DAWN NEWSPAPER | BOOKS & AUTHORS REVIEW: Above and beyond
Saima Shakil Hussain
IT would be easy to dismiss Pakistani-American author Shaila Abdullah and her collection of short stories on the lives of ordinary Pakistani women. Abdullah is an expatriate after all; she lives all the way over there in Austin, Texas. So lecturing us on the despair and harshness of life in a restrictive patriarchal society is like, well, preaching to the choir.
And yet, she sees people and situations to which most have sadly grown immune. From the utter poverty of a rag picker to the pitiful desperation of an abandoned wife, Abdullah has given a voice to the people we see or hear about every day but rarely give a second thought. Her short stories deal with the full spectrum of social issues from incest and child marriage, to infertility and the loneliness of ageing parents.
The stories do not deal exclusively with poor, uneducated women from the lower strata of society. There is also Shiwali, who has married a rich Chaudhry; Minnah, a young Pakistani student in America; and Siham, a happily married mother of twin girls who also lives in the US. These female characters from affluent backgrounds face trials and tribulations that are not too different from the ones suffered by their economically-deprived sisters.
In fact, Abdullah has convincingly and eloquently illustrated that the problems faced by Pakistani women can cross otherwise insurmountable social and economic boundaries. In “Amulet for the caged dove”, tent-dwelling Tannu is under pressure from her mother-in-law to produce a child; in “Moment of reckoning”, Ayesha, the daughter-in-law in an affluent household, suffers for the same reason. In “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, Dhool, who picks rags for a living, fears losing her young daughter to the whims of her greedy husband. Meanwhile in “The arrangement”, Nyssa, a well-to-do Pakistani-American is tormented by the prospect of losing her adopted young daughter to her biological mother.
The female protagonists maybe rich and educated or illiterate and impoverished but one thing they all share is the courage to overcome their hardship. Like so many real Pakistani women they are not just victims, but also fighters — and perhaps more importantly, survivors. Shiwali’s epiphany seems to be the mantra of every female character, and indeed the underlying message of Abdullah’s work: “Life wasn’t a perfect place and would never be, and if her providence had dealt her a rough hand, it was up to her to alter it.”
While the women are stoic, the men are a mixed bag. It is notable that Abdullah has juxtaposed almost every negative male character with a positive one. She, thus, clearly avoids the stereotype that men equal evil. Siham’s father is worlds apart from her husband Arsalan. Dilawar and Raja are callous irresponsible husbands, while Imran in “The arrangement” is clearly the ideal spouse, “the strong anchor in the face of the tumultuous storm, like a giant redwood that you could lean against and expect comfort and shelter from.”
Having suffered both a selfish father and a selfish married lover, Minnah in “Crimson calling” is moved by the unexpected possibilities in an arranged marriage upon meeting her bridegroom for the first time, “the expression on his face in stark reality was of immense love that sent waves of uncertain emotion over Minnah. It was tenderness she had never seen in the eyes of anyone for her ... She felt she had a chance. How would the system of arranged marriage continue if it weren’t based on centuries of success?”
Abdullah’s work is proof, in more ways than one, that sometimes one has to go away from a place to appreciate its reality — and its idiosyncrasies. Only a Pakistani who has returned from overseas would notice as Mansi does in “Forever dusk” that, “It was peculiar how there never were any names on the streets of Karachi — the town of her childhood, or if there were, no one bothered to look at them. It was an exciting maze of destinations that people found miraculously by way of association — right on mochi gali, left at the post station, right at the nai’s shop, and you should see the place you are looking for — and this mode of strange directions actually worked. No one she knew ever got lost.”
The author has won many accolades for her first literary work. She was awarded the Jury Prize for Outstanding Fiction in the 2005 Norumbega Fiction Awards and a Notable mention in the 2006 Writers Notes Award. The short story “Moment of reckoning” was a winner of the Writer’s Digest Short Story Award. She is to have her own profile in the Asian American volume of the Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Literature. More information about the writer and her collection of short stories is available on her website at www.shailaabdullah.com.
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