Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi
NOT too long ago, literary journals used to introduce their readers to the best in fiction, and it was in an issue of Funoon, edited by no less a figure than Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, that I chanced upon a story called “Ghora Gari” by a writer whose name was completely
unknown to me. It was a little nugget of a story, written with ease and lightness of spirit but managing to catch the troubled soul of an angry child. From that day onwards, I started looking out for any story published under that author’s name. This was my introduction to Nilofar Iqbal and it must have taken place a good 20 years ago. I shared my admiration with the editor and Qasimi Sahab, who was also my mentor, responded by informing me that the writer was a young woman from Islamabad of whom he had great hopes.
Qasimi Sahab’s high expectations were not in vain, as Iqbal went on to publish a number of remarkable stories in Funoon, stories which readers are not likely to forget. The best of these were collected in Ghanti, first published in 1996, with laudatory remarks by Mumtaz Mufti and a generous introduction by Qasimi Sahab. This volume is now reprinted in a new edition along with Iqbal’s new collection of stories, Surkh Dhabbay.
Appearing after a long gap, the stories in the new collection are sure to attract the attention of her many admirers, but I cannot help but make one complaint — Iqbal should have written more! There are a number of commendable stories in the collection, one being about a family which ventures to send their daughter to study in Boston and reacts with mixed feelings when she announces her intention to get married to an American. Relieved to hear that the prospective bridegroom is converting to Islam for a traditional, religious ceremony, the family plans to celebrate the couple’s rather reluctant homecoming, only to be shocked when they find out that the bridegroom is a black American. The story reaches its climax with the father cursing his daughter for having spoiled the family’s racial purity.
Another story focuses on a servant who becomes indispensable to a modern, affluent family for taking care of the elderly and bedridden Abbaji. “Dhundh” brings up another ageing parent, this time the mother who is lost in a foggy world and has to be reminded of everything like a child. The choice of this theme and its sympathetic treatment are remarkable and serve to remind us that Iqbal had written some of her most powerful earlier stories around the plight of the elderly.
“Musalman” is another pinching story, this time about a social outcast who is taunted by the priest in the local church that his behaviour makes him wonder if he has become a Muslim. “Chuha” is closer to the symbolic style which characterises many contemporary writers and explores the inner turmoil of a man who moves away from all social contacts until he begins to lose his humanity.
The collection’s title, Surkh Dhabbay, comes from four linked stories built around the American forces in Iraq, an unusual theme for Iqbal to tackle, taking her away from the comfort of home to new and uncertain places, with mixed results.
But finishing this book made me eager to once again read Iqbal’s previous collection, and I must say that I was happy to renew my acquaintance with Ghanti, a book which remains as fresh and inviting as it was when first published. With subtle movements and without being judgemental or sentimental, Iqbal describes the changes in a family which begins to get tired of their bedridden father and the constant ringing of the bell with which he summons them to carry out his tasks. One night the son cannot take it any longer and removes the bell from his father’s side. It is a very moving story and so is “Hisab” in which a village woman greets her grown-up and married children as they return from the city and begin to find fault with her simple ways. This story ends on a note of reconciliation but not without exposing the gap between the values of parents and children. No less serious but more laughable are the troubles of the main character in “Aunty”, who wages a battle against advancing age with the help of cosmetics and starts seeing a younger and good-looking man until she begins to realise the financial, but not moral, implications of his demands. Shocked at first, she soon learns to accept her situation in this remarkable story. A brave venture is the last story in which an army general’s batman is assigned to take care of the dogs, only to discover that after all, the dog’s life is his.
Nilofar Iqbal writes about contemporary urban themes and extraordinary moments in the lives of otherwise ordinary people. She has a pleasant, unpretentious style which contributes to the readability of her stories. On the basis of her rather slim output she can easily be regarded as one of the most readable and interesting short story writers today. But like many of her readers, I hope that her next book will not take very long in appearing.
By Nilofar Iqbal
Dost Publications, Islamabad