Thursday, October 31, 2013

Karachi - Our Stories in Our Words

When I first received a copy of Karachi - Our Stories in Our Words I was tempted to compare it favorably to another book of a similar nature, the Bapsi Sidhwa-edited Lahore: Beloved City, whose dull, dim cover Karachi's vibrant and abstract counterpart instantly trumped. Unfortunately the most interest I could muster in this book began and ended at its cover.

"Edited" by Maniza Naqvi (a term I assume is used loosely by OUP, since the book is riddled with innumerable typos starting with the Editor's Note itself), Karachi doesn't seem to have benefitted from much editing. The Editor's Note tells us that the stories contained therein were a result of a competition announced in tandem with the Karachi Literature Festival. Hundreds of stories were received out of which the 99 included in this book were deemed printworthy. Giving credit where it's due, if this is the standard of the stories eventually published, going through all of them must have been no mean task. A pat on the back of the editors who read them all! Unfortunately, none of these foot soldiers are credited, and neither are the translators of stories from Sindhi and Urdu. Did Maniza Naqvi do all this by herself? The book doesn't say.

Violent death is persistently used for effect

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This book's dearth of big- name contributors had me favorably disposed but my optimism lasted only until the first five stories, which proved that "youth", rather than heralding freshness of vision and inventive zeal had been used here as a cover for amateurish storytelling. All the writers seemed bent on ticking the litany of what they assumed were grave and important Karachi subjects, poverty being the great favourite, unceasingly dealt with in the pious, moralizing tone of those who have never really experienced it firsthand. The poor in these stories struggle on in their righteous, unfailingly moral ways, ceaselessly guilt-tripping all the rest of us for our comfortable, shallow lives that can never soar to the heights of piety that are the sole purview of those at the receiving end of the evil rich. Such black and white depictions are found on almost every page of this book, motivated no doubt by some desire to improve society through moralistic messages better suited to social activism than literature.

The book's dearth of "big" name contributors had me favorably disposed

Another pet theme is bomb blasts and shootings, none of the writers seem to have any nuanced insights into the geneses or outcomes of terrorist acts. The depictions here are the work of febrile imaginations assuming an artificial empathy with subject matter they are no closer to than the average TV viewer halfway across the country. Nary a nuanced character one can relate to or be moved by. Violent death is persistently used for effect or to lend some perceived shock value to a story's conclusion. Within the course of two pages (the average length of most of these stories) we meet a character, get choked by depictions of her absolute goodness, after which she gets shot in a freak accident meant to leave us blubbering in our reading chairs. The only tears they produced in me were at the thought of all these people now being legitimately able to claim they are published writers.

The poor in these stories struggle on in their righteous, unfailingly moral ways

Thank goodness then for Soofia Ishaque's story The Reprieve: No Bikini But Plenty of Attitude, the only standout story in the collection, and one that manages to avoid the ham-handedness and juvenility of the rest. A simple narration of a day out on the beach, it successfully captures the contrasting social and economic currents that make Karachi so complex and dynamic without beating us over the head with those themes. Here gunpoint robbery is treated with none of the melodramatic histrionics of the other stories, but with a quiet nod to the nonchalance engendered by repeated exposure to mugging and theft, and the desperate abandonment in the pursuit of fun only those from a repressed, violent society can truly appreciate. Other half-decent efforts included Rumana Husain's The Victoria Waala, Fiza Hasan's Tea or Coffee? and Asma Siddiqui's Pearl. Certain passages from a few other stories resonated here and there but were often marred by the writer's inability to use them for the larger benefit of the story.

Another strange aspect of this book is that it shifts mid-way from fictional stories to personal narratives without any warning, which leaves the classification of this book as a collection of short stories in doubt. Overall, Karachi: Our Stories in Our Words would have benefitted from cutting its length by half and showcasing a higher standard of writing instead of cramming the book with page after page of mediocrity, the kind my teaching instincts tell me would fail even to score an A in a good high school English class.


Published in The Friday Times (June 14th - 20th, 2013)

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