Book Reviews

Unheard Melodies

Syed Afroz Ashrafi (2011) Boot Polish and Other Stories
Delhi: Heritage Publishers, pp. 126, Paperback, ISBN: 978-81-7026-284-8

The short story is like an old friend who calls whenever he is in town. We are happy to hear from him….”   - R.Z. Sheppard

I came to Wadi Addawasir when the scorching heat of the Empty Quarters in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was on its wane. Slowly the purple glow of winter was encroaching upon my empty evenings attempting to unravel the mysteries of my drift from the banks of the river Ganga, to Arabia Felix  and the North African coast of  the Mediterranean Sea  and the present anchoring of my life-vessel at the ancient caravan route where camels and cars and Apple IPods bask in the glory of the technological revolution of today.  During these days, I met my colleague Dr Syed Afroz Ashrafi whose bantering tone made people laugh.  Gradually I realized that beneath the surface of witty repartee and insouciant remarks of the man there was a sincerity which is amply reflected at   various levels in his stories.

My association with him took a new turn when he wanted me to read his short story “The Red Scarf” with “discrimination.” This story is remarkable for his attempt to delve deep into the subliminal layers of the narrator’s feelings, his suffering, his deep love for Shahla ( who is described as the “ tender voice of a flickering evening wrapped in  red scarf”), and his inability to change his destiny.  But as  in Alice Walker’s short story “To Hell with Dying” Ashrafi’s short story “The Red Scarf” can also be read as the exploration of   the possibility of  attaining  freedom through  writing , freedom which is denied for various reasons and at various stages in life. While tethered to the chains of circumstances in real life, through the strength of feeling and the power of creative imagination one can find freedom and hence celebrate those unaccomplished moments one craves for. In Walker‘s case it is  the young educated female narrator who could  afford to meet Mr. Sweet on his death-bed but failed finally to “revive” life in him and in Ashrafi’s case it is  the young educated unnamed male narrator who could not consummate his love in marriage with Shahla. Nevertheless, their characters’ intense but unfulfilled love has been celebrated by giving an artistic portrayal of the cherished memories of those passionate moments.

One fine morning after having arrived from India Dr Ashrafi gave me his latest book,  Boot Polish and Other Stories, a collection  of fifteen stories put in an order,  metaphorically,  moving from the “Vestibule” to “Forest Wisdom.”  The title story “Boot Polish” fixes the author firmly in his locale where the local reality is transmuted into something universal as reflected in the pangs of deprivation of the one who belongs to   the underprivileged class.   Jhabru is such a character who escapes from the dingy and raucous living in Chamartoli (Pariah quarter) to the pavement of Patna Market. The place on the pavement of a shop where he used to sit for his humble profession of polishing the shoes of the market goers was a place where this untouchable and Punditji, another shopkeeper,  develop a kind of bonhomie. Punditji although belongs to the upper caste was his “close pal sharing the chuckles and the despair and all his grief” (84). The friendly space of the market area presents a contrast to the confrontational family rows of the pariah quarter where the drunk fathers beat their grown up daughters and create a suffocating atmosphere for Jhabru. Finally he breathes his last. The dehumanizing impact of indigence in the pariah quarter is successfully depicted with an undercurrent of irony and pathos.

“Untouchable Anshu” is a story of adolescent love. The love that has a liberating effect on  the  girl Anshu Patel (who was  emotionally starved )empowered her “to negotiate the dark alleys of life” (22).  The love that filled her with extraordinary confidence “to unravel the glorious mysteries of life” (22), to fight the world and to fare  forward with a unique feeling  of fulfillment,  helping her to shed off the oppressive feeling that she is unwanted that she is a sort of “untouchable.”  The story effectively narrates the selfishness of parents, those parents who want to live a falsely independent life  by turning  a blind eye to the emotional needs of their own flesh and blood.

“Romancing in Clouds” unfolds the desire of a young man for a romance. The proximity of the fair sex makes the narrator imagine the unimaginable in an aircraft where everything, it seems, is suspended and at the same time, time passes with the speed of the aircraft.  And finally the romance in the air takes a dramatic turn when the narrator and the “youthful girl” (88) part permanently never to meet again.

“A Wet Morning” builds expectations in the reader as in “Romancing in Clouds” for the culmination of a relationship in the enduring bond of   marriage. But the unpredictability of life does not allow it to do so.  Ashrafi’s art of storytelling does not entail a story with a neat beginning, middle and end, on the contrary, it allows the story to develop on its own showing the pattern of life which is rarely a neat beginning, middle and end.  Thus his stories capture the true essence of life in their shocking development of plot and setting.   “A Wet Morning” ends in an unexpected   terrible note when  Shakuntala turns out to be a femme fatal for the naïve Amritraj leading to his arrest in a foreign land.

