TBASS

Labli was woken up by the dawn chorus. It was hard not to smile at the chirping of the sweet birds. She grabbed her long scarf from the foot of the bed and threw it over her head. Brushing back a loose strand of black hair from her forehead, she opened the door quietly so as not to disturb her younger brother, Joynal. He still had a few hours of sleep before waking up to go to school.The door squeaked as she pulled it shut behind her.

Labli looked down at her red shalwar kameez and tried to brush out the creases. It didn’t look as rumpled as it had before. Anyway, it would have to do; her only other set was still drying in the kitchen after yesterday’s thunderstorm.

As she felt her way along the cold, dark hallway, she noticed her parents’ bedroom door was ajar. Her mother was stirring on the bed; her father’s place was empty. Labli unlocked the front door and made her way to the tube well at the bottom of the veranda steps. The air was crisp and cool. Doel birds flapped overhead and one landed in one of the betel palm trees, lifting its white tail as it whistled. The Adhan, the call to prayer, blared out over the masjid’s loudspeakers. She filled up a plastic jug with water and made ablution. After praying the four units of the dawn prayer, she collected firewood from around the courtyard and milked the cow. She had just lit the fire when her mother walked into the kitchen.

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Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Hermitage

Title: Hermitage
Author: Aamer Hussein
Publisher: Ushba Publishing International
Price: Pakistani Rs 800/-

 

In 1968, Aamer Hussein met Qurratulain Hyder, the literary stalwart from the subcontinent who was also his mother’s friend. He was 13 at the time. This meeting with Hyder – Annie Khala to him – and her presence in his life, despite the miles separating them, would become one of the defining influences on Aamer Hussein’s life as a writer. He wrote about her ‘intellectual influence’ on him in his introduction to Fireflies in the Mist, 2008 (translated by her from her Urdu Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar). A decade later, he writes, once again, about the relationship and her continuing influence on his writing and reading sensibilities: ‘Annie would guide my reading, criticizing one writer and praising another in a dialogue that continued from trip to trip,’ he writes in “Annie” from Hermitage, his most recent collection of short fiction, published in 2018 by Ushba Publishing International, a small independent press in Pakistan.

‘We shared a past in three countries and two languages… I’d like her to know, I did keep the promise that I made to our shared mother tongue and, tacitly, to her, and tell her as I had at that last meeting: Annie Khala, your hand was always on mine.’

There are others who guide him, shared pasts and literary traditions – Attar, Rumi, Shefta, Ada Jafri, Hussein’s grand-uncle Rafi Ajmeri. Hermitage borrows from their writings and their lives, from stories heard and read. It spreads the oeuvre, drawing from the mystics, from traditional storytelling of the subcontinent and its tradition of storytelling through fable, myth, memoir and music. Persian and Urdu narratives and poetry inform its tonality; the structure of the stories is most often parabolic, the references inter-textual, the undertone one of deep, reflective conversations with the self woven through with a filigree of images and the restrained prose of folklore and metaphor.

Hermitage is a tribute to storytellers, to music and art from this shared past, layered with cultural memory and influenced by oral and written narratives. Love that is ephemeral is made eternal through the words on the page that not only reflect but speak of its melancholic beauty, its music clearer in the gaps and the unsaid than in what is crafted for the reader. ‘And it seemed to him that if one listened to the silence, everything sang to everything else: breeze to water and leaves, water to cloud and branch, birds to the sky…’ (“Lake”).
The larger theme of love and longing draws into itself the sub themes of exile and homelessness, migration, creativity and identity, themes that have occurred earlier in Aamer Hussein’s stories. In Hermitage, their iterations are more intense and subtle, requiring of the reader a greater engagement with the very act of storytelling.   As meaning deepens, brevity becomes meditative.

Exile is not only a physical truth but also a state of mind. Aamer Hussein’s characters are exiles, belonging to yet torn apart from the very sense or place of belonging, often leading a sutured existence, giving rise to the solitude that layers many of the stories. Love and longing, unfulfilled and unrequited, whether for geographical spaces or for emotional geographies, meanders like a stream through these stories, both imprisoning the characters and releasing them.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

TBASS

Title: The Best Asian Short Stories 2018
Editor: Debotri Dhar
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab
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The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 is a collection of nineteen short stories, that saunter through the wonderland of Asia to dwell on vignettes of life in the vast continent. Edited by Dr Debotri Dhar and series editor Zafar Anjum, the second volume of the series has a mix of stories by eminent and upcoming writers.

