In Search of Butterflies is an anthology of short stories ably translated from Urdu to English by Saeed Naqvi. A respected author in his own right, Naqvi does a true service to both languages by compiling and editing this volume since the English-speaking world stands to gain much from access to fine literary endeavours in other languages, especially those generally as inaccessible as Urdu. What is especially commendable is that, in spite of the fact that Urdu does not often lend itself to smooth English translations, Naqvi does an admirable job of conveying the gist of each piece with simplicity and clarity. As a result of this, the anthology is eminently readable as well as enjoyable.

Some of Urdu’s most notable writers are represented in the book; a number have contributed more than one tale to the collection. Without giving away vital plots and punchlines, I will briefly comment on some of the best stories — although to be perfectly fair not a single one of them is even close to mediocre. The title of the collection takes its name from one of Zaheda Hina’s works about a young mother sentenced to hang from the gallows; the story’s deep and disturbing pathos arises from her innocent son being utterly oblivious to the immense tribulation his mother is having to face. Hina writes with unrestrained passion and sincerity, although her strict adherence to narrative form allows her to remain in perfect control of her work. Her other story, ‘To Be or Not To Be’, revolves around the almost visceral horror a wife experiences at realising the immense political power her husband wields over the lives of others simply by virtue of his position. Hina’s strong writing finds a perfect counterpart in the efforts of Rasheed Amjad, whose tale ‘The Bird’ is a brilliant study in human neurosis.

The late Intizar Husain’s ‘The Great Mix Up’ contains both the author’s trademark wit and surrealism, as well as the poignancy for which he was famous. A Hindu woman, who loses her husband and brother in a tragically violent manner, gets ready to sacrifice her life before a goddess because she believes she now has nothing to live for. Much to her surprise, her loved ones are miraculously restored to life, but their body parts get mixed up! In just as quirky and surreal a manner, Asif Farrukhi’s ‘Stealing the Sea’ portrays the sea literally getting inexplicably stolen overnight — in fact, just vanishing. Beneath the humour of both Farrukhi and Husain’s pieces lies the fragility and helplessness of the human condition, and the ability of their respective narratives to make the reader laugh and cry simultaneously is testament to how skilful the authors are with words.

An anthology of translated Urdu short stories by brilliant wordsmiths that is a joy to read

Mohammed Hameed Shahid deals adeptly with issues of lust and exploitation in ‘Semantics of Lust’ while Khalida Husain in her story ‘Leaves’ handles some very different themes — sweet nostalgia and genuine affection — with equal aplomb. I was pleased to read a couple of tales authored by Naqvi himself, of which ‘Zero Sum Game’ is especially entertaining. It is about a djinn who grants a human a wish, but also bestows sorrow on him. The plot and characterisation of the tale are equally well constructed and the surprise twist at the end is worth the wait. Meanwhile Syed Mohammad Ashraf in his two stories is able to create genuinely eerie suspense that reminds one of the chilling touch of the brilliant Edgar Allen Poe.

Zakia Mashhadi’s ‘The Cover Faces’ is a superb depiction of the vast class difference between the insensitive elite and the desperately poor. My personal favourite is Hasan Manzar’s ‘An Ode to the World.’ Incredibly dystopian and unmistakably feminist, the tale underscores how sex selection and other such practices gradually result in the disappearance of virtually all women from the surface of the Earth. The grim and inexorable mood set by Manzar, undercut by biting satire, brings to mind a wise Native American saying: “When the last bison has been hunted, when the last river has dried up, when the last tree has been cut down, only then will you realise that paper money cannot feed.”

The most valuable aspect of this collection is that one does not need to know Urdu in order to appreciate the enormous talent that has fuelled these pieces. However, bilingual readers will no doubt be inspired to revisit the original works, or better still, acquaint themselves with the originals if they are not already familiar with them. Naqvi is to be commended on his editing, not simply because of his fine translations, but because he implicitly demonstrates personal sensitivity to the portrayal of a myriad number of themes and emotions. These range from fear and terror to compassion and wisdom. The diversity of religious belief in the subcontinent and the various and unexpected ways in which it can be manifested is also evident from his choices. The martyrdom of a man supporting the cause of the Afghan mujahideen is as well described as the fanatical views of a schoolteacher regarding the ‘infidel’ aspects of Valentine’s Day, even though there is a considerable difference in scale between the two to say the least.

Then the fingers that I saw many years ago flashed before my eyes. Powerful masculine fingers. Clean, groomed nails, blood shining beneath them. A yellow stain between the first and middle fingers from nicotine. Those fingers were turning pages, those lips were reading the words written in those pages. That was the last time I saw those fingers moving, those lips reading. I discovered only today that those strong hands covered in black hair were reduced to mere sticks. Those clean, sensitive fingers and healthy pink nails were replaced by cold, crushed fingers without nails. The fingers that wrote poetry, that wrote a book on the dialectical interpretation of history, that exposed the evil of this century, those fingers became dust.— Excerpt from ‘To Be or Not to Be’ by Zaheda Hina

After his foreword, Naqvi provides brief but useful biographies of all the authors. Taken in conjunction they represent a wealth of experience when it comes to authorial background in general and Urdu writing in particular. Naqvi himself notes that “the thread of humanity” links all the stories to each other in an overarching manner and, while this is undeniably true, it would not be far-fetched to note that so too does a thread of excellence. The reason In Search of Butterflies is a joy to read is because all the authors are maestros and enchantresses when it comes to manipulating language, and the fact that one can perceive this even in translation attests to both their expertise as well as the editor’s literary finesse.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

In Search of Butterflies
Translated and Edited by
Saeed Naqvi
Oxford University Press,
ISBN: 978-0199405701

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 2nd, 2018