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Fahmida Riaz, the Ninth Heroine of the Indus Valley

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By Raza Naeem

‘The soft fragrance of my jasmine
Flowing on the current of wind
Playing in the hands of wind
In search of your body’

May the writer, poet, short-story writer, novelist and translator Fahmida Riaz, who turns 72 today, live long and prosper. While I do not have the ability to comment on her art, I feel this is a necessary tribute keeping in view that she is not in the best of health these days.

 

In the current Urdu poetry circuit, the voice of Fahmida Riaz is distinct. During the early 1960s, when Riaz’s poems like the aforementioned one began to be published in the literary journal Funoon under the editorship of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, her clear tone, poems full of lyricism and sensitive style created an immediate impact. This became deeper and gentler with time and now Riaz is regarded among the best in modern and contemporary Urdu poetry.

Riaz was born in 1946 in the Indian city of Meerut. Her initial education was in Hyderabad and she began writing poetry in her college days. Her first volume of poetry Patthar ki Zuban (‘The Language of Stones’) was published in 1967. The coloured and desirous feelings of a young girl had seldom been said with such poesy before. In 1973, the publication of Badan Dareeda (‘The Torn-Bodied’) created a sensation in literary circles. Such self-confidence, coupled with feminine speech and tone, appeared rebellious to some, but this book proved to be an important milestone in modern Urdu poetry. During this time, Riaz resided in London.

The themes and narrative style of the poems did startle a few, but they were also reflective of far-reaching changes in contemporary Urdu poetry, which were felt gradually. Along with courage in the selection of themes, the first person perspective in the poems is different from traditional poetry.

Self-aware soliloquies

On one hand, the poems seem like soliloquies of a woman passing through stages of self-awareness, giving a form of expression to her body and life by making it the foundation of her poetic experience. On the other, the style and wordings of these poems are elegant and delicate, as if feelings have found the most suitable language. That is why these poems are seen to be decorated with a new manner of feeling, despite being extremely personal and individualistic. They are full of a perception of societal reality and guarded towards universality.

In many poems, for example ‘Gudiya’ (‘Doll’) or ‘Muqaabla-e-Husn’ (‘Beauty Contest’), she raises her voice against the drama which is performed with a woman in the name of love – in which a woman is forced to act lifeless like a doll, because men have fixed this role for them. Men demand from women lifeless beauty, which is not possible in reality.

Beauty Contest
‘So what if my hips gyrate like whirlpools
The head also has the jewel
Of curiosity
The piece of heart was below the breasts
But the price I have put on these
Do not evade me like this in fear
When you stop measuring me
Do also measure an organ of yours!’

Fahmida Riaz’s poetry of that period also uses tradition as symbolism, whose source is the Bible or Koran. With these sources, she portrays the centuries of oppression on women. In her poem ‘Aqleema’, the eponymous sister of Abel and Cain insists on expressing her opinion. This poem, a franker expression of sexuality, refers to the Biblical/Islamic tale in which Cain slew Abel when his sacrifice of a goat was not accepted by Allah. In some versions, Cain had desired his sister Aqleema for himself, although she was forbidden.

‘Aqleema
Who was the sister of Abel and Cain
Sister
But different
Different between her thighs
And in the swell of her breasts
And inside her stomach
And in her womb
And the fate of all these body parts
Was linked to the sacrifice of a fattened goat.
She, a prisoner of her body,
Stands on a hillock
And burns in the hot sun
As if she has been drawn on stone
Look at this drawing carefully
Move above the long thighs
And the swell of the breasts
And above the complicated womb –
There is Aqleema’s head
Allah, talk to Aqleema sometimes
Ask her something.’
Themes of political consciousness

Riaz’s poetry collection Dhoop (Sunlight) was published after her return home in 1976. A manner of political consciousness and protest is prominent in these poems and a conscious attempt has been made to bring the language of poetry nearer to Sindhi and conversational Hindi.

In the same period, Riaz took on the responsibility of editor of a magazine called Aavaaz (Voice). When Zia-ul-Haq imposed martial law in Pakistan, several cases were brought against the magazine. Poems like ‘Khaana Talaashi’ (House Search) and ‘Kotvaal’ (Magistrate) are representative of this period. A poem like ‘Chador aur Chaardivaari’ (‘The Veil and the Four Walls of Home’) was also written during the same time; it is one the most eloquent Urdu poems against oppressive politics. But the last lines of this poem show that while her intention is political protest, the ideal dream of femininity has not left the poetess.