Our emotions are played on from all angles as each story flavours our palate with different moods. We pause to smile over an unusual light-hearted Goan romance among the elderly in Geralyn Pinto’s “Cakes” and cringe with horror at the impact of acid attacks on women, a reality in Bangladesh and Pakistan as portrayed by Reba Khatun. Dr Rakshanda Jalil’s story with the tale of Zuliekha’s transformation from a shy Muslim girl to a glamorous club diva brings to mind Eliza Doolittle, heroine of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, except this story has a twist which colours it with class stratification that are essentially Indian.

“Festival”, a translated story from Japan, gives us a glimpse of the intermingling of old and new in a country that retains its traditions despite its modernity. William Tham Wai Liang’s nostalgic “At the Moonlit River’s Edge” brings us close to the theme that has been explored in The State of Emergency, the 2018 Singapore Literature prize-winning novel – the communist insurgency in 1950s Malaya. Strangely, Martin Bradley’s “Bougainvillea”, set in modern day Malaysia also hovers around the same theme as the protagonist journeys to Ipoh in search of his father’s grave, his father having lost his life in 1951 during an encounter with communist insurgents. However, this is a story that transcends the angst of history to bring in themes of friendship and wonder generated by the multicultural flavour of life in this region. We have another lovely story of ASEAN friendship in the Singaporean Thai romance named after the delicious Thai dessert, “Mango and Sticky Rice”.

The unusual and paranormal have been explored by a couple of writers. “The Rescuer” is a supernatural adventure set in a Japanese railway station, a strange tale that leaves the reader stupefied! “The Grey Thread” by young Vanessa Ng is another one that explores an unusual, bizarre journey into a world of paint and paper.

Some of the stories fiddle with recent natural disasters and contemporary issues. The impact of the historic cloudburst in the Himalayas in 2013 and the arbitrariness of all existence is explored in “The Cosmic Dance”. “Begin Again”, set in Phillipines, explores teen adjustment issues. “For Chikki’s Sake” not only comments on marital issues, parenting but also on caste based marriage, which still exists in parts of India. The dichotomy that exists in women’s world between feminism and reality in India is well captured in “Don’t Even Ask! Poochho Mat!” “The Amulet” explores the disappointment of a diva; “The Bureaucrats’s Wife” reflects the breakdown of values in a rich man’s home; “Lola’s Honeymoon” is a strange tale which gives a glimpse of moneyed life as does “The Cycle”, though this story does ascend social boundaries drawn by economic barriers and the futility of addiction to drugs and violence.

Translated from Gujarati by Hemang Desai

“You will have known almost
every knowledgeable thing about
the charms and the temptations
that touch could hold.

But, you will never have known
that touch – the taboo
to your transcendence,
when crystallized in caste
was a paraphernalia of
undeserving hate.”

-Meena Kandasamy, Touch (2006)


Wild uproar and sighs of shock engulfed the entire village. The news spread like wild fire. “A poisonous snake has touched* Shivalo, the son of Viro, the scavenger.” The scavenger street was far away from the village frontier on the eastern hillock. But as the news floated across, in no time the hillock was teeming with people. A flood of curious villagers came gushing out of their caste streets and community quarters raising urgent queries and grave concerns. Magan, the drumbeater, who was heading home after performing in the welcome procession of Mother Goddess, heard the news on the village outskirts and immediately made for the scavenger street. On the way to the hillock, he tuned his oversize drum, tugging at a clip here, tightening a string there; upon reaching the base of the hillock, he began to hysterically heave his convex drumstick, fashioned from wild native wood, on the inky eye of the drum. The resounding slap-bang drummed up quite a frenzy amongst men, women and kids who were trudging their way up the hillock. Today Viro, the scavenger and his son were the talk of the town, thanks to the strike of the adventitious misfortune that was far crueller than what was their daily lot.

“The scavengers’ street is so far away from the village, almost in the middle of the forest. What would touch the poor kid if not a snake? Shucks, fate is so harsh on the bhangis**.”

“This is all a play of karma. Or else why would they be born as scavengers? Whatever it is, that’s how our society has been for ages. They can’t be allowed to put up residence in the village. They are better off outside the village, you see. If his son is bitten today, don’t our people get stung by venomous reptiles on our farms? May Goga, the cobra-god bless all.”

“All that is fine. But how did this happen?”

“I don’t know. We’ll come to know once we reach there. But people say, the kid was playing in the backyard and god knows why but he thrust his hand in the hedge and the cobra lying coiled-up in ambush there snapped at the poor thing.”

“Whatever it is, but if something happens to the kid, Viro will die of shock. He was born of holy Mother’s blessings… that too after years of entreaties and fasts… God forbid.”

Suddenly, the entire village had begun to sympathize with Viro. A few even went out to put on record their approval for the way in which he conducted himself in the village, with selfless devotion and sense of obligation uncharacteristic of a scavenger.

“He may be a scavenger by caste, but he is a righteous, conscientious fellow. He has never said no to anybody for any work, be it drumming rain or gaining heat. That much due has to be given to the devil.”

