“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [women’s writing] is unequal to me ... sentimentality, their narrow view of the world ... And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” The words of Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul about the writings of women echoed in my mind when I encountered some very controversial statements regarding the Sindhi short story.
“The Sindhi short story has been shot and killed,” said Abdul Qadir Junejo, the renowned writer and popular playwright, when Naseem Kharal was shot dead. The reverberation of this verdict could be heard in almost all the debates and discussions around the future of the Sindhi short story. People wondered whether to accept or refute this proclamation.
However, it was observed that during this debate, which extended over two decades, there was hardly any reference made to eminent female short story writers in the list of ‘great’ short story writers of the time. Nevertheless, along with Mahtab Mehboob and Noorul Huda Shah, a few other female short story writers could also be seen in arena of Sindhi literature but they were forgotten when it came to cataloguing ‘great’ writings.
Hyderabad-born Mahtab Mehboob belongs to a family of Kalhora Pir. Her father was the sajada nasheen of Mian Sarfarz Kalhoro. Mehboob, the prolific author, creatively engaged in multiple genres: short story, novel, travelogue and columns. Her book, Chandi Joon Taroon (Silver Shackles), which appeared in 1970, was the first-ever collection of short stories by a female writer in Sindhi. Her second collection, Pirh Khaan Pahreen (Before Dawn), appeared after a short break of three years (a third addition of that book appeared in 1999). However, Mehboob’s third book, Mithi Murad (Sweet Accomplishment), succeeded in drawing serious attention from her contemporaries and was appreciated by writers like Hameed Sindhi, Naseem Kharal and Amar Jaleel. The book simultaneously earned recognition from critics too.
The canvas of Mehboob’s stories is not very broad in terms of public life and the complexity of subjects. Her stories are taken from the private milieu of common households. In her short stories, Mehboob is at her strongest in creating characters, picking them up from the everyday life of common folk. By keen surveillance of the life around her, Mehboob sharpens their characteristics through conversations and the subtle use of idioms in the dialogues, phrases and the colloquial language of women. Thus neither slogans of revolutionary freedom nor wrapped in the deep sense of women’s oppression, the stories of Mahtab Mehboob are as ordinary as the culture itself.
“I had a lot of response from my readers, even though I do not use fancy language or throw in a lot of philosophy in my writings,” Mehboob says about her work. “I am a simple person myself and I write simple and ordinary stories about the sort of people I know. What I write comes straight from my heart. I try to depict feelings which are true and plausible. A single line written with true feelings and from the depths of the heart is better than heavy tomes.” Mehboob doesn’t believe in the unnecessary burden of profound theories and subterranean intellectualism but in simple expression. Human norms with all their all oddities and weaknesses are prominent in her literary style. Nonetheless, the dialogue dipped in humour and satire can be sharp as knives and Mehboob does a postmortem of her characters so that we can explore their complex psychologies.
Focusing on women confined to the four walls of a household, Mahtab artistically illustrates their agency in bargaining for some breathing space in the very patriarchal society. In Mithi Murad the young fourth wife of an old landlord asks for divorce when she comes to know that the ‘rais’ (landlord) is unable to have a child. The wounded patriarchal ego of the landlord allows her to have an illicit relationship with anybody in the havelli rather than have his impotency exposed. In Chandi Joon Taroon a hysterical woman finally finds an escape and elopes with the man of her dreams when her wealthy landlord parents fail to find her a groom. ‘Sureet’ (Mistress) is the story of a woman experienced in ensnaring wealthy landlords and police officers in love affairs. She knows how to have many affairs simultaneously. With cunning and shrewdness she manages to deal with two of her lovers when they encounter each other in her home.
Mehboob’s travelogue, Ander Jinen Unjj (An Inner Thirst For Them), was the first text to cover the distance between Sindhi writers of both Hind and Sindh. The book appeared in 1981 when Mehboob visited India on the invitation of Sindhi writers there. It was the first ever contact made by Mehboob, a Sindhi female writer, among the men of letters across the border. Thus Mohan Kalpna, a renowned writer, called Mehboob the first lady of Sindhi letters and said that she has the same stature in Sindhi literature as Amrita Pritam in Punjabi, Ismat Chughtai in Urdu and Mahadevi Verma in Hindi.
Despite the fact that Mehboob knows all the giants of the world of letters of her time — from Sheikh Ayaz to Rasheed Bhatti and Pir Hussamuddin Rashdi to Hameed Sindhi — she neither adopted their political philosophies nor was inspired by their literary style. Rather, she has been honoured by the great poet Sheikh Ayaz to write the preface of two of his books. In the preface of his poetry book Mehboob strongly defends Ayaz against the charge of petty compromises to accept the offer of vice chancellorship offered by the first Bhutto government. “The post of vice chancellorship was not a bed of roses but was a difficult task to fulfill,” Mehboob argued, denying the charge of any compromises. “The poetry of Ayaz has proved his commitment and devotion to his art,” she said.
“Not the prism or the magnified glass but literature is a mirror for Mahtab, therefore her stories are free from any exaggeration and are transparent, clear and real,” said Rasheed Bhatti about Mehboob’s work. She herself admits, “I have no ideal nor any inspiration but my natural tendency led me to the uneven path of literature which later become my responsibility.” At one point she wrote, “Now I can’t judge myself, how I performed my responsibility, but I never tried to impress my readers by claims that I am the only who is wounded by all the social ills, be it class struggle, social injustices or hypocrisies. I think every sensitive writer’s job is to go through the same painful feelings.”
In 1996, in her novel Khawab, Khushbo Chokri, Mehboob explored the controversial subject of a girl affected by HIV. She insisted that her focus is moral corruption in urban areas, the deterioration of social values and the breakdown of families and family system. This novel not only became popular among readers but was also taken seriously by both critics and admirers in literary circles.
For admirers, this novel has opened the readers’ eyes to how the family system and social values are gradually becoming weaker. However, some people criticised the subject matter, which is still believed to be a social taboo, and said the book cannot be kept in homes. Mehboob defended the novel with profound and plausible arguments: “If I had wanted, I could have filled the novel with pornography to make it a sensation as that is the way this issue is being treated these days. I wanted to prove that you can tackle even the most sensitive issue in a manner which is neither dirty nor titillating. I do not think that [sensationalising is] bold literature; it is sick literature and writers should not dip their pens in dirt.”
Amar Sindhu is a Sindhi language poet and teaches philosophy at Sindh University, Jamshoro.