Bheetar, a collection of 35 Urdu short stories, is Humaira Sarwat Siddiqui’s first experiment in writing fiction and it comes across as immensely sincere. The author appears to carefully immerse herself in the fictional characters, examining them before conveying their inner lives.

The title reminded me of my grandmother, born in India’s state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), who used the word ‘bheetar’ frequently to communicate with Bengali-speaking housekeepers because of its similarity to the Bengali word ‘bheetor’, as both mean the same thing: inside.

In this modest volume of 176 pages, the writer paints canvases where individual characters come together to create the socio-political environment of contemporary Pakistan. The stories are short, and I mean short, with some so brief as to be almost flash fiction. Very short stories are hard to write and have more difficulty in holding the audience’s attention, so one must credit Siddiqui for her ability to judge what moments of the human experience should be captured in order to make the point she wants to make.

Stories that capture important moments of the human experience

Bringing out the awkward, the grotesque and the sad without fading into easy condemnation or mockery is what differentiates Bheetar from other short story collections. There are no contemptible shots disguised as twists at the end; the stories observe the trials of life with great tenderness and speak to the humanity in us all. Most are given substance by the first-person narrative; they are confessional, metaphoric and keenly observed.

The flash piece ‘Ajnabi Aashna’ is about domestic violence. It highlights how and why women face violence within the family structure and tries to underscore the responsibility of the society. As an abusive husband accuses his wife of having an extramarital relationship with a co-worker, the tale of a traumatised woman is told through interwoven characters, as a confession written as a stream-of-consciousness in a moment of crisis. It is hard to read, yet impossible to ignore, giving a clear look inside the prevalent social mindset when a male host — who offers a night of hospitality and care — tries to manipulate the situation of a victim of domestic violence. It is a story worth reading.

In ‘Gadle Phool’, Ram Dayal and Champa are cousins who fall in love. Since marriage between cousins in not acceptable in Hindu culture, they attempt to exercise freedom of choice by eloping. Champa is also older than Ram Dayal, again an unacceptable situation. Consequently, the village elders and fathers of the two decide the couple should be killed. In this story, Siddiqui tries to bring issues that disempower women, such as bride-burning, domestic violence and honour killing, to the fore, but her choice of language throws what could have been a very powerful tale off-kilter. She uses Hindi phrases such as “dharm ke anushaar” [as per religion] and then follows up with the decidedly Urdu “izzat ki dhajjiyan bhikair deen” [ripped honour to shreds]. This seems to be an instance of the silent invasion that is taking place through opening Pakistan to Hindi films and television entertainment. Therefore, despite stirring a burning issue, the story falls flat because of the excessive use of such incongruent language.

Written about corrupt police officials, ‘Kala Qanun’ is a voice raised against unlawful detention and harassment. ‘Gandey Nakhun’ is a protest against the human rights abuse rampant at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and exposes the United States’ allegedly anti-Muslim approach and double standards on human rights. Meanwhile in ‘Girhen’, characters experience devastation over the destruction of the great cave sculpture of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Although these issues may not be relevant in national politics, Siddiqui demonstrates an extraordinary technique of story formation and depiction that makes the stories very readable.

The best story of the collection is ‘Sauda’. The protagonist Shabina is a respectable but poor and needy woman. In her struggle to make ends meet, the mother of two strikes a deal with brothel owner Begum Jehan Ara in order to find a wealthy man who can support her financially. Siddiqui paints a most disturbing picture of this brothel, ostensibly located on Karachi’s Napier Road, in a scene where Jehan Ara, Shabina and Jawad gather to come up with an agreement, sketching the devastating effect of the skin trade on an individual level.

Admittedly, some of the other stories don’t quite live up to the mark evidenced by ‘Sauda’. A fiction writer would obviously want her reader to always be emotionally present in the story, but when readers are forced to guess why something did, or didn’t, happen, it causes them to intellectually disengage. Such is the case with ‘Bayan Baaz’. Siddiqui begins the story by saluting the main character for his excellent ability to empathise with other people, and she expresses her admiration by saying “I salute you” in English. Then all of a sudden, she segues into a collection of quotes, disorienting the reader and showing complete disregard for the protagonist who devolves from an intriguing character into someone vague and uninteresting. Instead of remaining present and engaged, readers find themselves questioning the progression of the plot. In this particular story contained within a single page monologue, although the perception has been captured with fine sensitivity, the narrative remains obscure.

The book has some wonderful set-ups that leave the ordinary behind. There is plenty of dialogue as well. Dialogue can often make or break a narrative, and when done poorly in a short story, it can bring the whole thing down. Siddiqui, however, manages to generally avoid the pitfalls; despite some repetition and weak editing in places, she displays an ease with writing dialogue that helps many of the stories flow smoothly.

The writer went through years of struggle to publish the book followed by a name change, and perhaps the greyscale book cover conveys her depression, grief and sadness — colour is often a very obvious way to get a message across. As a whole, though, Bheetar is a wonderful documentation of creative writing in Pakistan.

The reviewer is a multimedia journalist and independent writer

Bheetar
By Humaira Sarwat Siddiqui
Shoeb & Sana, Lahore
176pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 29th, 2018

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