The 1960s, ’70s and ’80s were the best decades for the Sindhi short story. Almost all the giants of the Sindhi short story were writing during this period — Naseem Kharal, Amar Jaleel, Ali Baba, Manik, Mushtaque Shoro, Mehtaab Mehboob, Najam Abbasi, Agha Saleem, Mohan Kalpna, Noorul Huda Shah and others, including Kahirunnisa Jaffery. The Sindhi short story was passing through an age of experimentation and different philosophical movements such as existentialism, psychoanalysis, expressionism and surrealism were reflected in the works of these writers. Critic Mohan Gehani defines the literature from the time thus: “In the late ’60s and early ’70s, as against the progressive trend, all other theories of literature and art which placed the individual at the centre, like pre-revolution Russian formalism, Kafkian fantasy, Freudian theories, philosophy of the absurd, black humour and existentialism, were lumped together and a collective adjective ‘modern’ was added before literature.” It was a paradigm shift from social humanism to an individualistic approach, from social realism to existentialism and the adaptation of other modern theories. Jaffery is considered to be the most prominent among the writers who offered new subjects, styles, techniques and diction, along with a blend of new theories, to the Sindhi short story.
Traditionally, the picture of women drawn by male Sindhi writers is more or less fabricated and idiosyncratic; it has no connection with reality. Men have written about women as tools for sexual amusement, devoid of intellect and wisdom. The women of their imagination may be beautiful and erotic, but do not possess confidence. But in Jaffery’s work we encounter powerful and bold female characters with intellectual depth and sensitivity, while her treatment of male characters is also very strong. Her portrayal of women makes her distinctive among her contemporaries. Her female characters are real and active with bodies, minds and souls.
Almost all of Jaffery’s stories are written in the first person and thus seem autobiographical. They also all contain strong shades of depression and longing for love. Jaffery’s personal life remained disturbed and her marriage ended unhappily. Like Manto, she had a hard time dealing with the social, emotional and psychological pressures of her life and pessimism remained a prominent factor in her writings. “Pain is blended with my blood and my whole being is contingent with it. My short story is the expression of my body,” she had said. For Jaffery, the body and the pain are inseparable; her story is identical with her body. Creation is a painful process, akin to dying, and to create is cathartic for her:
“I considered literature a prayer. The tales I wrote were not lies, but the truth. I have drunk hemlock for each word, each line. Socrates drank once and became immortal but I am from the common folk. I know there will be no headstone on my grave so I don’t believe in dying a natural death. And I don’t separate the body and soul into two. I declare life and death as one. Both life and death are one form, one continuum, like playing heads or tails, where one always stands for victory and other defeat.”
Being a professor of psychology, the treatment of characters with insight and the exploration of different psychological layers was natural to her. Her powerful dialogue is a window into the many layers of her characters. Through it, Jaffery reveals social norms which cause and mould pessimism and melancholy, revealing her sharp analyses of human nature.
In her story ‘Kehri Brand, Kehro Cigarette’ (Which Brand, Which Cigarette), a character says, “Mini-size cigarette! My heart raised a slogan slowly. I am an excellent smoker and have tasted every brand. Each size and type of cigarette has fluttered in the shaky hold of my fingers and touched my lips. My fingers are docile and the touch of lips so kindling. That is why a cigarette never leaves my hold, nor do I let it go. I try to ash it until it reaches the filter. And then I throw it down, stepping on it, twisting my foot on top of it. Being a chain-smoker, I am prone to that little act of heartlessness.”
Some critics have tried to frame her style as stream of consciousness, others have called it surrealistic and still others Freudian. But Jaffery never cared to be labelled. Even though almost all her stories are built around female characters, she never called herself a feminist writer.
Like her contemporary Manik, who always remained controversial and was labelled Freudian, Jaffery was among the first women to boldly write about women’s sexual repression and oppression. About women living behind the thick walls of havelis she writes, “For centuries, the light of the sun has not reached inside and this haveli has never seen the shade of day but only of darkness. It is always night here. Light is prohibited and everlasting darkness encompasses it.”
In the story ‘Haveli Khaan, Hostel Taein’ (From the Haveli to the Hostel), Jaffery explores the sexual experiences of women confined to their homes, such as sexual relationships with female sheedi ‘slaves’ which were culturally accepted because they could not produce children. She also wrote about women engaging in sexual acts with the male children of their ‘slaves’. Jaffery’s powerful pen describes such events as “the grand history of India entering a haveli.” While Sultana, the story’s protagonist, tries to escape the haveli’s suppression, she is again burdened with social taboos as she falls in love with a woman, ending up at the juncture she had attempted to escape. Unlike the distant observation of Ismat Chugtai in ‘Lihaaf,’ Jaffery wrote the story in the first person. Though she shocked many, she ignored the responses. In an interview with Imdad Hussaini she said, “I don’t mind homosexuality. And according to Freud, every person passes through this phase; it is up to them to admit or to deny it.”
Centered on the subjectivity of individuals, almost all of Jaffery’s stories chart women’s ethos and emotions. Although she hasn’t written a lot, her work has had a lasting impact in terms of giving Sindhi literature female characters with intellect and substance. Every extraordinary personality who challenges the status quo, who creates new avenues and vistas rather than following in the footsteps of others, has to pay the price of being different, and Jaffery paid for her exceptional life and for each word that she wrote.
“Most of my tales arise out of the pangs of long nights and end before the dawn when prisoners, betrayed by life, are hanged. At the time, with the call for prayer, my tale too falls down. Escaping the unseen death, I collect the pages, lay them on the chest and celebrate for the coming days by saying happy birthday to myself. Had I not been a writer I surely would have been a death-row prisoner. The days seem to me dark, silent and fearsome. Perhaps that is why my stories fall in the category of pessimism — as if the sorrow of each tale is the sorrow of my own heart.”
At another point she writes: “Without my consent or wish, I [was] born on Thursday, August 17, 1947. There are people who pass time as they wish. But I am one of those whom time consumes brutally. Hence the time will come when Khairunnisa Jaffery will be no more, but right now I don’t have an exact date for that.”
It was March 4, 1998 when Jaffery passed away. She had said, “If anyone visits my grave, kindly bring blank pages, some pens and pan jee beeri (tobacco wrapped in a leaf).” Her words still wander the winds of Hyderabad.