‘The Wandering City’ by Omar Gillani | Photos from the book
‘The Wandering City’ by Omar Gillani | Photos from the book

The Bram Stoker award-winning writer Usman T. Malik’s Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan has been on my list for a while. The genre — horror and the macabre — is a tremendously unexplored area in English language writings of Pakistan, making this short story collection a treasure that firmly establishes Malik as a writer par excellence.

Like the proverbial Pied Piper, the author bids his readers follow him into a world that they seem to know, but with stories that are hiding in plain sight. Haunting, troubling, yet extremely thought-provoking, Midnight Doorways is a rich, intense and oftentimes disturbing walk through the edge of one’s consciousness.

The collection starts off with ‘Ishq’ [Love], a tale of star-crossed lovers set adrift, at the mercy of floodwaters, in Old Lahore. Their love transcends the realm of this world and, in certain aspects, is almost divine. Malik explains this masterfully: “There is an Urdu word, which has no English equivalent: Ishq. It means the state of a lover’s heart during separation, contemplation, or annihilation unto the lover. The point where the lover becomes the beloved. Sometimes it also means nostalgia for a love forever gone, a love that never was, and love that remains after death.”

The imagery is hauntingly beautiful as Malik attempts to capture the specific magic and myth of Lahore’s Androon Shehr [Inner City]. There is none of the overtly clichéd romanticism one often finds in contemporary English language writings — the Old Lahore of Midnight Doorways is raw, inconvenient and mesmerisingly real.

A common fear one has as a reader of English literature by Pakistani writers is that the book will inevitably seem to have been written for native English-speaking audiences. Long passages expounding on cultural aspects specific to Pakistan cause disconnects in the narrative and take away from the plot. So it comes as a very pleasant surprise that Malik’s book does not fall into this trap.

From the narrow alleys of Old Lahore, Malik takes readers to the grand Shalamar Gardens where a floating City has materialised out of thin air in ‘The Wandering City’. Its mystical properties are compounded by the menacing greed and curiosity surrounding it, as Lahoris turn towards it in wonder, fear and opportunism.

Haunting, troubling, yet extremely thought-provoking, this collection of macabre short stories is a rich, intense and oftentimes disturbing walk through the edge of one’s consciousness

Malik reminds readers that, despite this being a paranormal occurrence, reality is often much stranger than fiction. Amidst calls by the prime minister that “ghabraana nahin hai” [do not panic] and a declaration by the resident maulana that the City is an Israeli conspiracy, Malik shows how the relentless business of life is where cruelty truly resides.

‘The Fortune of Sparrows’ is set in a girls’ orphanage housed in a pre-Partition building that used to be a hospital. Bibi Soraiya is this establishment’s matriarch, in charge of the upbringing of her young wards. It is through the curious eyes of one of these girls that Malik sets the scene: “These rooms were ours now and we loved playing in them. There were mirrors above the washbasin and we pretended that people from the past still stayed within our rooms, that the change of morning and afternoon light in the mirrors meant they were stirring and moving about and such cohabitation made us all a big family. The lives of our family spanning centuries.”

There is an overwhelming feeling of isolation as the reader progresses through this story, watching these girls playing baraf paani, as time seems to stand still within the walls of this orphanage. Once again, Malik does not break the pace by stopping to explain the concept or rules of baraf paani. He assumes it to be understood and if not, well, there’s always Google. Malik’s mastery over his words is such that it succeeds in creating a world that runs parallel to ours, but eventually merges seamlessly, making the reader forget what is real and what is not.

‘The Fortune of Sparrows’ by Romaisa Fawad
‘The Fortune of Sparrows’ by Romaisa Fawad

The writer’s prowess with words is evident throughout. In ‘Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung’, he builds upon the immortal folk tale of the legendary King Cobra — “sheesh naag” — and “naag mani”, or the serpent stone. For me, this is one of the most powerful and impactful stories in the anthology, as it addresses existential issues that plague all of us about life, death and the immortality of love.