‘These four walls, this chador be blessed for the decayed corpse
My boat will proceed with open sails in the open spaces
I am the fellow traveler of the New Man
He who won my trusting company!’

In 1981, when conditions worsened, Riaz chose exile in India. During this time, she was attached with Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and wrote a book on the literary situation in Pakistan Kya Tum Poora Chaand Na Dekhoge? (‘Will You Not See the Full Moon?’), which is a prose-poem consisting of seven chapters. It was initially published in the Devanagari script. The long poem tells the tale of mental anguish and struggle of a sensitive and conscientious artist in an atmosphere of oppression and violence.

Eminent English short-story writer Aamer Hussain, in the preface to the English translations of Fahmida Riaz’s poems, mentions this long prose work and says it scales the dimensions of an epic. This poem reminds him of the Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, who begins with delicate expressions of desire and touch and makes majestic statements of resistance against oppression and superiority. I feel that Riaz’s is a similar journey, during which she has learnt to carve poetry with tears, pain and sorrow.

Return to Pakistan

Fahmida Riaz returned to Pakistan when the country took a new turn and the prospect for democracy emerged. She was employed in government service for a short while and then set up a non-governmental institution which published several books for children and women. A collection of poems written during exile Apna Jurm To Saabit He (‘My Crime Stands Proven’) was published in 1988.

Some more poems came forward under the title of Hum Rikaab(‘Fellow Traveller’) and her collected poetry up to that point was published with the title Men Mitti ki Moorat Hun (‘I Am An Earthen Idol’). Political chaos, the desire for internal and external union and the literary quest of human life can be witnessed in poems collected and published as Aadmi ki Zindagi (‘The Life of Man’). A new collection, Mausamon ke Daire Mein (‘In the Circle of Seasons’) is currently under compilation. In Sab Laal-o-Gohar (All Rubies and Pearls), her collected writings have been gathered.

The fullest expression of Fahmida Riaz’s poetic ingenuity is to be found in her translations. She has rendered selected poems of the Chileans Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra, the Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral and her contemporary Sindhi poet Attiya Dawood into Urdu. But as a translator, she has paid particular attention to three poets: the famous Sindhi poet Shaikh Ayaz, the Farsi poet who died young, Forough Farrokhzad, and the ghazals of Maulana Jalauddin Rumi. The translations of these three poets were published as books titled Halqa Meri Zanjir Ka (‘A Link of My Chain’), Khule Dareeche Se (‘From An Open Window’) and Khaana-e-Aaab-o-Gil (‘House of Water and Clay’) respectively.

While Riaz also wrote short stories during her initial years, she has devoted greater attention to prose over the past 11-12 years. A collection of her short stories has been published under the title Khat-e-Marmuz (The Mysterious Letter). She also wrote a book with the title Adhura Aadmi(Incomplete Man) with respect to the ideas of renowned psychologist Erich Fromm. She wrote three books Zinda Bahaar, Godavari and Karachi, by joining the warp and wof of travel, personal experience and observation and legend. In these three novels, Fahmida Riaz has styled a new form to express the historical and political problems of three South Asian states – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – by kneading her personal anguish and sorrow; a literary form which is solely associated with her and a creative exploit in itself.

In 2017, she released a well-received historical novel on the life and times of the fifth century Persian social revolutionary Mazdak, called Qila-e-Faraamoshi (‘Fortress of Oblivion’), which a few discerning readers may perceive as a thinly-veiled autobiography of her own struggles, ideals and dreams. Without vacating her place in the ranks of poets, she has achieved a prominent position in prose. This distinction is rarely enjoyed by any other writer of this era.

The heroines of Indus valley

In the ancient folklore of the Indus valley, women play a seminal role as heroines, whether in love, sex or the fight against tyranny and patriarchy. Some of these tales have been immortalised by the likes of Waris Shah (Heer-Ranjha) and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.

Bhittai refers to the Sat Surmiyoon (Seven Heroines) in his famous Shah jo Risalo who are Lilan, Momal, Sorath, Nuri, Sohni, Sassi and Marvi. Bhittai has devoted a sur (poem) to each surmi. In February this year, my friend the poet and essayist Harris Khalique referred to the late Pakistani feminist and human rights icon Asma Jahangir as the eighth surmi. In a similar vein, Fahmida Riaz may also be anointed the ninth. Had Bhittai been alive in our times, he would have written about Nau Surmiyon (Nine Heroines) and devoted a sur to Fahmida Riaz, a proud daughter of the Indus valley.

