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"While reading Pirani, I felt that even prose can dance.”

To have a renowned poet — the eminent Sindhi poet Shaikh Ayaz no less — lavish such praise on your body of work is undeniably a testament to its quality. However, while Jamal Abro’s original Sindhi prose may certainly have danced, in this anthology of his short stories translated into English, the prose appears to spend the majority of its time hobbling around rather awkwardly, robbing the stories of their poignancy and charm. Such are the drawbacks of translation — the story is being told, but the storytelling is so different.

Pirani and Other Short Stories is a collection of 16 tales and as scholar and retired bureaucrat Gul Muhammad Umrani succinctly puts it in the preface: “...the very essence, pith and marrow of native Sindhi cultural consciousness cannot be transferred to a foreign language of Anglo-Saxon roots.” The tricky nature of the exercise aside, there is also the matter of eight translators. Consequently, each story has a different tone and reading through them left me feeling as if disparate voices were clamouring for my attention. It would have been much better had the work been homogenised by being translated by just one of the several participating scholars — preferably Shafqat Soomro or Jam Jamali.

An anthology of English translations hints at the visceral power of a master storyteller’s craft, but is often let down by awkward word choices

Abro — who published his first short story in 1949 as noted in the book — passed away in 2004 at the age of 80. He was a political activist and a judge in the labour court. For those encountering the writer for the first time, the book includes two profiles on him, written by Asif Farrukhi and Abbas Jalbani, that will give readers a glimpse into the person he was, and help them understand why he wrote what he wrote.

He wrote predominantly on what he encountered in his daily professional life: the social issues and injustices prevalent in rural Sindh. He wrote of societal inequalities, the indignity of poverty and the suffering inflicted upon the locals because of the brutal and unjust customs of the land. His stories spoke of how Sindh, once home to the flourishing and advanced Indus Valley Civilisation, became a haven for corruption, destitution and ignorance.

The collection under review begins with ‘Black Water’, which narrates a tale of havoc wreaked by the flooding of the Indus river on not just the land, but also on human relations. The main character, Soomar, is an old, cantankerous and world-weary man who lost his wife and children in one of the devastating floods and is now condemned to live out his days with his brother’s family. Soomar is somewhat of an ascetic and a pitiable figure, dependent on the mercy of his brother and his wife, and his life takes a turn for the worst as the Indus floods yet again, forcing the people to evacuate their village.

Here, Abro presents a terrifying picture of the natural disaster, as the “water gushed ahead like a mad elephant that had broken its chains” and “men and beasts were living everywhere.” What is truly shameful is that when the government does perform the bare minimum by announcing compensation schemes, these are eaten up by the corrupt landlords; there appears to be no respite for the powerless. The tale ends on a heartbreaking note as Soomar slowly dies of hunger after being deprived of food by his own brother. It is a harrowing account of the lengths the poor would go just to survive.

Another disturbing story is the eponymous ‘Pirani’. Centred on the horrid issue of child marriage, the story elaborates how “many girls are pledged as soon as they are born.” The protagonist Pirani’s family is hopelessly destitute and their only hope of salvation lies in selling off their nine-year-old child. The dehumanisation of this little girl is evident in her father’s lines: “She has lots of flesh. She is no weakling!” It is further cemented when a deal for her entire life and future is struck for the paltry sum of 60 rupees. However, I felt that the poignancy and pathos of the story were often marred by the awkward, stilted translation. I had expected to be deeply moved; instead, I found myself frustrated by expressions such as, “her very vitals cut into pieces” and the description of an unwilling, thrashing Pirani who has been ripped from her mother’s bosom as “bouncing like a rubber ball.”

Likewise, another clumsy translation that irked me particularly was the confusing use of the recurring phrase “let it go” in ‘Flame’. The story describes a labourer’s enthusiasm and passion for life despite his dire circumstances. Reading through it, I felt in some places, “let it go” did not tie all the elements together as it was intended to. In this case, it should have been the translator to ‘let it go’.

I also felt that had readers been allowed to draw their own conclusions, it would have benefited the anthology greatly. Unfortunately, this was not so; at the beginning of each story is an introduction by that particular tale’s translator, which aims to serve as a sort of exploration of that story’s theme. Except that it often comes across as a preachy and patronising lecture to the reader. In some cases, the introductions reveal the entire plot, effectively discouraging one from reading further.

One of the few instances in which the introduction proves necessary is for the tale ‘He was a Hur’. Here, it is a brief description of the movement the protagonist was part of: “a brave rebellion by Sindhi people against the slavery of the British...” We learn that the colonial power’s main tactic to defeat this movement was to officially declare the entire Hur community “a Criminal Tribe by enacting draconian laws.” This short piece of information from history helps us better understand the motivations behind the protagonist’s questionable actions and boorish persona, and perhaps even root for him — although such is Abro’s skill in making us sympathise with certain detestable characters that we might have rooted for him anyway.

‘Macho Man’ is Abro’s attempt to highlight the carnage of patriarchy through the genre of fantasy, and it should be lauded for its experimentation. Here, gender roles are reversed as the guileless, charming and young male protagonist becomes trapped in a ruthless matriarchy. The abuse he suffers at the hands of his captors is exactly what women have endured for centuries in the land. Perhaps the role reversal would help men consider the situation from a different perspective. One can hope.

Abro’s mastery of description is demonstrated as he writes about police brutality in ‘Brigand’ and the barbaric traditions of karo-kari [honour killing] in ‘Hair Parting’. Such lines commend his aptitude for raw, visceral imagery: “when blood gushed from their slashed necks, when severed windpipes made strange noises, when blood sprang out of the exposed veins.” And “her hands were twisted, feet lacerated... her chortles met the cruel strokes of axes.” One can only imagine how these sentences would have read in the original Sindhi.

Stark and painful descriptions are aplenty in almost all of Abro’s stories, and although the content of these tales is agonising enough, these descriptions and Abro’s brilliantly sensitive characterisations serve to enhance the reading experience — if one is able to make allowances for the oft-inelegant translated prose.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Pirani and Other Short Stories
By Jamal Abro
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199406128
124pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 11th, 2018