The narrative has a life of its own, as it is told by a heroin addict in search of death, and an accomplished hakeem [doctor] in search of love: “Sometimes I think life is like a junkie’s flesh crisscrossed where kismet injects other souls into our lives. Souls lost as we are. Who knows if the perpetrator of such accidents is God or the devil.”

The story progresses as these two unlikely people find a common purpose. From Old Lahore, they set off for the mystical city of Uch. The imagery in this story is almost poetic. It is easy to find yourself lost in Malik’s writing, allowing the language to wash over your consciousness, like the water of the Panjnad river that “breathed in and out a shimmering tremulous line below the mud bank.”

With vibrant descriptions, he gives life to the magnificent shrine of Bibi Farida in Uch Sharif; it feels almost as if the reader is there in the flesh, witnessing the electricity in the air, punctuated by a growing sense of foreboding. Malik’s use of language is multi-layered, almost philosophical and, as the story concludes, it leaves readers with much to think about.

One key aspect of Malik’s writing is that, even though his stories illuminate the paranormal, hauntings and horrors of the ‘other world’, there is a deep sensitivity that connects them to reality. In ‘Resurrection Points’, for example, he touches upon the persecution of minorities in Pakistan and how it affects society. He tells the story of a young necromancer in Karachi, who is destined to exist on the fringes of life, until a catastrophe hits his family and he discovers the full extent of his abilities. This young man, faced with the darkness within him, must now reconcile with, and find sense in, the turmoil that surrounds him as he tries to navigate through a city trying to wrestle itself free from the persecution of minorities.

‘The Vaporisation Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family’ is dedicated to the 146 children and teachers killed during the attack on Army Public School, Peshawar, on Dec 16, 2014. Sharply, precisely written, the story zips to and from this world to another, all the while reminding readers that real evil is a part of everyday life. Like a mirror, it reflects the malevolence that exists beyond fables and tales. There is a darkness that engulfs man like a beast, causing him to commit unspeakable acts of horrors, such as suicide attacks and terror killings — something that we have witnessed as a nation.

Malik’s language takes no prisoners, as he clearly defines the ambit of evil: “This is death, this is love, it is the comeuppance of the two, as the world according to you will finally come to an end.” The selfishness, anger and subsequent isolation that leads the perpetrator to commit such terrifying acts is worse than any demon found within the pages of a horror story.

‘In the Ruins of Mohenjo Daro’ unfolds like an adventure. A group of teachers and young cadets, unable to travel to their homes on Eid ul Azha, is off to visit the Mohenjo Daro museum. Malik’s magic transports readers to the group’s bus as it trundles towards the ruins. The story is reminiscent of a childhood spent in Lahore during the bitter cold, as one sat near a fire and listened to older relatives tell tales of hauntings.

Malik recounts several legends that swirl around the site of the ruins, and one cannot help but feel a slight chill: “First: on the Day of the Goat, no one from Larkana district will stay in the ruins past dusk. Not even the watchman.” The author’s mastery over the subject makes his readers feel the unease of being in a place where they have not ventured before. He is generous as a writer and indulges his reader to the extent that one cannot help but lose oneself in the narrative.

Midnight Doorways is a revelation, in that it has a richness that goes far beyond the subject matter. Malik’s references to aspects of everyday life are endearing and unapologetic, and he doesn’t interrupt his plots with translations and explanations. His hold over language and context, and his clarity of thought, are evident. His affinity to his culture and roots shines through. His stories are disturbing, often terrifying, but entrenched in the complexities of what is human nature, and the hope that “[e]ven if ... our puny existence, the conclusion of an agitated, conscious universe, is insignificant, dear love, I believe that Mercy will go on. Kindness will go on.”

Like the brilliant Mohammad Hanif, Malik’s voice is original, emotive and hauntingly real. He is a wizard who casts a spell on his reader, creating a gilded cage in which you will find yourself locked long after the story is over.

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature. She can be contacted at saharshehryar@gmail.com

Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan
By Usman T. Malik
Kitab, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696160588
250pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 18th, 2021

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