“Ask him for running an errand of fifteen kilometres and he would set aside his personal household work to carry it out. Don’t they say, it’s always the righteous whose house gets burgled. Poor man!”

“You said it, brother. Pure gold. Convoluted are the ways of the world in the era of Kali.”

Judging Viro by their personal experience or received wisdom, the village folks headed for the eastern hillock. The scavenger street was extremely small and sparsely populated. On second thought, it wouldn’t qualify for the designation of a street at all. A huddle of two huts made of tightly-packed mud walls with doors facing the east. Not wooden doors but makeshift shutters forged out of crisscrossed twigs, reed and bamboo stalks that hung precariously from the clay walls and a sloping roof set with broken, straggly roof-tiles of native make without anything that may pass for rafters. Opposite the stumpy pair, at some distance, stood a third squat hut in condition no better than its neighbours’ except that its door faced the west. Right in the centre of the narrow triangle drawn by the three huts towered a hoary neem tree planted by Viro’s forefathers, its form sprawling and serene. On the winding dirt tracks leading to the huts, squatted four clay shrines for various presiding deities like Mother Shikotar and other folk gods. The bang and boom of the drum wafted the news as far as the quarters of the rabaris, a community of cattle-keepers and cowherds.

Bhalla sahab was a dapper little man, always in immaculate suits and peering intensely through his fashionable gold rimmed spectacles. He was very popular among the students due to his conscientious, yet slightly eccentric personality. He would walk casually into the department with his hands held behind his back and looking around as if looking for something.

His name was Asghar Bhalla and he was a lecturer in the English department of the local university. He lived with his widowed mother and never socialized. He was content with his work and the company of his mother.

Shamoon had recently joined the faculty too.

Shamoon noticed that he would sit in the staff room quietly when not taking his classes and did not mingle with the other lecturers.

‘Sir, would you like a cup of tea’? Shamoon asked him as he went to the tea trolley for his tea.

‘Thank you! Yes, I would love it. Thank you,’ his eyes smiled through his glasses.

Shamoon sat down next to him with both the cups and informed him, ‘I have just joined the faculty and teach second year students.’

Bhalla sahab smiled.

Shamoon soon realised that he barely spoke and mostly communicated with his smile. It was a laugh, a grin, a broad smile or just a hint of it communicated by the twitch of his lips. His eyes were remarkably expressive; dark and twinkling with his smile or piercing and sombre.

Shamoon talk about the mundane and then touched on poetry and soon Bhalla sahab became animated. He would talk and gesticulate with his delicate, sensitive hands and move up and down while talking at length about different poets and reciting their poetry. His eyes would twinkle and glare and laugh!

Shamoon sat there fascinated. ‘What an animated and alive man,’ he said to himself; a treasure trove of knowledge and bursting to share it.

Shamoon would seek him out often after that first meeting and spent hours listening to him and watching him.

Bhalla sahab, though, always maintained a certain detachment. They never became friends.

♦♦♦

Shamoon entered the gates of the university and walked towards the English department. He had returned after seven years to this place which was very special to him. This was where he had commenced his career, and had taught for three years; three delightful years of the onset of a journey of learning from his students as he taught them.

TBASS

Monik despised procrastination, that sneaky little pilferer of time and opportunity. Besides, she liked a project. Her love of projects had caused her to walk down the aisle on two occasions because she couldn’t resist planning a new phase of life after the sad demise of a husband. It was time, however, to look to the needs of others.

Natalia needed a man.

At the novena the following week, there was the usual shuffling monotony about everything. Then a voice from the recesses of the church: “For all those who are lonely. We petition Thee, O Heavenly Father, to look upon them with pity. Saint Anthony Wonder Worker, pray for us.”

Could it really be? After all these years? It did sound a bit like him.

It was. Mathias Faleiro had returned.

After the service, he came up to her. “My dear Monik…”

“Mathias, how absolutely wonderful! When did you get back? Is it for good?”

“A week ago. Ah yes, we’ve returned at last to glad Goa.”

Glad? A man who smelt of camphor and old coats probably turned every celebration into a happy requiem. Still, here was a man. But just a coconut-plucking moment. “We’ve returned? You mean you got marri…?”

“Oh, no, no.” Mathias looked at his toes. “I mean Barkis, my trusty canine friend, and I. I retired from teaching five years ago. Then we lost Galileo, and it was a little too painful to stay on. Besides, the ancestral place here was falling to pieces.”

“Galil…?”

“My parrot.”

“Oh.”

“I promise to drop by sometime, Monik, as soon as I can get my place fit for habitation.”

Poor, ignorant man. He had no idea that he was going to be dragged to Villa Rosa. On-a-leash.

“Mathias, do. Please.”