Azra Abbas’s memoirs Mera Bachpan, translated by Samina Rahman as Kicking Up Dust, are an insight into the mind of a child growing up in Karachi, but it is a city that appears to be a much different world than what Karachi is nowadays. A significant element of the book is the manner in which the kaleidoscope keeps on shifting as thoughts enter and leave the mind of the author. The way these childhood memories have been captured is indeed praiseworthy, specifically because of the fact that this girl is no ordinary child; her actions and her way of thinking defy the norms accepted by children, especially girls. She thinks out of the box, she struggles to satisfy her wishes and most of the time, succeeds in doing so.
One can perceive the difficulty Abbas must have faced while penning down these memories. To be a rebel child, to be desirous of unshackling unseen restrictions and do what her heart demanded must have been a strain upon her. Yet it was this very curiosity to see the unseen, to know the unknown, and to taste what was forbidden that made her childhood so memorable.
Kicking Up Dust is divided into two parts. The first part — almost two-thirds of the book — is an autobiography of the poet, novelist, and short story writer, and it ends when puberty sets in and childhood takes its first steps into adulthood. The second part consists of selected verses by the writer who dared to step where angels fear to tread. Women’s sexuality, which has been handled so forcefully by writers and poets such as Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz, becomes a tool in Abbas’s hand, a tool to chisel and highlight the entire gamut of womanhood.
An English translation of a well-known Urdu poet, novelist and short story writer’s autobiography captures the rebelliousness of youth and a city long forgotten
Abbas’s childhood was spent in Karachi in the 1950s when the city was safe for children to play outside and ride their bicycles. The streets were the playground where friendships developed. To a reader used to seeing how it is now, it seems to be an entirely different world. A child growing up in Karachi today might wonder whether the place really could have existed as Abbas portrays it: “In my memory the faces of those children are as bright and glowing today as ever, as involved and carefree as on those moonlit nights when, after our romps, we would loiter on that road.”
Readers will notice that Abbas’s memories appear to lack consistency. She herself acknowledges this being so: “Many scenes appear, but some I’m not able to place in a time frame. Did they happen before certain other events or not? I am writing them down as I recall them.” This shifting of thoughts is as per her mood. Abbas, it seems, is making a deliberate effort to pen down her memories in an asymmetrical way. This style enables her writing to assume the innocent veracity that a child possesses.
Kicking Up Dust can be metaphorically taken as shunning the norms on which society rested at that time. Abbas’s passion for dancing, for playing outside whenever she wanted to, the fearlessness evident in her actions — she snatches an alam [a banner carried during a majlis] despite being reprimanded that only boys, not girls, can hold them — and her demands that she be given the same freedom and rights as her brothers vividly show a child who is uninhibited, has strong passions and is fully aware of her surroundings.
Samina Rahman has done a commendable job as a translator. Kicking Up Dust is not a simple book to translate from Urdu to English; its nuances are deep and have a multitude of meanings. To keep pace with the constant shifting of time and place must also have been an arduous task and Rahman should be complimented for having tackled Abbas’s thoughts running at full throttle so successfully. Rahman’s skill comes through even more in the second part as the translated verses show the dexterity of the translator: “If my hands were untied/ I would/ Blacken the walls/ With the scratchings of my dreams/ And let pestilence rain/ And crush this world/ Between my palms.”
My mother always made my frock too voluminous and I would keep pestering her, “Mother, make the hem narrower. I can’t handle such a wide one. I have to hold it up when I sit or stand.” But today I felt the hem too narrow. I am piling all sizes of splinters in the gathers of my frock. The stall owner clears his throat. Maybe he does this when he senses someone near the stall. I mew like a cat. My hands are trembling, but they are no less agile. I run home in terror and throw the splinters of wood in front of mother. “Here, Amma.” My mother raises her head to look at me. I don’t remember the expression in her eyes. I do remember looking up at her after the lentils have been cooked and I am chewing delicious morsels of paper-thin chapattis, to see her resting her cheek on her hand and staring at me with her large eyes, searching for something within me.”— Excerpt from the book
To write an autobiography is a daunting task. One chooses to unveil oneself before the world, peels one’s life apart layer by layer, and unburdens the memories etched in one’s mind. Kicking Up Dust is a formidable read where the author demands of her readers to be alert of mind, to keep up with her frenetic pace as she hurtles through her life, and drink the sweet and sour as it comes. The book takes the stream of consciousness style to another level, and indeed, is successful in making its point clear.
The reviewer teaches English Literature
Kicking Up Dust
By Azra Abbas,
translated by Samina Rahman
Oxford University Press, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2017