Her poem ‘Taaziyati Qaraardaaden’ (‘Condolence Resolutions’) might serve as a fitting testament and tribute to her eventful life and legacy:
‘Friends! Just do me this favour

Do not be unjust to me after death
Do not award me any certificate of religiosity
Do not say in the force of eloquence
Actually this woman was a believer
Do not rise to prove loyalty to country and nation
Do not try that the authorities own my corpse at least
Friends, friends
The invectives of the mean are my honours
Whether they may not come up to the pulpit
My lovers are no less
The beginning of reality is hidden in life
And dust and breeze are my confidantes
Do not go about insulting them
For the goodwill of the censors
Do not make the corpse apologise
My companion
Lest I cannot be shrouded
Do not worry
Leave my corpse in the jungle
So comforting is this thought
The beasts of the jungle will come for me
Without testing my thoughts
My bones and my flesh
And my heart like a glittering ruby
They will be happy to devour everything
Satiated
They will lick their lips
And in their obedient eyes will shine
What you might not say
That truth
This corpse belongs to a being
Who said whatever she wanted
Was never repentant lifelong’

(Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist currently teaching in Lahore.)


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Opinion

Faiz and Manto

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By Ali Madeeh Hashmi

January 18 was Manto’s 64th death anniversary and it should be noted that Manto has been experiencing something of a renaissance for quite a few years. Manto’s best short stories like ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Mozail’, ‘Hattak’, ‘Naya Qanoon’, ‘Khol Do’ and countless others remain peerless both as works of art as well as searing commentaries on their times. However, even Manto’s most ardent admirers admit that his work is wildly uneven. Exquisite short stories are mixed in with works that are at best hurried and slapdash, at worst incomprehensible. Most of this is, no doubt, a result of the life that Manto lived: a life marred by poverty, alcoholism and mental illness.

In and of itself, this is of no moment. After all, an artiste is free to create and propagate his or her work anyway he likes. But the continuing attention on Manto has had the result of perhaps diverting attention away from a number of other gifted writers some of whom were his contemporaries and some who came later. Writers like UpendranathAshk, Krishan Chander and even the great MunshiPremchand. In addition, later writers like the exquisitely subdued Ghulam Abbas and Muhammad Hasan Askari have not received the kind of attention or accolades that have accrued to Manto.

 

February 13 was Faiz’s 108th birthday and it seems appropriate to examine what connection (if any) existed between the two. In a couple of interviews, initially noted in Dr Ayub Mirza’s book Hum keThehrayAjnabi, Faiz said: “Manto was my student at the MAO College Amritsar (Faiz’ first job after finishing his MA)”. Faiz went on to note affectionately: “He never studied much, he was mischievous. He…didn’t respect anyone. But he respected me and considered me his ‘ustaad’”.

A recent column in a leading Urdu daily devotes a considerable amount of ink to disproving that Manto was ever Faiz’s student. It points out, correctly, that Faiz was appointed a lecturer in English at the MAO college Amritsar in 1935, probably in the latter half (the exact date is not available). Manto had, by then, already become a translator of some renown having translated and published some Russian short stories as well as Oscar Wilde’s play Vera among others. Manto did join the MAO college Amritsar as a student in 1933 but most likely had dropped out by the time Faiz joined as a lecturer. Subsequently, Manto was briefly a student at the Aligarh Muslim University but had to drop out after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. He returned to Amritsar in August 1935, probably right around the time that Faiz joined MAO college as a teacher. Manto then travelled back and forth between Amritsar and Delhi for treatment and in May 1936, on the advice of his physician moved to Bombay and later (after partition) to Lahore.

It seems obvious that Manto and Faiz were, in fact, present in Amritsar around the same time (mid-late 1935 till summer 1936). Faiz was an up and coming poet having received some acclaim for his poetry while still a student at Government College Lahore and then Oriental College from around 1929 till 1934/35. His poems had been published in Government College’s esteemed literary journal Ravi and his teachers, leading literary lights of the day including Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Dr MD Taseer and Ahmad Shah Bokhari ‘Patras’ were aware of his poetic talents.

