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FICTION: THE ARC OF FLYING WOMEN

September 16, 2018

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Browsing the shelves of a local bookshop, I came across a volume with an interesting cover image: an empty boat on still water surrounded by patches of water plants. Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women by Sana Munir. The title intrigued me, symbolising as it did the idea of flying unrestrained, emphasising the importance of freedom in every facet of life. I read the blurb and honestly speaking, did not know what to expect. I’m not fond of short stories, but lately I had read Shobha Rao’s heart-wrenching collection An Unrestored Woman, and it gave me high hopes for Munir’s book. The fact that it was by an author of Pakistani origin was an added incentive.

Munir does not disappoint. Her anthology of 10 tales of Pakistani women showing resilience and endurance, although fiction, puts faces to the lives of women who experience loss and brutality, are chained by societal pressures, yet respond with strength, fighting their small battles everyday in pursuit of a better life.

Given the culture, tradition and patriarchal mindset of South Asian society, many women face discrimination of various kinds, be it in marriage, in the workplace, or from opposition to living on their own terms. They are challenged by cultural and social taboos which do not allow them to go beyond an invisible line set by the so-called samaaj [society]. In the event that any woman dares to cross the line, she must hear that most commonly used phrase, loag kya kahein gey? [what will people say?]. As such, it is important to realise that for women, fortitude is never an option; it’s a reality of existence.

An anthology of short stories revolving around women offers a compelling, poignant and inspirational read

The stories take up issues ranging from child marriage to ‘honour’ killing, domestic abuse and child sexual abuse, to choosing to stay single and gender disparity. Interestingly, the female protagonists are not portrayed as damsels in distress. No matter their caste or creed, they are shown as anything but the ‘weaker sex’.

Each story is named after its central female character, followed by a short sentence that captures the essence of the tale. The collection begins with Farida and takes one to the time of Partition, the horrors of which are vividly examined through the eyes of a displaced little girl. In Patiala, rioters burn down her house and murder her father and Farida must migrate to Lahore with her grandfather, the only surviving member of her family. In a heartbreaking passage, Munir depicts the confusion of a child at comprehending the enormity of the situation: “Farida spotted stiff rolls in black, but could not understand what they were. As she went closer, she realised that they were, in fact, human bodies.”

In the next story, Reema is raped at the age of 10 by her uncle. Her childhood is shattered by this incident and it takes years for her to heal. Habiba is about a girl living in a small village in Balochistan called Nushki. Her father, brother and cousin kidnap people as “assignments.” Habiba defies the strict code of purdah and takes food to a hungry captive; as a consequence she is killed by her male relatives in the name of ‘honour’. Nazia is a divorced single mother who escapes her abusive husband only to find herself ostracised by a society which considers her the ‘guilty’ one. Meanwhile, Beena, a diehard fan of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, is a highly educated professional and well aware of the difference between real and reel life. However, as a woman she yearns for small gestures of love from her husband only to have her request for expressions of affection — made on their fifth wedding anniversary — dismissed.

Making a baby stretches the skin, brings wrinkles to the face, darkens the skin’s pigment, takes away a part of one’s youthful beauty, gives a woman cellulite and makes the skin sag. It makes the cervix and ovaries prone to diseases. A woman either becomes obese or weak. She loses blood for over a month. She suffers from sleep apnoea. She stays up all night to tend to the newborn and works dutifully all day for the rest of the family, for months at a stretch. A man cannot spend even a day like that, can he? There is a reason why men don’t have a womb — they would not be able to handle all this. Bearing daughters is not a burden on the mother, but a privilege. Every time a woman gives birth to another, she is possibly channelling another mother into the world. — Excerpt from the book

These stories are, to some extent, realistic and often grim. However, all is not misery and tears. There are also tales of some absolutely independent women who have learned to take care of themselves; Maria, for example, believes she has the right to make her own informed choices. A wealthy prostitute, she entrances Baseer, a carpet-seller much younger than herself. However, she is very much aware of reality and of the fickleness of love and so chooses her solid reality over fanciful dreams. Meera, a professor, refuses to cave in to the pressure to conform and get married and instead pursues her dream of becoming a successful writer. There is Summi the soldier’s wife. Her husband has been deployed in North Waziristan and is considered a most brave soldier, yet he believes Summi surpasses him in valour, spirit and selflessness when she must deal with a mother driven to lunacy because her son was massacred because of Summi’s husband’s mistake. And then there is Zainab, the mother of Eeman who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Zainab has been sidelined all her life for being a daughter, but when she becomes a mother herself, she comes to realise that daughters are, in fact, a blessing in disguise.

In Unfettered Wings, her second book after her 2016 debut novel The Satanist, Munir displays a lucid and riveting style of writing that keeps one hooked. She is adept at depicting life in a gripping, hard-hitting manner that lets her prowess at storytelling shine through, although there are a few chapters where the author appears to lose her grip and the ending seems rushed and abrupt. Despite these occasional setbacks, though, the book is overall a compelling, poignant and inspirational read.

The reviewer is a freelance writer, an avid reader and a blogger

Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary
Stories of Ordinary Women
By Sana Munir
Rupa Publications, India
ISBN: 978-9353040543
216pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 16th, 2018