Oxford University Press’s latest anthology of contemporary Pakistani short stories, I’ll Find My Way, is rampant with misguided explorations of our liberal intelligentsia. As if the title itself was not tedious enough, the book is divided into four parts (or clichés): ‘Paved and Unpaved Roads,’ ‘The Meaning of Me,’ ‘Because this is What Matters,’ and lastly, the self congratulatory, ‘The Bravest Place on Earth’.
The best moments in the anthology only occur when the characters seem beyond the control of their authors, and speak to you directly. However, as soon as they jump out of the pages, they are yanked into the bottomless spaces in between the pages by the monotonous ramblings of an incessantly juvenile social consciousness.
The main themes, of course, are post-colonialism, class conflict, cultural anxieties and feminist issues — all undoubtedly pressing themes. Yet they are manifested in intellectually monotonous spaces, for which I would not hold the writers fully responsible (though I would not absolve them either). Perhaps, this is a managerial mistake: curated and presented by Maniza Naqvi, the anthology is jaundiced by a lack of diversity in editorial choices. As a result, all the stories sound like a single drone.
In ‘The Other Elizabeth Regina,’ the financially stricken namesake of the astronomically privileged Queen of England is consoled by a patronising narrator, for her kingdom “had given her a greater share of joys than sorrows ... her own life, like the Queen’s, had been well lived.”
‘A Fool’s Paradise’ reveals the world’s worst kept secret. Written as a monologue, the narrator complains to the reader about the rape and plunder of her assets by foreigners and the strange death of the one person who was supposed to guide her into adulthood. Her yarn is interrupted by a constant repeat of the following sentence: “What is my name, you ask?”, launching reluctant readers into the world’s most childish guessing-game. The story then insists on revealing the identity of this eternally unhappy character.
Similar conceits and clichés are expressed in stories like the rushed thriller Hallucination in Honk Kong’ and the ridiculously long Oscar speech that is ‘Camera’. In ‘Hours, Infinity, Matters,’ love, courage, safety, fun, hope and strength are gamboling minions, assisting the dying protagonist, so she may achieve “infinity in the years that had been given to her.”
Amna Memon’s ‘A Shift in Space’ begins as a reasonable tale of class alienation: in an urban household, Mariam, orphaned by the untimely death of her mother who worked as a maid, is growing up with the children of her mother’s past employers. Things seem rather sweet as they frolic about in their innocence, but as they grow older, cruel reminders emerge of Mariam’s alienation from the only family she can call her own.
The fact that Akbar skips the chair next to her, to sit with Asiya, sets her apart as the lesser sibling, but also suggests a sexual tension that threatens to defile Mariam’s sense of belonging. Eventually, Akbar makes an advance, making it clear once and for all that Mariam is not a family member to him. Brokenhearted, Mariam runs away from him into a self-imposed exile.
Memon sets up the story fantastically, asking questions about what the balance of power means to people, but inadvertently champions a very superficial view of family values. Growing up in Pakistan inflicts upon almost every young boy and girl the consequences of repressing our most unhinged passions into a cultural pressure cooker, and hoping for the best. Where Memon fails spectacularly is in limiting the scope of Akbar’s sexual anxieties to non-incestuous manifestations. Moreover, she presents Mariam as an asexual creature, who is incapable of a passion that will break her away from the cult of family. In doing so, Memon is guilty of presenting Mariam as a lesser character rather than a lesser sibling — a crime for which she unsuccessfully tries to punish Akbar.
This is a common problem in almost all the stories in this anthology: The ‘othering’ of the poor, imagining them as somehow lesser, or different. If one was to ask any of these writers to imagine a beggar, they would imagine him with a limp or a grateful smile.
This is a relatively subtle mistake in Memon’s story, but is crystallised later in the unbearably (and unforgivably) condescending story, ‘Reporting’, in which a glamourous journalist’s dissection of an indignant taxi driver from Lyari leads to the realisation that she “had been wrong in judging the needy as weak” because “their deprivation was their strength — that is, if they want it to be.” At this thought, she feels a sense of pride and satisfaction, but what for exactly?
This book is supposed to be an addition to school libraries across private schools in the country, but what is its message to our kids? Do not feel bad for the poor because they feel superbly about their own misfortunes? Let’s not talk about the tyranny with which our elites exploit the vulnerable, and instead focus on the ‘fearless and hardworking’ nature of the downtrodden? Do we wish to teach them lies, forced out of the mouths of fictitious masons? Shall we talk about constitutional rights, and never mention the police brutality with which every worker’s protest has been decimated in the history of this country? Are we so insanely narcissistic to believe that the condition of the poor will improve only if they play by our rules? And if it does not, then not to worry, because “God has promised them heaven”?
These decrepit stories are neither a testament to the talent of Pakistani writers, nor are they worthy of a place in any library. Obviously meant for an audience comprising mostly foreign and local elites, they are painfully vain, failing to deliver any truth about the complexities of Pakistani society. If there was ever a story to be told about Pakistan, it did not feature in this book.
I’ll Find My Way
Edited by Maniza Naqvi
Oxford University Press, Karachi