In addition, in Amritsar, he was introduced to Syed SajjadZaheer and quickly became one of the leading organisers of the newly emergent All India Progressive Writer’s Association (AIPWA). All through this time, Faiz would undoubtedly have been reciting his poetry both at mushairas and perhaps private events even though the publication of his first volume of poetry Naqsh-e Faryadi was still some years away (1941). Many of Manto’s short stories were also published in the quarterly Adab-e Lateef which Faiz briefly edited around 1939-41. Faiz also defended Manto in court more than once. In Dr Ayub Mirza’s book, he said “Every time he (Manto) would be taken to court, I would be one of the defense witnesses. He was arrested four times; for ‘KaaliShalwar’, ‘ThandaGosht’, ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Dhuan’. The first three times we managed to get him off.”

Manto was actually prosecuted six times for alleged pornography. In addition to the stories Faiz mentions above, he was also taken to court for his stories ‘Bu’ and ‘OoperNeechayaurDarmiyan’. In 1949, Faiz was the convener of the Press Advisory Board tasked with rendering a judgment about whether Manto’s notorious short story ‘ThandaGosht’, published in a special edition of the magazine Javed in March 1949 was a work of art or pornography. In short, the two were well acquainted.

When Faiz says in his interview “Mantoapnashagirdtha”, he clearly means ‘Shagird’ not in the narrow sense of a student enrolled in a class one is teaching in a college or university but someone who seeks guidance from another who he considers more learned or erudite. In addition, when Faiz says

“Wohmeriizzatkartathaaurmujhayustaadmaantatha”, he clearly means ‘Ustaad’ in the Eastern/Indo-Pakistani sense, again, someone learned, older, more worldly who can be confidante/guide and mentor.

Manto, to my knowledge, never referred in writing to any association with Faiz and, fairly early on, dissociated himself from the AIPWA. From his meteoric rise as a short story and then film writer in the late 1930s and early 1940s, to his legal battles over being an alleged pornographer, through his fateful decision to migrate from Bombay to Lahore only to be dogged by continuing legal troubles, alcoholism, mental illness and penury into an early grave, he walked his own lonely path, refusing to compromise what he considered his artistic integrity, refusing to draw a cloak over the ‘unbearable society’ in which he lived.

In 1955, he died in Lahore at the young age of 43. Faiz, languishing in prison at the time under threat of a death sentence for the Rawalpindi ‘Conspiracy’ case wrote: “I was grieved to hear of Manto’s death. Respectable members of our community, who have neither the awareness of the fragility of an artiste’s heart nor any sympathy for it, will probably say that Manto himself is to blame for his death. But no one will wonder why he did this…The problem is that when life and art are in conflict with each other due to social circumstances, one of these has to be sacrificed. The other possibility is of mutual compromise, in which some part of both is sacrificed. The third possibility is to unite the two into a subject of struggle, which only great artistes are capable of.”

Faiz referred in another interview to Manto’s ‘exquisite short stories’ and went on to say “but after 1950, he lost his way. The film or newspaper people would give him a bottle of liquor and have him write whatever they wanted”. None of this is to take away from the greatness of Manto which is universally acknowledged but perhaps we can stop quibbling about what relationship (if any) he had with Faiz; student, peer or fellow artist. Neither one of them is with us today but their art is, and that’s the way it should be.

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Opinion

ODDS TOWARDS ENDS

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By Umair Khan

The relationship between Pakistan and India has seen many ups and downs — probably more downs than it should have. Several books have been written to explore the intricacies of this sensitive relationship as both sides try to present arguments from their own perspective in an effort to legitimise their policies and actions. India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds is one such endeavour undertaken by Avtar Singh Bhasin, a researcher and former Indian diplomat.

Before writing this book, Bhasin had compiled a 10-volume magnum opus titled India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007: A Documentary Study comprising original political and diplomatic documents from the archives of the government of India pertaining to Pakistan-India relations. In a way, his new book is a distilled form of the earlier, encyclopaedic work.

 

India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds consists of 34 chapters dedicated to important events in the region’s history in chronological order. The book starts from the woes of Partition and continues up to the mistrust each country holds for the other even today. Looking back over centuries of recorded history of the Indian subcontinent, Bhasin rightly points out that “at no time in the medieval history of India was there a single ruler ruling the entire country from [the] east to the west and north to south. There were many rulers.” Thus, he gives credence to the claim that the Indo-Pak subcontinent has not been a political unity for a long period of time.

