Reviewed by Peerzada Salman

Who can write a story with a fixed word count in mind? And just one hundred words at that. It reeks of a predetermined ambition which is not always welcome in literature. Any creative pursuit is generally thought to be a result of a spontaneous expression of feelings. Even if the story is written with an aim in mind, it is almost impossible to know what form it will assume by the time it ends. They say brevity is the soul of wit. But that kind of brevity is to do with aphoristic forms of communication rather than weaving a narrative.

A book of very short stories, Namak Paare is a unique effort by Mubashir Ali Zaidi. It is inspired by, in the words of the author himself, flash fiction (very short story) in general and the 100-word story in particular. There are one hundred stories in the book, all spanning exactly a hundred words. Out of these 83 are translations of tales written in the West and the remaining 17 are figments of Zaidi’s imagination.

When translating the stories from a different milieu, Zaidi keeps the tone of the stories, rather than the words, true to the original versions, whereas in his own short pieces he focuses on the mood, the ambience and the feel that gives birth to the stories.

The efficacy of such a short form of fiction is not debatable. It clearly has its own charm. It stimulates the mind and either leaves the reader gasping for more (if the narrative is powerful) or agreeing with the swift outcome of the conflict. The arguable point is whether this form has the ability to have a long-term effect. And the big question is: can palm-sized stories be bracketed with the established genres of fiction, such as novels, novellas, short stories etc?

Zaidi understands all of these concerns very well. He has a profound interest in literature and being a journalist, he is acutely aware of the importance of time (read: deadline).

In the prefatory note to the book, Zaidi confesses to the difficulties of translating works of art. As a token of his regard for the authors, he has given their names at the bottom of each translated story. But one feels Zaidi is being modest. Some of his attempts are very good. For example, he manages to keep the intensity of Joe Hubbell’s “Blood Sure” intact till the last moment when one of the characters reveals he is suffering from a deadly disease. And doing that using just a hundred words is no mean accomplishment.

The standout feature of the 17 stories written by Zaidi is the suppressed grief over the appalling sociopolitical situation that Pakistani society has been plagued with for more than a decade now. In this regard “Naya Domain” is a story worth taking note of. Firstly, it is contemporary and the author has employed the metaphor of the Internet to communicate his message. Secondly, it reads somewhat like a poem. And finally, despite the fact that the reader can sense its political overtones it surprises in the end.

The book has been divided into 11 sections, according to content: “Ishq Paare” has romantic stories and “Aatish Paare” deals with the idea of death. Each section opens with a couplet which gives away its general theme. The section “Sang Paare” has the following Munir Niazi couplet:

Awaz de ke dekh lo shaed woh mil hi jaey

Warna ye umr bhar ka safar raaegan to hai

(Seek him out, perhaps you’ll find him

The journey of life is futile, anyhow)

The discussion on whether a premeditated word-count story has a place among other revered forms of literature will always have its share of detractors and supporters. But the fact remains that Zaidi has achieved something which is quite rare vis-à-vis Pakistani literature and it is marked by his unflinching belief in the short tale.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

Namak Paare

(Short stories)

By Mubashir Ali Zaidi

Scheherzade, Karachi

160pp.