Tehmina Khan’s brief but entertaining collection of a dozen heartfelt short stories, Things She Could Never Have, will prove to be a welcome read for those who enjoy relaxing with a book, but are too busy for heftier tomes or simply disinclined to engage in heavy-duty reading. Perusing Khan’s collection is an especially refreshing endeavour, largely because of the fact that she not only possesses a perfect command over English, but appears to be so attuned to the rhythms of the language that she goes beyond simple near-native competence and writes with genuine grace and sophistication.
Though each story can stand on its own, a couple of them are connected by incidents or figures. The first two tales focus on the lives of individuals from vastly different social strata who just happen to be worshipping at a Shia mosque in Pakistan when it becomes a horrific scene of terrorist violence. Though Khan takes global Islamic extremism seriously — one of the later stories dwells on a Canadian girl’s unhealthy obsession with the self-styled Islamic State or IS — she never allows it to overwhelm the primary concern of her writing: a faithful depiction of the psyches and predicaments of all her major characters.
While the short story genre has not been neglected in Pakistani English writing per se, it is often forced to play second fiddle to novel writing in spite of praiseworthy short story collections by Rukhsana Ahmad, Aamer Hussein and Khaled Saeed among others. Fortunately, Khan appreciates that a well-crafted short story can carry at least as much of an emotional impact for the reader as a novel, sometimes more. Her pieces put the reader through a gamut of emotions as we sympathise with a transgender character, recall our own childhoods on witnessing the escapades of children and wistfully empathise with the sunsets of Karachi and the nurturing weeping willows of Lahore.
A collection of Pakistani short stories in English is marked by its pitch-perfect writing and the empathy it brings to its characters
With a light and deft touch, Khan deals with complex themes such as immigrant woes, poverty, child abuse, sexual abuse and sexual repression, as well as relatively commonplace topics such as culinary tastes and clothing. Set in the late 1960s, ‘The Engineer’s Bride’ describes a typical arranged marriage between a plain, well-educated woman and an engineer who will have to look beyond that which is skin-deep — though the author humorously notes that life is not meant to be an excavation! ‘Come Listen to Me’ takes the form of a type of love letter written by a Hindu woman who lost her beloved during Partition and was eventually compelled to move away from a hostile family and live out her days in an ashram. Peaceful but lonely, the ashram provides for her basic needs, but Mandira poignantly yearns for a love that she knows will continue to elude her for the rest of her life.
Indeed, almost every story is about love — that of parents for children and vice versa, youthful romantic love, love subjected to the strains and trials of marriage, and love for friends and community. Perhaps it is this factor that makes the reader become increasingly vulnerable to sentiment as the collection progresses. While not every one of Khan’s characters is positive or likeable, almost all of them — with a couple of notable exceptions — are justified in behaving the way they do. This logic underlying the emotive aspects of the stories lends an authenticity to the book. The credibility of Khan’s writing thus never loses its momentum.
Since she is entirely at home when it comes to writing in English, Khan displays a lovely gift for apt metaphors and deft figurative language such as “the bus danced drunkenly down the busy streets to the music of the latest Indian hit song” or “[the] murky water of the canal shimmered; the long finger-like branches of the weeping willows traced intricate patterns upon its surface.” Much of her writing derives its power from strong visual imagery, especially since she keeps her sentence construction simple, never allowing convoluted writing to overwhelm either her stories or the reader’s experience of them.
One of the main strengths of the book is the even-handed manner in which Khan depicts material with which she is most familiar. Jane Austen has been criticised for limiting her works to the lives of a few families residing in a few villages, but one should not forget that that enabled her to remain superlatively in control of her writing. Similarly, though Khan’s canvas is broader than a few villages, she, too, does not venture to bite off more than she can chew. As a result of this temperate and wise move, her fiction remains both accessible as well as believable.
He drove past the 120-year-old sandstone Mereweather clock tower and the newly restored Karachi Port Trust building. He found that he had already begun to tune out the symphony of horns that accompanied all vehicular movement on the streets of Karachi. At the exit ramp he did not hesitate to make an aggressive left turn on to the road his parents still referred to as Queen’s Road, now known as Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan Road. He was still a Karachiite. He knew that if he hesitated he would find himself in the middle of the roundabout, while other drivers drove past, cursing him loudly. Karachi driving was not for the timid. — Excerpt from the book
But, unlike Austen, Khan is writing in a day and age when no intriguing character is allowed the luxury of a limited or circumscribed life. Throughout the book, perfectly ordinary people have extraordinary things happen to them, and the experiences — while not always pleasant — are invariably memorable. Moreover, regardless of whether she is writing from the perspective of a child who is sexually abused, a child who watches her cousin get punished, a transgender woman who is rejected by her sibling, a nervous and reflective bride or a mother who loses a child, the author manages to evoke considerable empathy in her readers. One feels as if one is personally witnessing Karachi sunsets, negotiating Lahore traffic, enjoying the natural landscape of Abbottabad or even holidaying in Andalusia, primarily because the author does more than just introduce one to her characters; she implicitly but consistently invites the reader to become the character.
And one does so willingly because Khan’s stories provide many of us with both a means of escape as well as a vehicle for necessary nostalgia. While one does not need to be Pakistani in order to appreciate the tales, they will hold a special place in the hearts of those who yearn to read entertaining modern English-language fiction about their homeland. On perusing Things She Could Never Have, both immigrants and indigenous readers will relish the warmth and intimacy underlying Khan’s work, since it gives one a welcome taste of the essence of precisely what it means to be Pakistani.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Things She Could Never Have
By Tehmina Khan
Mawenzie House, Canada
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 5th, 2018