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MV Red Fin was a very small ship. She was also a very old ship. As soon as the wave swell hit medium, she would start to make ungodly sounds — as if she were breaking. More often than not she had taken her crew to the brink of disaster. She was a problem child, but that’s what made her so special. Like any difficult ship, she was very close to her crew’s hearts. The crew took pleasure in the feeling of being the only ones who could resist her every whim… who could understand her mind. It was an unwilling compromise. They tried to keep her happy; she tried to keep them safe. The crew comprised of twenty men with Captain Mohandass in command.

Captain Mohandass was quite different from Mohan the man. Behind a façade of a long, magnificent, philosopher-like, snow white beard lay a supremely bigoted mind. He had never liked visiting Pakistan and was rather unshakable in his ‘hindutvavadi’ (Hindu supremist) beliefs. But he tried to contain his resentment…to keep his nerves calm. However, as time passed that day, Mohan was starting to get grouchy. ‘They better not harm my ship or my crew.’ Mohan thought, ‘Or ill teach them a lesson.’ The last thing he wanted was ‘an incident’. Not at this port. Not in the ‘enemy territory’. All operations had to be meticulously executed. It was his responsibility to ensure that.

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Dearest Pyari Amma,

As salaam alaikum. I hope this letter finds both you and Baba Jan in the best of health and spirits. Please let me begin by apologizing for not writing earlier. Pinku and Bablu have both been under the weather with recurring cold, cough and chest infection all winter. Thank God for the long winter break or they would have missed most of school the past month.

Besides being so busy with them, I…

 

As salaam alaikum again. I am sorry it took me two whole days to get back to writing this letter. There was a loud crash in the kitchen followed by some screaming and I was sure the new cook had done something to anger the old territorial dragon Ami and Abu are trying to replace. Luckily, it was just a frying pan which had fallen down and scared Bashiraan the cleaning woman who had screamed so loudly that the old man had told her off in his usual, extremely vocal fashion. Thank God I arrived in the nick of time to diffuse the tension. By the time Ami and Abu came back from the Club, all was peaceful. Just the way they like it.

Ooof! The dramas in this house never end. I often think of my childhood growing up in our house with only Baba jan, you and the four of us. What a perfect life it was. Of course I am extremely grateful for you to have picked such a good family for me to marry into. Just last week at Ami and Abu’s anniversary party for 100 people I realized how lucky I was to be part of this family. All the guests were so khaandani, the women wore huge, old jewellery and everyone praised my cooking. I met three women who had once been potential prospects for Salim. They are married now. But so thin, Amma Jan, I don’t know how they do it after children.

I tried to go on a popular diet a fancy nutritionist gave me but…

By Dibyajyoti Sarmah

Boy of Fire and Earth

 

Name: Boy of Fire and Earth
Author: Sami Shah
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 360
Price 499

Could you ever imagine a full-blown fantasy novel set in the murky underbelly of modern-day Karachi? A fantasy novel rooted in Islamic concept of heaven and hell? A fantasy novel where the archetype of evil itself, Iblis (The Devil of The Bible) makes an appearance as a lovable rogue? Perhaps not, especially in the context of today’s polarising attitude to the religion itself. This is one of the reasons that makes Sami Shah’s incredible Boy of Fire and Earth such a joy to read. It takes you back to the days of Arabian Nights and Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, via of course, the western import of video games, comic books and the all-encompassing influence of Neil Gaiman.

For a while, modern South Asian writing is flirting with creating its own brand of fantasy fiction mixing local fantasy elements with established western tropes, as Ashok Banker did recently in Awaken. However, this concoction never felt as original as it does in this book. This is perhaps because Shah prepares you by setting up the rules before he unveils his big adventure.

So we meet our intrepid hero Wahid, a sickly but smart middle school teenager with just two close friends who share his love for science fiction and video games. He falls in love with a classmate and his friends begin experimenting with drinks, as occasional gun fires and bomb blasts continue to rock parts of Karachi. It’s the real deal and life is good, until Wahid meets with a car accident, sees his friend die and witnesses his would-be girlfriend’s soul being sucked away from her body by a shadowy figure.

