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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Life's Too Short -- Review

The Life’s Too Short Literary Review: New Writing from Pakistan, Faiza S. Khan and Aysha Raja (eds), Hatchette India, 2011, Rs 395, pp.122.

A situational comedy on BBC 2 featuring the life and times of a showbiz dwarf, titled rather cleverly Life’s Too Short, caught the imagination of an unsuspecting public in 2010, spawning a range of events pegged on the near-universal appeal of this catchy phrase. However, nearly a year before the BBC sitcom, a group of young people in Pakistan decided to launch a nation-wide hunt for new literary talent; they chose to bill their contest – open only to Pakistani writers writing in English – as Life’s Too Short: For a Long Story. A distinguished panel of judges whittled down the 800 submissions to a shortlist which was eventually published as the Life’s Too Short Literary Review: New Writing from Pakistan. The Editor’s Note explains the impulse behind the contest thus: ‘This publication came about as an exercise in curiosity. While Pakistani fiction in English comes into its own, and Pakistan takes shape in the global imagination due to a clutch of trailblazing authors, precious little is being done within the country to encourage and promote, or for that matter, discover new talent.’ With a first prize of Rs 100,000/- it managed to do just that.
Refreshingly different from the usual anthologies, the writers included here – almost all lesser-known and therefore new to Indian readers -- make a pleasant change from the usual suspects. What is also different is the multiplicity of voices and concerns emerging from this slim collection. Naughty and playful, bold and daring, provocative and combative, smart and sassy, reflective and insightful – there is much here to read and savour. Moreover, this new brood of writers – presumably mostly young – hold the promise of a new generation of Pakistani writers who will, hopefully, mature into abler chroniclers of the lives and times of their compatriots, abler that is than many of the present lot who have begun to produce writing that is almost of a kind. While it is always instructive and useful to gain insights into a troubled country, surely any country (no matter how troubled) has more to offer than glimpses into violence and extremism. The Life’s Too Short Review shows us the ‘other’ Pakistan in finely-etched cameos of the everydayness of life.
Sadaf Halai, winner of the first prize for ‘Lucky People’, paints a meditative and minutely-detailed portrait of middle-class ennui and envy for those who occupy the higher echelons. Living in a genteel but firmly middle-middle class enclave of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Asma finds herself voyeuristically drawn into the life of her cigarette-smoking, westernised, rich, young tenant who opens a new world of spinach quiche and modern art. Confronted not merely by the class difference but the possibilities that life can hold, Asma faces her hitherto buried (or unacknowledged) frustrations and aspirations. Rayika Choudri’s ‘Settling Affairs, which was judged second runner-up, is also a poignant study of middle-class manners. A faithful servant watches the neat sorting, packing, dividing of his Begum Sahiba’s household after her death. Told from the point of view of the servant, Zaheer, the story unfolds the dismantling of memories and memorabilia as the son and daughter of the deceased ‘settle’ her affairs and sack her servant away with ‘three months’ pay and the promise of good recommendations’.
There are other stories, too, such as a light-hearted look at a hair-colouring job gone wrong (‘Mir Sahib’s Hairdo’), or the nostalgia and dread of the diasporic Pakistani (‘Ruth and Richard’), or the mumbo-jumbo dispensing holy men at shrines who prey on young boys (‘The Six-Fingered Man’), or the indescribable sadness of a young couple who bury their still-born first baby in a foreign land. A story that stood out for its steadfast refusal to wallow in pity and false sentimentality is ‘The Wedding’. It recounts the coming of age of a young girl who knows life will hold out none of the treats, trinkets and toys that girls her age cherish.
Apart from the new fiction that comprise the entries for the contest, the book also includes, somewhat inexplicably, a photo essay, an extract from a graphic novel and a translation from a popular ‘pulp’ serial in Urdu. While the editors may have done well to have stuck to the short-listed stories, the last extract – entitled ‘Challawa’ – is a brave new look at lesbian love by one Sabiha Bano whose identity and gender remains a mystery. With the contest for this year having been announced, one looks forward to the second volume of the Review.
(Rakhshanda Jalil has edited Neither Night Nor Day, a collection of short stories by Pakistani women, HarperCollins, 2007).

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