The modern Pakistani short story in English is a curious rarity. Between the four or five of our most illustrious practitioners of English prose, there are nearly 20 novels and hardly a few short story collections. Aamer Hussein, a less widely read but superior among our home-grown writers, is a notable exception, having proven his fidelity to the short form with nearly a dozen extraordinary collections, in both Urdu and English.
Muneeza Shamsie, in her role as an editor, also brought us an excellent anthology of contemporary short stories by Pakistani women — the first and only of its kind to exist so far. Now, however, the country’s short story corpus is richer by another voice, one that is as fresh as it is formidable.
Set between Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, the six stories in Mira Sethi’s debut collection Are You Enjoying? follow their characters into diplomatic enclaves and humble neighbourhoods, newsrooms and television sets. Then, of course, there are parties, in more than one story: splashy pool ones with actresses and supermodels, and cosy indoor ones with stand-up comedians, queer filmmakers and Marxist professors. In these stories, however, geography is no guarantee of safety, and each milieu is equally predisposed to presenting perils to the stability of the characters’ lives.
In ‘Breezy Blessings’ a newcomer actress strikes up a friendship with a spot-boy on the sets of a television serial. As the two bond over a mutual dispersal of secrets in the safety of the ironing room, the set itself proves to be a far more volatile and hostile environment. The director assures the novice actress that he wanted “someone sweet, even little bit shy” for his play that is “a little violent.” It is no surprise that Sethi, a successful actress and reporter, is able to expose, with precision, the predictable power machinations, sexist contradictions and modes of sexual predation that are prevalent on the set. But just as well, or even to a fuller and more satisfying effect, she sketches the quieter, more tangential aspects of the story: the accentuated auras of the senior artists and their grisly tantrums, the difference between their “hmmm” and “hmm.”
In ‘Tomboy’, a childhood friendship, born out of one family’s financial dependency on another, morphs into something completely unexpected and complex. Growing up, Asha and Zarrar are each other’s safe space. He defends her monochrome kurtas and she validates his “obsession with sketching Madonna.” Eventually, with unspoken but not unidentifiable secrets tucked between them, the two marry — Asha to “clamp [her mother] in a golden — permanent — silence” and Zarrar because his father finds “the idea of a fashion designer son distressing, and only a marriage, to a woman, could dump some dignity on it.”
A debut collection of short stories enriches Pakistan’s corpus of short stories in English with a fresh and formidable new voice
Some of these stories are tethered by vague connections. Mehak Ahmad, the actress from ‘Breezy Blessings’, shows up in another story, albeit not in corporeal form — her picture appears on a scrap of newspaper on which “a shirtless vendor plunged a flour-coated potato” fished out from “a scalding vat of oil.” We are to understand that, by now, Mehak has made it in the industry.
Similarly, an act of gendered violence in one story spurs a protest march in another. Indeed, these connections are superficial, even a bit tawdry, but they attempt to round off pertinent emotional questions that are often left unanswered in most of these stories. Sethi has little interest in offering neatly wrapped resolutions. The conflicts in each story are like distended bubbles that burst before they reach their limits. Most endings arrive abruptly and fall flat — save one — and Sethi’s impulse as a writer seems to be to deliberately deflate, offering, instead of wry comeuppances, something akin to anti-epiphanies, to these otherwise charged tales.
Perhaps the collection’s strongest offerings are the two pieces that bookend it, the title story and ‘Mini Apple’. In the latter, Javed, a television actor-turned-political commentator, strikes up a romance with Marianne, an American diplomat. He is fascinated by her choice “to live outside the Diplomatic Enclave” and he feels “reassured by an American presence across the road.”
Elsewhere, too, peripheral characters share this weirdly idealising sentiment. As their neighbourhood is upgraded from a “dusty expanse” to look like “the suburb of a spotless city”, “Amreecans live here”, they say. “Security is outstanding.” But little else is secure about the surreptitious relationship around which the story revolves and, although the ending feels inevitable, predictable even, it is the only one where the emotional circuitry of the characters’ inner lives feels most complete, pungent with narrative meaning.
In the acknowledgements section, Sethi credits Indian American writer Akhil Sharma’s work as an inspiration for ‘Mini Apple’. On a plot level, the nod seems plausible, yet the mood and tone, even the shape of romance, seem far more reminiscent of a voice even closer to home. ‘Mini Apple’ reminded me more of ‘Lily’ by Daniyal Mueenuddin than it did of Sharma’s ‘Cosmopolitan’.
A comparison to Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders seems convenient, but it is not unfounded, or even unearned. Sethi’s stories, much like Mueenuddin’s, are exemplary exercises in scene hygiene and narrative economy, ultimately rising to crescendos of meaning, yes, but more artful in their record of motion from one moment to the next. And much like some of the characters in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Sethi’s characters are often engulfed by privilege, wilfully patronising, even at the expense and disenfranchisement of others.
In ‘Tomboy’, for instance, Lucy — another foreigner and Asha’s brief love interest — advises Asha on how to live her life and to be honest about her “identity.” Later, she calls her a “coward.” There are also several instances of class-based objectification, without much subtextual meditation — in another moment in the same story, a masseuse walks by “shaking his oily glass bottles” and he grins so broadly that Asha knows his “life was falling apart.”
The delicacy and aplomb of Sethi’s prose often supplants inadequacies of characterisation and narrative blind spots. At their strongest, her metaphors possess the cool simplicity of a keenly observed world: sofas are “covered in plastic like expensive new cars” and legs are smooth “as if rubbed with light.” In their less poised moments, her idioms render reality in an extremely fuzzy manner. At one point, a character shakes “with laughter like a dog shakes after a bath” — even at their most mirthfully vulnerable, human bodies don’t move through space like that.
Sethi’s insistence on italicising Urdu words — dhaaga kababs, kohlapuri chappals — is jarring, too, soliciting a defamiliarising effect rather than achieving one of greater intimacy. That effect is most pronounced in moments when she over-explains — Basant is “a kite flying festival”, for instance — rather than investing in rendering a fully realised world that needs no explanations.
Sometimes the dialogue feels gratuitous as well, as if aiming for a dialectical verisimilitude, but missing it altogether. Consider this exchange, for instance, from ‘A Man for His Time’:
“The bell rang and Hafeez slid his books into his backpack. He whispered in his friend’s ear.
‘Fat b****, can’t stand her.’
‘I wouldn’t f*** her if you paid me.’
‘What about in Indian rupees?’ cooed Hafeez.
‘Dollars, baby, dollars!’
Not all stories in this collection offer equal payoff and some are a little too long, which explains the curious case of formatting. One of the longer tales, ‘A Life of its Own’, is oddly divided into two parts that are separated by two shorter stories between them. I did not question this choice, but its narrative logic remained obscure to me.
But ultimately, much of the substance in Are You Enjoying? is enormously compelling. Sethi’s stories are a real crucible for personal and national feeling, and she evokes a harrowing sense of “lostness” through her characters, who are subject to the everyday ventriloquism of power structures, are at the mercy of heteronormative and patriarchal cruelties, and even socio-religious ones such as hyper-surveillance on college campuses and organised assaults on progressive movements.
Thankfully, there is no sensationalism here, no cathartic horrified thrill, even though there is perennial violence lurking under the surface of most of the stories and Sethi’s characters are how Marianne describes Pakistan: “not without its share of troubles”, but “resilient as hell.”
The reviewer is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Are You Enjoying?
By Mira Sethi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 25th, 2021