of some things more than others, the sheer vulnerability and invisibility of some lives. Striking a similar tone is ‘The Mourner’ that might seem belong to the earlier collection (The Idol Lover)but it is a hard to read story (and perhaps harder to write), of the lonely Naiti and her life as a mourner. She lives in the shadow of the many uncertainties and vulnerabilities that haunt the poor in the developing world and shares her life with a mangy dog who showers her with affection.
It’s been a privilege in some ways to be witness to Moazzam’s engagement with the short story. It would be an presumptuous act to label it a progression but as a reader it is incredible to see the range he has traversed in his two story collections and what these have managed to encompass. Each of these stories, written with a certain precision and touch, is a thoughtful, long deliberated effort, almost visible in how these stories have been crafted.
Moazzam has said elsewhere that his quest or attempt is to write stories of the immigrant who has made his life and home in a different world and it is these new stories that need to be told. Home too must have a changing nature in fiction.
For my part, it has been an attempt to follow a writer’s career through his writings. Some of the stories in The Idol Lover and other Stories reminded of the stories I had read earlier in A Letter from India. The story ‘Gypsy Leaves’ begins with an epigram from Intizar Husain’s ‘A Letter from India’ while ‘Film Librarian’, a story in his new collection is in some ways a homage to Husain’s ‘An Unwritten Epic’ (Aik Bin Likhi Razmia). The earthiness in the humour and the lyrical bawdiness in places in the earlier collection were reminiscent of the irreverence in much of south Asian literature. In several stories in Cafe Le Whore, there is the same humour, now biting and even sardonic, and then no longer is this self-directed. Also there is a subtle mockery in the writer’s tone as for instance when detailing Rebecca’s strange fear of sleeping alone in ‘Invisible Strands’ and Grace’s malaise that she dubs depression, and her need to find a label and description for everything. Yet there is the empathy with the ignored lives, the lives lived in forced hope and despair, who will seek happiness in hidden secret ways. Few stories have been told of such lives, rendered invisible as they are from a reader’s eyes and so when Moazzam writes of them, he does so with a writer’s empathy and courage.
In both his books, there is that something that makes you read on. That light touch of happiness that appears of a sudden in ordinary lives, that irreverent brush stroke in places, the strange confusions hard to depict but which Moazzam makes it so easy to write about, using that angst-filled humour in his narrator’s soliloquies. Perhaps it may appear at times that these stories take on far too much an inward trajectory, depicting in exaggerated detail (sometimes welcome) a narrator’s self-absorption, making the other characters look flat in turn, but a short story can only take in so much.
And so a long explanation for why I wrote a blurb or was happy to be asked for one. It has been a learning experience of value and also a humbling one. One learns of the pasts of a short story, and how a story can also branch anew and live in a totally different present. There is the search for continuities and the surprise at the unexpectedness of certain encounters. One learns of a writer’s long inspiring engagement with the short story, and how it is a quest that never ends, or never really has to.
Anu Kumar is a US-based Indian writer. She writes for children as well as for older readers, and her short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Her stories have been twice awarded by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, and also short-listed by The Little Magazine. It Takes a Murder is her third novel for older readers after Letters for Paul (Mapin 2006) and The Dollmakers’ Island (Gyaana, 2010).