24 Dec 2017


One book I most enjoyed reading this year was a freshly translated selection of Ismat Chughtai’s short stories, Quit India, which chronicles the period before, during and after Partition through the lives and relationships of ordinary middle- or working-class people; Muslims, Hindus and Christians, too. That was in October, when I attended a panel that focused on Chughtai’s literary influence. Zehra Nigah and Arfa Syeda Zehra, in a talk chaired by Asif Farrukhi, discussed all her best-known stories and her sweeping novel Tehrri Lakeer [Crooked Line]. The consensus seemed to be that Chughtai was at her best when she wrote of her roots in Uttar Pradesh in the rich, colloquial language of her childhood.

What, then, of the powerful stories Chughtai had set in the slums of Bombay [Mumbai], the city where she spent much of her writing life? And her novels of the 1960s about the Bombay film industry — raw, caustic and sophisticated? What of the compelling novella, Jangli Kabutar [Wild Pigeon], about a privileged woman who must deal with her husband’s second marriage, also with Bombay as background? My favourite Chughtai novella is Dil Ki Duniya [The World of the Heart], but it’s hard to say the Bombay stories ‘Kachche Dhaage’ [‘Brittle Threads’] and ‘Hindustan Chhorr Do’ [‘Quit India’] are less important than her short stories set in north India.

I didn’t bring this up; I was not a speaker on the panel. I’d made my appearance that morning in a session about Muneeza Shamsie’s magnum opus Hybrid Tapestries. I read a fair number of Pakistani writers in the ’80s and ’90s, locating out-of-print copies of their poems and fiction on the shelves of the now-defunct Commonwealth Institute. I am certainly no expert in the field; Shamsie’s work always serves to introduce me to writers I wouldn’t otherwise know. I’d spent a few nights delving into the final chapters of her book, but it was the early sections that evoked memories of home in me — not just the texts they described, but because I’d seen, met or known of so many of their authors in my 13 years in Karachi.

Atiya Begum, her artist husband Fyzee Rahamin and Zaibunissa Hamidullah were familiar faces at social events; Maki Kureishi — not famous yet — was an acquaintance of my parents; Shaista Ikramullah was a close family friend who took a great interest in my reading habits and packed me off to the British Council when I fell short of new books to read. Ahmed Ali was married to my mother’s cousin Bilqees Jehan, who had translated some of his fiction into Urdu. We had friends from the world of Urdu letters, Jamiluddin Aali and Z.A. Bukhari; and from the visual arts, Laila Shahzada, whose daughter was my schoolmate and Ahmed Saeed Nagi, who lived by the lake just a short walk away from us. There was Sadequain who did a sketch of my mother which she abandoned in a storeroom, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz who was in Karachi through the mid-’60s, though I wasn’t introduced to him until the mid-’70s and that was in London.

It isn’t always a city that brings a story to life: more often, it’s the story, in its intimacy of detail, that brings us the living pulse of the city’s inhabitants, past and present.

Late that October night, as I read, my mind went on a journey, listing the names of writers who lived in Karachi then; Ghulam Abbas, Amina Nazli, Shaukat Siddiqui and Hajra Masroor made their homes there. Qurratulain Hyder and Nisar Aziz Butt worked on some of their finest fictions in Karachi before moving away, while later memoirist Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri, from whose sister’s boutique, Bambi, we bought our clothes, and the exquisite poet Ada Jafri moved there too.

How richly populated the Karachi arts scene was with incomers then, people who, for one reason or another, made homes and put down roots there. For many, the city didn’t become central to their vision as it would for a much younger generation of writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Bina Shah and H.M. Naqvi. Can Karachi lay claim to that early generation, or were they merely birds of passage? And where would her location place Chughtai, who — as I wrote above — lived in and wrote about Bombay for so many years? What of Saadat Hasan Manto, who left Bombay to relocate to Lahore where he is buried?

And I — included in Hybrid Tapestries as a Pakistani-English writer. Can London claim me, or will my roots always keep me grounded in the city by the sea?

My own father was born in Karachi, as was his father, but neither of them lived there much before Partition. Grandfather was prime minister of Bahawalpur before independence and seems to have had homes in Delhi and Dehradun as well as his family seat in Shikarpur. My father wandered between those places and also lived in Oxford, Aligarh and Lahore as a student. My newly wed parents settled in Karachi in February 1948. Apart from a few summers spent in India, it was Karachi I lived in; it was the hinterland of my imagination, and my younger sister’s, too. But I’m often told that the city of my past, which I wrote about in a handful of early stories, is only a generational memory.

I return often to Karachi. Images of the city as it is today are superimposed on my memory’s screen, but it’s the still the capital city of my mind. A year ago — 17 years after I’d last returned, in fiction, to the time of my childhood — I found myself returning to that period in the ’60s when I was growing up there. What I recorded, though, were not my own reminiscences, but my mother’s daily impressions, in her own words, from a journal of her musical life as she was taking singing lessons then. The immediacy of her entries reminded me yet again that it isn’t always a city that brings a story to life: more often, it’s the story, in its intimacy of detail, that brings us the living pulse of the city’s inhabitants, past and present and carries us to other places — dil ki duniya — wherever we might happen to be as we read.

The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 24th, 2017