Often, when I’m bored with the books I’ve been reading or with the enforced solitude of lockdown, I return to my shelves for collections of fables, folktales and wonder tales from many cultures and in many languages.
I have a special predilection for Chinese tales of the uncanny, particularly because so many of those — such as Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio — are not retold from traditional or oral sources, but written in a finely calibrated style, long before the modern short story established its formal hegemony in the realms of world literature.
Today, though, I’ve finished the last story in Midnight Doorways, by our very own fabulist Usman T. Malik. This book, for which I’ve waited for a year, arrived in my mailbox three days ago and has been beside me ever since. I call Malik a fabulist here because he’s subtitled his first collection Fables from Pakistan. The stories in it may well be described as tales, but however we choose to describe them, they are fine examples of contemporary short fiction — imaginative, gripping, rooted in a recognisable present and beautifully written.
You won’t find talking birds, flying horses or magic carpets here (though there is a mysterious city that lands in Lahore). Instead, these are stories of lost and blighted loves, dark dreams, journeys fraught with dread or filled with wonder, bombings and terrorist attacks, set within the terrain of Pakistan: the bazaars of Lahore, the seaside in Karachi, the mountains and valleys of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The characters are ordinary people, rendered extraordinary, even demonic, by their experiences with drugs, abandonment, betrayal and despair. The settings are orphanages, shrines, police stations, or the very ordinary homes of people engulfed in jealousy, bereavement and despair. They are set apart from the conventions of realist fiction not merely by their engagement with a genre — and, though I read Stephen King, Peter Straub and others with alacrity in my youth, I hasten to say that I have no intimate knowledge of any genre — but their usually unerring mastery of both suspense and wonder.
Malik has an ability to poise his fictions on the brink of known worlds and dreams, particularly those that turn, before you know where you are, into distorted visions, peopled by nightmare figures.
Malik has an ability to poise his fictions on the brink of known worlds and dreams, particularly those that turn, before you know where you are, into distorted visions, peopled by nightmare figures, which you see as vividly as a film. In stories such as my favourite, ‘A Fortune of Sparrows’, we wander in and out of these midnight doorways; in another favourite, ‘Ishq’ [Love], disease, jealousy and the ravages of love play as great a role as any suggestion of the supernatural. There are stories of metamorphoses: ‘Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung’ combines the very bleak cityscapes of heroin addiction with charismatic qawwals, a lost love and an enigmatic female figure.
But I don’t want to retell Malik’s stories here. Let me turn back to a morning when, just over a year ago, after a session with Romesh Gunesekera at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), a young man rose and asked Gunesekera some searching questions about his journey as a writer in the England of the 1980s and ’90s. Since this was a journey familiar to me, I went up to the young man in the green room of the Alhamra and asked him whether he, too, was a writer.
He disarmingly confessed that he had no idea who I was, but as we spoke and he told me his name, I vividly remembered a compelling novella, The Pauper Prince, which, way back in 2015, had been highly recommended to me by Wasio Abbasi, another writer friend and diehard advocate of what today is labelled fantasy. Over the next two days of the festival, Malik and I chatted at various points. After a session in which my recent Urdu collection of stories was introduced by my friend Asif Farrukhi (whom I never saw again), Malik told me he’d read a lot of Urdu as a youngster, and even written in it. We both admired Khalida Hussain, though Malik said that today, as a working doctor, he barely had time to keep up with literary pursuits.
Back in London, I asked Malik in an email where I could read more of his stories. He sent me various links and I read on, as the pandemic approached and then lockdown overwhelmed us. I was captivated, intrigued by the variety of themes and approaches and the rich texture of his writing, which sets him apart from any writer of his generation I know. I asked him why there wasn’t a collection yet; I certainly wanted to see the stories in one volume. He nonchalantly intimated that he hadn’t given it much thought.
The lockdown in Pakistan and Britain prevented me from returning to Lahore. We kept in touch; Malik’s medical knowledge kept me aware of the situation on the ground and of the moment when it was safe to return. I was back in September 2020. We met and discussed New Genres, virtually, in a session organised by LLF — I was in Islamabad and he in Lahore. A couple of days later, I drove almost directly over to see him in Lahore. I think it was then that he told me that he’d not only finally agreed to publish his first book of stories, but that, instead of waiting to be picked up by a foreign publisher like so many of our writers do, he’d decided to publish it right there in Lahore, with illustrations by local artists.
It’s a beautifully produced book. I have read comments by young bloggers of how it fulfils a local need for imaginative fiction that local writers have not, so far, been able to meet. I’m sure that’s true. But I celebrate the publication of Midnight Doorways for other reasons, too: the entrance of such an unusual talent into the world of short fiction in any genre (and I wouldn’t care if he never writes a novel), and the beacon that a publication of such high standard holds up to other publishers, and to an upcoming generation of writers, in Pakistan today.
The columnist is a London-based novelist and short story writer
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 4th, 2021