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?

thumbnail_Nobody Killed Her PosterNEW YORK, 1982

The first time we met, you were wearing borrowed clothes. You sat there in your too big platforms, bell sleeves and a neckline that plunged sharply to the right. Your yellow jumper hung loose over your thin frame. Your head was defiantly uncovered, your frizzy hair as rebellious as your nature, your heart-shaped mouth stubbornly set. Later you told me that your friend Yasmin had lent you the clothes because your mother stopped your monthly allowance. She thought it would make you give up politics.

Your mother didn’t know you well.

Looking deceptively sunny in that blinding yellow, you smoked as Yasmin stood behind you, searching through a high bookshelf. I had never seen a girl of your stature smoke. Or sit publicly without a veil.

‘Ashtray,’ you ordered and Yasmin came running up with one. To avoid staring, I looked up at the highest shelf, my neck craning as I tilted my head all the way up, then bending as I looked down to the last. I wondered if you had read all those books.

Perhaps it was my head bobbing up and down like a duck  in water that caught your attention. Sit, you gestured, and I nervously looked around for a chair to park myself on. I noticed your forehead crease in a frown as you crossed your legs like men do. You leaned back, stretching your hand over your knee and it was then I knew. With downcast eyes, I settled on the floor.

‘What’s your name?’ you asked at the exact moment I opened my mouth to say, ‘I want to be in politics.’

You pretended you hadn’t heard and I knew from then on not to speak unless spoken to. Nobody can say I wasn’t a good learner.

That much, at least, is true.

Yasmin brought tea and as she handed around the cups, you asked me again what my name was.

‘Nazneen Khan,’ I said. ‘But everyone calls me Nazo.’

You smiled and I said, ‘Madam, I am working in Aijaz Sahib’s dry cleaners. You know Aijaz Sahib from Jackson Heights? He sent me to you. He said you help people fleeing the General’s regime. My whole family was murdered in the coup. My father was a doorman at the Parliament. He resisted when they tried to break in. Later the General’s men came to our house and killed everyone. I hid under the bed … survived somehow…’ I could not carry on talking.

You didn’t offer me any condolence. Instead you said, ‘Can you type?’

And that was how it all began.

Bailiff: All rise!

Clerk: Judge Muzzamdar will be presiding over this case. Bailiff: The court is now in session. Please be  seated.

Judge: Good Morning. Calling the case of Mr Omar Bin Omar versus Miss Nazneen Khan on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rani Shah. Are both sides ready?

Prosecutor: Ready for the prosecution, Your Honour. Defending Counsel: Ready for the defence, Your Honour.

Clerk: Your Honour, the plaintiff Mr Omar accuses the defendant of premeditated murder and of espionage against the state. The defendant is represented by the able and veteran lawyer Mr Hamidi while the plaintiff, being a known human rights lawyer, has decided to prosecute the case himself. Given his knowledge of law, and his closeness to the murdered politician, the court requests that his lack of criminal practice be overlooked and Mr Omar be allowed to prosecute.

Judge: Permission granted. Prosecutor Mr Omar and Counsel Mr Hamidi, please present your opening  statements.

Prosecutor: Your Honour, Miss Nazneen Khan, commonly known as Nazo,  has  been  accused  of  conspiring to assassinate the country’s first female Prime Minister, Madam Rani Shah. Although the body was charred in the explosion, new evidence has revealed that her death was not due to the suicide bombing as was previously believed, but by a bullet shot at close range. Almost as if by someone seated right next to her…

Counsel: Objection! Judge: Sustained.

Prosecutor: Very well. Let me start by asking a very simple and straightforward question. Miss Khan must answer why it is that she, who sat right next to Madam Shah at the time of the assassination, managed to escape unscathed, while Madam Shah lost her life. Now, Miss Khan, tell the court who sat where…

“A ROOM without books is like a body without a soul,” said Marcus Cicero a long time ago. One could say the same about a people without a love of books. Thankfully though, many Pakistanis have rediscovered the joy of the printed word — if they had ever lost it at all — as the increasing number of literary festivals all over the country indicate.

The Karachi Literature Festival 2015 begins tomorrow, the sixth iteration since it launched in 2010.

Noted Kannada literary personality and Jnanpith awardee UR Ananthamurthy has been given police security after the writer claimed that he was getting threat calls and was also sent two one way tickets to Karachi by a group called the NaMo brigade. Ananthamurthy had gone on record to say that he would leave the country if Narendra Modi becomes the Prime Minister.