Starting proper from the fateful years of the post-Partition era, Bhasin admits that “certain actions of the Indian leaders at the very start of the journey, even if they were rational from the Indian standpoint, such as withholding Pakistan’s share of Sterling balances, the stoppage of canal waters, Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir, did not add to building trust between the two countries, and Pakistan cried foul.” However, he is not able to explain how these actions were rational from the Indian standpoint. The same has been admitted by another former Indian diplomat, ChandrashekharDasgupta, in his book War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48, that “the Indian control over the irrigation headworks in Mangla could lead to the ruin of Pakistan’s agricultural economy.”

Bhasin presents the case of the generations of mistrust in a way that implies that the British favoured the Muslim League over Congress during the last days of their Raj, and favoured Pakistan over India during the early days of its independence. However, recent scholarship discredits the author’s claims. In a story published by the BBC in August 2007 titled ‘Partitioning India Over Lunch’, it was revealed that the memoirs of Christopher Beaumont, who was secretary to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission, had been discovered by his son. Beaumont wrote in his memoirs that “the viceroy, Mountbatten, must take the blame — though not the sole blame — for the massacres in the Punjab in which between 500,000 to a million men, women and children perished.” Beaumont categorically stated that Mountbatten favoured the Indian side in the matter of the Radcliffe Boundary Award. This effectively negates Bhasin’s implications that the British favoured Pakistan over India.

When the locals of Kashmir revolted in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the words of Bhasin, “unable to opt for the military option, went to the UN considering it the better option. It was a panic decision.” However, the author feels that the platform of the United Nations — that had been created for the peaceful resolution of international disputes — was not the right platform for the Kashmir dispute to be taken to by India’s then prime minister. With hindsight, he believes that Nehru should have opted for the military solution instead.

When the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions in 1948 that asked India to let the people of Kashmir exercise their democratic right of self-determination through a free and fair plebiscite held under the auspices of the UN itself, Bhasin writes that “India had the option of rejecting the resolution since it had gone beyond its reference.” Here, any student of international law can underscore the fact that the UN Security Council has been authorised by the UN Charter to ensure peace and security in the world and its resolutions cannot be rejected by any state on the flimsy ground of “having gone beyond” the reference submitted by that state.

Nehru reneged on his promise to hold a free and fair plebiscite in Kashmir on the flimsy grounds that ground realities had changed after Pakistan made military pacts with the United States during the mid-1950s. Bhasin does not clarify how the signing of these military pacts by Pakistan could disbar the Kashmiri people from exercising their democratic right of self-determination.

Commenting on the nuclearisation of South Asia, Bhasin admits that after a nuclear test was conducted by India in 1974 (Pokhran I), Pakistan proposed in a statement issued in 1980 to declare South Asia a nuclear weapon-free zone. However, Bhasin states that “India was keen on a universal nuclear disarmament, something which was beyond the realm of possibility.” And when India again conducted a nuclear test in 1998 (Pokhran II), forcing Pakistan to conduct a nuclear test as well, Bhasin comments on the nuclearisation of South Asia by writing “both Vajpayee and then Nawaz Sharif did the most unexpected” without putting the blame where it primarily belongs — the side that introduced the nuclear arms race in South Asia.

Reading and understanding the history of Pakistan-India relations has never been more important. The geostrategic situation of the region demands that both the neighbours at odds with each other need to bridge the trust deficit somehow and find some way to move forward. While this book is a good source for understanding the Indian perspective and narrative on important issues, and it is rich in quoting primary source material, it falls somewhat short in the logical analysis of those references. Still, it can prove a good read for students of history and policymakers.

India and Pakistan:
Neighbours at Odds
By Avtar Singh Bhasin
Bloomsbury, India
ISBN: 978-9386826206
538pp.

 

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Opinion

Colours of Asia

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By Nijah S. Khan

Asia, the world’s largest and most populous continent, home to 48 countries each with their own diverse cultures and subcultures, languages and religions, presents an interesting situation: What is it to be ‘Asian’? It almost seems impossible that such an expanse of land would have narratives that are similar and relatable, given the uniqueness of the multitudes residing within each Asian nation. Yet in The Best Asian Short Stories of 2017, “different voices, viewpoints and themes combine to shed light upon various facets of the Asian experience,” writes Editor MonideepaSahu in her foreword.