Similar is the art of storytelling in “Baba.”  Written against the backdrop of changing feudal social values and the freedom struggle movement the story depicts the social change and the change in the young narrator of the story. Baba the central character has his own lifestyle which is guided by  the feudal ethos he was nurtured in.  Aiyya suffers silently in the struggle to regain her rights as Baba’s wife which the narrator is happy to see that she finds them  at last. As in Anshu Patel’s life, for the young narrator in “Baba” the mystery of sex is mystifying and liberating.  Ironically,  Baba’s bondage with the desires of  flesh   causes a cold war with Aiyya.  On the contrary, Kalawati’s attempts to “baptize”(30)  the young  narrator into the fires of physical desire  leads him to the path of  “salvation”(35).  Ashrafi deals with the mysteries of sex as a natural, normal physical phenomenon, not as a taboo. What is new in his artistic delineation of this recurrent theme of  literature  is his ability  to look at it with  artistic detachment , sympathy and boldness.

“Root’s Cry” deals with the dilemma of identity   in the context of partition and post-partition  migrations in search of a secure home and better opportunities of work.  Ironically, the mohajir  not only becomes uprooted  but becomes “invisible” in an unknown land where “the dreamland turned into a savage land and hopes were crashed to the graveyard”.  The displaced Chamoo Bhai became a victim of the sectarian violence in Bangladesh and “disappeared mysteriously.”  Later his brother Doman Bhai returns to Bidhupur, a village in Bihar  in search of his “lost roots” and  to “discover his past, to find a responsive chord in the same village that was disowned by his father” (107).  The beauty and splendor of the village life without romanticizing it has been narrated through the consciousness of Aftab whose longing to see Sara adds a dream-like quality to the plot and setting.   The suffering of dumb women is also a significant theme  in “Root’s Cry” whether it is the mother of Doman Bhai who loses her husband and son in a foreign land  or Sara who loses the profound moments of love “in the moonlit nights” (109) when forced to leave her  familiar ambience.

“Vestibule” also narrates the plight of the displaced people who come to Khamispur as refugees.  It is the story of the vicissitudes of Amma which she suffers due to the early death of her husband, and her loneliness which she tries to cope with after the departure of her daughter Sheelu.  The story ends on a dramatic note portraying Amma as an independent personality who by refusing the offer for her daughter’s marriage with  Altaf Kapdawala which has been brought by Mamujaan, it seems, tries to compensate for her own failure to marry Moin Chacha who he liked but was rejected by her father.  In the story Amma emerges as a woman of strong will power  whose portrayal goes against the stereotypical representation of women as meek and passive sufferers.

The anthology has some more interesting stories such as “Rupture”, “The Old Man and  Ganga”,  “Jassu, the Winner”, “An Encounter at Noon”, “Fantallon Island” and “Forest Wisdom.”  These stories are as varied in their thematic concerns as life presents myriad aspects in different shades and colours.  Of all the stories, “Forest Wisdom” stands out  by virtue of its allegorical  form dealing with the problem of segregation  and communal violence with incisive irony and satire. Obviously inspired by George Orwell’s political fable Animal Farm, “Forest Wisdom” investigates the tenet of peaceful co-existence of different religious communities in a democratic country like India. The design of the anthology prepared by Heritage Publishers is quite attractive.  A few typographical errors on page 1 (‘beetle’ for betel), on page 5 (‘daughters-in-laws’ for daughters-in-law),  on page 36 (‘quitude’ for ‘quietude’), and  on page 84 (‘Jhagru’ for ‘ Jhabru’ ) though do not undermine the value of the book should have been avoided by a more meticulous proofreading before its  publication.

A prolific storyteller, Dr Syed Afroz Ashrafi’s canvas of thematic concerns is panoramic and   his attempt to understand the mysteries of the human heart and mind is commendable.  With his sympathetic heart akin  to that of Checkov’s he feels the predicament of the poor and the disadvantaged and with scathing irony he  gives a severe jolt to  the self-complacency of the political culture of a nation  that  still follows the policy of discrimination on the lines of caste, creed and religion.  His stories seem to have emanated from his intense personal encounter with the world which he looks at through a prism of lived experiences. In their irony of situations the stories present the O. Henrian blend of suspense and surprise. After going  through this anthology  of short stories one gets the portrait of the author as a sensitive keen observer of life who is torn between the dilemma of being and becoming, a dilemma that is characterized by a sense of alienation and restlessness. Perhaps the reason for the kind of creative energy one encounters in his stories, is an anxiety to come to terms with the void of existence, an attempt to explore  the  world, with a sense of discovery, where there is always a clash between what life is and what it ought to be.   The fast pace of his narrative is the hallmark of his style.  His serious attempt to discover the meaning of life is reflected through the weaving of a plot that presents a slice of life, in all its tiny totality. 


More by :  Prof. Dr. Anil K. Prasad

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