At some point in life many of us think to ourselves, ‘I wish there were a way to compile and pass on life’s wisdom to my children and their children’ — much of which has been acquired through our own trials, tribulations and general experiences as well as those of others around us.
In Chavanni: Timeless Tales in English and Urdu, social worker and educationist Parveen Shah has done exactly that. This — her first book — is a compilation of very brief stories, most of them only a page or page and a half long, that read like a grandmother’s tales told during long, lazy summer afternoons to eager grandchildren listening with rapture.
The stories transcend different times of Shah’s life; in some she speaks as a child and in others as a grown person. Some are first-hand accounts, some read like diary entries and others are written in the third-person. Some are completely fictitious, while others relate to herself and are written in the first-person. However, whether the tales have been narrated in factual or story form, they are in no way patronising and can simply be read as stories or understood for their underlying connotations.
Bite-sized pieces of life experience, wisdom and nostalgia
This makes Chavanni a unique book of contrasts. In this very slim volume, half of the stories are in English and the other half in Urdu. The process the writer must have gone through in choosing which tales to write in Urdu and which in English is not instantly decipherable. There is no clear demarcation in terms of time or place, fact or fiction — the selection seems to be random at best: “I have no control over my thoughts. I pen them down as they come, irrespective of language,” Shah clarifies in the preface. Having said that, however, her narrative in the Urdu-language stories feels more eloquent, fluid and interesting.
While the tales span 25 years of Shah’s life and are dedicated to her family, teachers and mentors, many of them revolve around her childhood and it is quite evident that she relishes in speaking about that treasured time in her life. And this book, it seems, is an attempt at not only revisiting that past, but also preserving its memory so it doesn’t disappear into oblivion. It is Shah’s way of hanging on to it.
Her long black shiny tresses were the talk of the college and the envy of all her classmates. She had already modelled for a well-known shampoo and hair oil.One day at the hairdresser’s she was approached by a lady, Mrs Nur, who introduced herself as the owner of a company “Wigs for All.” Mrs Nur offered her a huge amount of cash in exchange for her hair. God knows what got into Shiza. ... Then and there she got her hair cut and sold [it]. The cash received was her valuable asset. She stashed it away to buy something exceptionally special. Soon after, Shiza started having bouts of sickness. When tests were conducted the bombshell dropped. Cancer was detected. Throughout her treatment Shiza remained stoic. The only day she wailed was the day when while shampooing, clumps of hair came off in her hand. ... Shiza decided to buy a wig. Taking the money she had kept safely all this time, she entered “Wigs for All.” On seeing her, Mrs Nur rushed to greet her. “Oh, we have the most beautiful wig for you. You will really like it,” and then rather tactlessly she added, “and guess what? It is made of your own hair.” — Excerpt from the book
Marriage and child-rearing are two of the most oft-mentioned themes in the stories. It is true that women in our culture gain a lot of maturity from not only their own experiences, but also those of their friends and other female relatives; in that, Chavanni has quite a few pearls of wisdom to impart that are crisp and light-heartedly written, but at times leave the reader longing to know what happened afterwards.
Chavanni is Shah’s lifelong learning embodied in a few short stories that are as fascinating as they are genuine. Writing such concise stories isn’t everyone’s forte and Shah has done well in narrating the plot and sufficiently characterising her protagonists in the space of few words.
There is no doubt that there is much to be learned from each person’s life lessons, which often come at an expense of some sort. This is precisely why those grandmother’s tales, listened to so intently, are so precious and fascinating. With Chavanni, fortunately, Shah’s children and grandchildren are not the only ones who will be able to listen to grandma’s tales and treasure them. The book will take any reader on a nostalgic journey back into the arms of grandma dearest, cuddling up and listening to her enduring tales.
The reviewer is a former member of staff
Tales in English
By Parveen Shah
Panna Book Centre,
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 13th, 2017