And the World Changed – Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women
Book Review published in SouthAsia (June 2007)
There is no vast Pakistani English literature by women, to comment on. Republished in Pakistan in 2006, after its launch by Women Unlimited (New Delhi) in 2005, this anthology exhibits the kind of work that Pakistani women are doing in South Asian literature.
Nonconformity and an unconventional style seem to be the current trend. Though there is still a long way to go in terms of meeting the literary standards of world classics, the stories of this collection do represent myriad perspectives on a number of issues, especially those concerning women.
There is no single theme that the book follows. You cannot label it as ‘feminist’ prose, despite the fact that all texts are by women.
Twenty-four women, belonging to different literary backgrounds, have contributed. These include known names such as Fahmida Riaz (a political and human rights activist), Bapsi Sidhwa (whose novels revolve around the Zoroastrian community in Pakistan) and Kamila Shamsie (of Salt and Saffron fame). Some of the stories are excerpts from novels.
One is bound to notice a few similarities between the authors. All of them have lived in Pakistan as well as in the west, or still do. They write about the Pakistani people and multiculturalism is sometimes an underlying theme:
“Santa Maria, the Black Madonna, Holy Mother of Christ, Jesus, Jesus, Ya Ali! Ya Ali! Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain…” (Bloody Monday by Fawzia Afzal Khan.
Stories focus on problems as serious as rape of the mentally challenged (The Daughters of Aai by Fahmida Riaz), forced marriages (The Optimist by Bina Shah) or on lighter subjects such as the initial experiences of city life ( Look, But With Love by Uzma Aslam Khan) and The Arsonist (an excerpt from Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters). They provide us with a taste of present-day reality and capture the ethos of our society – such as Shahrukh Husain’s Rubies for a Dog, which comments on gender discrimination:
“Isn’t it ironic that I have to dress like a man in order to discover my potential?”
Meeting your future in-laws in a pair of jeans can be calamitous even if you are living in the west, “under the sway of western fashion and, by extension, its moral values” (A Pair of Jeans by Qaisra Shahraz).
Even young and amateur writers show sensitivity towards some social issues (that are often ignored) and provide us with some very original stories, such as Clay Fissures by Nayyara Rahman:
“It was 1953 and patriotism was still a young, strong spirit in Pakistan. People were proud of being Pakistanis. They were proud of being Muslim. They were proud of their own brown skin, which reflected wheat – the lifeblood of Pakistan. And here was I: Pradeep Sehgal, the adopted albino son of a Hindu merchant and a Eurasian seamstress.”
Muneeza Shamsie (the editor and short story writer), has previously edited A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English and Leaving Home: A Collection of English Prose by Pakistani Writers. She also contributes to local newspapers and magazines. In this book, she has provided us with a brief but absorbing introduction on the history of creative writing by Pakistani women (or the lack of it). She has eulogized the efforts of those women who have contributed to this form of writing (despite the lack of monetary benefits and inspiring examples), acquainted us with each contributor and has also thrown light on the impact that political upheaval in the country has had on this medium of expression.
It is interesting to note the kind of diversity that exists in our writing as well as our society. We see a close affinity with contemporary writing by Indian women (Shobha De` etc.).
These writers also lead us to new avenues (sometimes ‘experimental’)and provide ideas that can form the basis of future work in fiction. Social critique still largely seems to be the ultimate aim of writing, as mentioned in the introduction: ‘the prescriptive dictum that their work must have an extra-literary purpose, namely to “serve society”.’
– By Ayesha Hoda