The anthology contains thirty two stories ranging from the skyscrapers of Korea, to the deserts of Jordan, from the rainforests of Malaysia and the historic anguish of the Indo-Pak partition to the impoverished slums of Bangladesh, just to name a few. The particular focus of this omnibus of short stories is precisely the home-grown Asian identity, free from Western attempts to explain what they see as quaint and exotic. The stories ‘Jellybeans’ by Soniah Kamal and ‘The Spaces Between Stars’ by Gita Kothari, which are set in the United States of America are still narrated from the Asian perspective.

 

Though the call for submissions prescribed no set theme, larger motifs such as extreme poverty and the quest to improve one’s living situation through brutal hard work emerge across the stories; for example in ‘Ladybugs Fly From The Top’ by Korean writer Park Chan-soon, our acrophobic window-washing protagonist dangles daily from the tops of skyscrapers with only ropes attached to a small board, risking his life to make a living. A poor construction worker’s family converts to Christianity from Hinduism in the vain hopes that “their escape in the dead of night from one identity into another” will help transform their lot in life, in ‘Patchwork’ by Shikandin.

In MithranSomasudrum’s ‘The Yakuza Under the Stairs’, Clisty’s tale is a slightly less morose one of rags-to-riches, when the humble immigrant cab driver finds himself the unsuspecting recipient of a sizeable inheritance. The story takes a humorous turn when a pronunciation mixup leads our newly moneyed protagonist to accidentally order a Yakuza (i.e. Japanese gangster for hire) instead of a jacuzzi, for his new home in Thailand.

Of course, no collection of Asian narratives can be truly representative without reference to the long period of political turmoil and upheaval in the subcontinent, which forms five stories housed in this panorama, but each tale reveals a unique facet of the struggles countless individuals faced.

The troubled Kashmir forms the backdrop for Siddhartha Gigoo’s ‘The Umbrella Man’, the story of an inmate at an asylum which parallels the persecution of Hindu Pandits in Kashmir, cast out from their motherland as refugees, their identity as a community stands endangered with no salvation in sight. Left isolated and expelled from Kashmiri society, they are akin to the inmate at the asylum, “For the inmates, the world ended at that wall. Beyond that brick-and-stone wall was a vast darkness, an oblivion.” The horrors of war and its effects on the natural beauty of Kashmir and the lives of brave youths who enlisted are further illustrated in IlaksheeBhuyanNath’s ‘The Wetland’.

Our subcontinent, unfortunately, is not the only region affected by war: a young mother fleeing war-torn Aleppo is the central figure of Amir Darwish’s ‘Samar’, and the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution and a childhood spent in starvation during a famine are elucidated by an elderly woman to her young niece growing up in a time of prosperity in Jeremy Tiang’s ‘1997’.

Female protagonists that are breaking away from the tropes of battered and oppressed women populate many of the short stories found in this collection, some like ‘Lilly from Fits and Starts’ by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and ‘Moyna in Powerless’ (a translated work) written by Moinul Ahsan Saber rise above their difficult circumstances and take charge.

Lilly holds her own as the only female 24-hour delivery rider for McDonald’s, filling in for her brother to support her family while he is behind bars. Her beauty and femininity is juxtaposed with her no-nonsense and often defensive exterior, an occupational hazard for females who work in a male-dominated environment. “She moved the big bike stiffly, and although she was tall enough to swing her leg over it, things got unwieldy when she strapped on the bulky backpack they used for transporting the food. Once, Zul had offered to hold the backpack while she mounted, but she barked him off.”

The challenge taken on by the editors of this collection was no small feat. The American equivalent to this compendium The Best American Short Stories selects its contents from works already published in literary journals, whereas MonideepaSahu had to trawl through numerous submissions. Deciding what qualified as “the best” Asian short stories meant struggling through the deluge of entries and an acute reader’s block for Sahu.

Whilst inclusiveness was a goal when consolidating the selected submissions into a book, out of thirty two stories contained in the anthology only four are translated works- a number that one would expect to be far greater given the rich linguistic heritage of Asia. Central Asian short stories also remain conspicuously absent from the winning essays. Nevertheless, the goal of gleaning transferrable themes of humanity across the stories proves to be not only a successful one but an illuminating and enjoyable one in this inaugural endeavour in collecting the finest short stories written across Asia.

The Best Asian Short Stories 2017
Author: Edited by MonideepaSahu
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 454
Price: INR299

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