Naeem Baig has spent the major part of his life working overseas and away from home and most of the 13 short stories and essays in his collection, You, Damn Sala, reflect this experience. He writes about being a stranger where he lives, as well as about the issues that emerge at home in his absence which affect him despite the geographic distance. The settings of his stories range from villages in Pakistan to metropolises such as Dubai and London.
Baig writes about hunger, the violence in our society, the loneliness and despair of people besieged by social and political changes. ‘Apni Mitti,’ which is one of the most compelling stories in the collection, brings face to face women from two warring sides in Balochistan who have lost their loved ones in the conflict. The tragedy and futility of their mutual hatred is skillfully portrayed. ‘Sattar Bhai,’ another story that stands out in the collection, impressively demonstrating the destitution of a hawker as the expenses of his daughter’s wedding drives him to accept a criminal proposition and he becomes a tool in the hands of terrorists in return for money.
The first story, after which the collection is titled, is about an encounter between two strangers in Dubai, one from India and the other from Pakistan, both equally broke and hungry. Both were forced to leave their homes to escape almost identical social conditions and both landed in a strange country in search of economic relief.
‘Akhri Lamha’ is centered on the death of a jilted prostitute by a self-inflicted gunshot wound as she tries to save her caring pimp from her dubious eloping partner. In ‘Peela School,’ the author endeavours to highlight the fear of change by attempting to demolish the myth that new technology is bad.
‘Raiza Cheen,’ explores a thorny theme through the story of a wealthy man who voluntarily gives away a large sum of money to a beggar out of fear of losing a much larger sum in his possession. Although well-crafted, the story ends on a rather discordant note. ‘Mohabat Aashna’ also depicts a windfall treasure for the protagonist but under different circumstances.
The plots covered in the stories are as diverse as martial law rule in the country; an attempted mugging of a romantic bachelor by a beautiful girl; and school children burning to death in a poorly-maintained school bus.
In general, the stories in this collection have attention-grabbing openings, comprehensive though brief middles, and surprising endings, which are at times too abrupt. They are all written in a contemporary style, amply demonstrating the author’s rich vocabulary, sensitivity and understanding of human nature through characters that are natural, lively and convincing.
It is probably a subjective impression that some of these stories are too short and may have been written in a hurry. Perhaps brevity is the natural manifestation of the accelerating pace of modern life. But there were opportunities in a few stories, such as in ‘Raiza Cheen,’ where more ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ could have made for greater impact.
While going through You, Damn Sala, I could not help being reminded of another contemporary short story writer, Ali Akbar Natiq, who in his (also) lean collection titled Qaemdeen (published by Oxford University Press last year), has treated some comparable themes in a profound manner. Qaemdeen should be a must-read for anyone interested in modern Urdu short story.
You, Damn Sala
By Naeem Baig
Book Age, Lahore