Harper Collins India; Rs 250; Pp 191
When 'Neither Night Nor Day' landed in my hands, I wondered what I could expect from the slim volume of 13 stories by women writers from Pakistan. As one with friends across the divide, I know there is a vibrant women's movement there and that a defiant civil society, no matter how beleaguered, does exist. So, what would women be now saying through this new compilation?
Would the stories be based on the done-to-death theme of women caught in the crossfire between the West's 'war on terror' and the defiant 'mullahs' (clerics)? Or would they be those familiar rants against the Hudood laws (penalties for commission of acts of immorality, transgression against other's honor, property, and other common rights, the punishment for which is specified in the Quran and in the authentic traditions) and the General's foot-in-the-mouth comments on women and rape? Or the by-now-clichéd 'hijab (a woman's head and body covering) is liberating' statements?
As I discovered, 'Neither Night Nor Day' is none of the above. They are simple tales or rather glimpses into the lives of the millions of ordinary women going about their daily lives. These women happen to be in Pakistan, but they could just as well have been from any village or town in the subcontinent.
In her forward, the editor, Rakhshanda Jalil, who works as the Media and Cultural Coordinator at Jamia Millia Islamia University, writes that her concern has been 'to present as complete a picture of the everydayness of life as it is lived and experienced by Pakistani women... The criteria for selection rests not so much on name or fame or technical virtuosity in the craft of the short story but on telling as many stories as possible in as many styles and voices as possible.'
And the stories do that brilliantly, without any pretensions, without any pompous claims to making feminist statements. Yet, they are about women who defy and resist, whether in an urban setting in Lahore or in a dusty village in Sindh.
In 'The Job Application', Nayyara Rahman sketches a young single mother's heart-rending search for a job and the final verdict she delivers when she fails to secure it. The plight of another young mother, who is heartbroken at parting with her baby boy and prefers death to dishonor and servitude, is the subject of Zahida Hina's 'She Who Went Looking for Butterflies'.
In Khaleda Hussein's 'Leaves' we hear echoes of youth from those in the autumn of their lives; while in 'The Breast', a young mother, whose baby is taken away from her simply because it's a girl, defies all norms to suckle another infant - which is also a girl.
Bina Shah's 'The Wedding of Sundri', that describes a mother's anguish at the wedding of her 12-year-old daughter Sundri, could well have been the story of any mother in any village of India. Just as Qaisra Shahraz's 'The Goonga' could have lived and died in anonymity in any small town here. However, despite conveying the emotions of sorrow, despair, fear, love and longing with amazing finesse, these two stories seem a bit stretched. Sundri's farewell is heart-wrenching enough without the added drama of a 'kari' (honor killing) murder. And the rage and shame that Goonga's son feels on discovering that his father is the village 'idiot' is poignant enough, without going into detailed epilogues.
An attempt at presenting 'as complete a picture' of the lives of Pakistani women, Kiran Bashir Ahmed's 'Plans in Pink' gives us a glimpse into the life of a Pakistani Christian. Nikhat Hasan's Kafkaesque 'The Tongue' is about the resilience of the human spirit, which always rebels against enslavement.
Then, there is a story that presents a slice of life of a non-resident Pakistani. The conflict in identity, the cultural confusion arising from straddling two worlds is well brought out in 'Neither Night Nor Day' by Sabyn Javeri. The protagonist is neither able to fully give up her 'Pakistaniness' nor is she embraced by the culture of her adopted country, whose dictates she has to bow down to.
Yet, another 'global Pakistani' speaks to us from a café in Sarajevo - albeit through a long-winded, shoddily crafted tale by Maniza Naqvi. There are echoes of Partition in 'Five Queen's Street'. It reflects a 15-year-old's guilt and compunction at her inability to prevent the abduction of her Hindu maid by Muslim thugs, during 'the long summer of Partition', when almost 'everything else died in Lahore'.
'A Sandstone Past' by Sehba Sarwar, my personal favorite, is another comment on the Partition, an event that continues to exert a great deal of influence on the lives of millions in the subcontinent. We get glimpses of post-Partition Karachi - of the emptiness left behind in the old city by the flight of its Hindu residents to India - through a story narrated by a 14-year-old protagonist. We meet the ghost of Sarita, a young Hindu woman engaged to a rich Muslim man. The families of the couple are against the match and Sarita is done away with in an honor killing. Her ghost, dressed in bridal finery for a wedding that was never to be, roams the corridors of the stately house of her beloved at night. After Sarita's death, which takes place soon after Partition, her family, which had till then wanted to remain in Karachi, migrates to India. When the protagonist, who had accompanied her sister to a friend's slumber party, returns home, shaken after an encountering Sarita's ghost, one of her last tired thoughts before she falls asleep is 'wishing that one day Sarita's... family could come home again to Karachi, to the city on the edge of the Arabian Sea, where her ancestors had lived and died.'
So, while there is nothing mind-blowing intellectual about the narratives, somewhere they do strike a cord with the reader through their everydayness and simplicity.