Literature chronicles life in The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan — an anthology of “fictionalised experiences” that delineate the experience of living through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Edited by Taha Kehar and Sana Munir, most stories in this assortment from 26 local writers depict the unique challenges posed by the pandemic and its repercussions. Navid Shahzad’s ‘The Fourth Day’ ventures into the harrowing nature of an isolated existence during lockdown. Aamer Hussein’s ‘The Garden Spy: A Diptych’ touches upon the stark reality of dealing with a chronic illness during an on-going pandemic. In a similar vein, the eerie ‘The Unwritten Story’ by Wajiha Hyder revolves around a man teetering on the brink of madness as he battles a tumour while confined to his home, since he has been advised against unnecessary hospital visits.

The struggle of keeping one’s spirits up during a prolonged lockdown is a recurring theme. In Tamreez Inam’s ‘The Show Must Not Go On’, a popular radio presenter struggles to maintain an effervescent facade at work while dealing with domestic squabbles at home. ‘What a Time to be Alive’ by Rumana Husain is especially compelling as it takes us into the world of a dyed-in-the-wool extrovert and tenderly draws upon her anxieties and perplexity as she is forced to hunker down at home amid the lockdown.

‘Poetry Shall Wait’ is a memorable piece of flash-fiction from Nighat Dad about a go-getter who refuses to slow down even when the world around her does, while both of Sana Munir’s stories portray the handicaps faced during the pandemic by our barely-functional-as-it-is healthcare system.

One of the most captivating stories is Attiya Dawood’s ‘Unlearning the Ropes’, which lays bare the stark realisation many people had during the lockdown about the unequal division of household labour between the two sexes. An engaging story, it also deftly tackles the domestic challenges posed by social distancing in joint-family households.

In the story, Asim is having a hard time keeping his mother — who doesn’t understand the rhyme and reason for social distancing — away from his kids. Mother thinks this is one of daughter-in-law Minha’s ploys to alienate her from her grandchildren. As a result, the daily domestic spats, already aggravated by lockdown, escalate.

A topical anthology by Pakistani writers illustrates experiences of life upended by the pandemic

The house-help has been let go and Minha is scrambling to manage it all. She must singlehandedly ensure the house is immaculate to avoid her mother-in-law’s barbs, and look after the children and her domestically challenged husband, while managing work meetings online. Tolerating her children’s incessant interruptions, juggling multiple household chores and maintaining a harmonious home environment are just some of the elements that make Minha’s ordeal all too relatable and entertaining to read.

‘Unlearning the Ropes’ and Taha Kehar’s ‘Intruders’ deftly combine the grim challenges of lockdown with much needed levity and I wish more stories in the book had followed this tone.

Many readers will relate to the novel situation faced by a family in ‘Intruders’. A wedding has gone virtual at the last minute, and confusion is rampant. Warring aunties, decked out in all their finery, take to battle on Zoom screens; relatives snidely remark on the necessity of having frivolous weddings during deadly pandemics; technologically challenged family members create havoc and a Zoom-bomber virtually gatecrashes the virtual venue. The yearning for the physical presence of loved ones during a momentous occasion is only somewhat assuaged because, after all, “the internet could only break the barriers of distance by creating an illusion of proximity.”

While the pandemic compelled us to face the possibility of losing a loved one to the virus, in some cases it made us reflect on finding the will to let go of them of our own volition. In Farah Zia’s ‘The Last Letter’, a woman writes a final letter to her husband, severing their ties after realising — after the time they spent in confinement at home — that the real issue between them was ‘not’ him not spending enough time with the family.

In contrast to the stories dealing with sentiments are those that hone in on the situation’s semantics. In ‘Pandemic’, Ilona Yusuf discerns how “lockdown mode” was used not so long ago by the government against the “ancien” regime: “Then sparking satirical comment. Now, grim reality.” The protagonist in Maheen Humayun’s ‘Shadows of the Past’ struggles to make peace with the lockdown even as the word eases itself into everyone’s vocabulary. She tries to dismantle the letters in her mind but fails, until finally “the letters found their footing into the crevices of her mind.”

Natasha Japanwala’s ‘A Slice of Once-Open Sky’ stands out for its striking depiction of how locking people inside can be liberating for the marginalised sections of society. Her protagonist ponders how the desolate streets of Karachi were “both eerie and liberating”; for the first time, the woman finds herself rendered anonymous “in a city where she always felt too visible, and suddenly she wanted the lockdown to go on indefinitely.”

‘Coming of Age’ by Nida Usman Chaudhary is a thought-provoking story about an entitled son of a real estate tycoon indulging in some soul-searching while quarantining at the family farmhouse. When he is wheeled into the intensive care unit of a first-rate hospital and given access to the best healthcare, it forces him to check his privilege. He has a change of heart and decides to use the resources at his disposal for the greater good.

Kehar’s second story calls attention to the plight of at-risk older adults who are used to the hustle and bustle of joint families and are now faced with the daunting reality of quarantine and social distancing. It is a sombre reminder of how the pandemic is compounding their already isolated existence. ‘Those Lonely Lockdown Days’ features a young girl, Zehra, who misses the unexpected bond she formed with the old neighbourhood lady who lives alone. Zehra’s mother forbids her from meeting the old lady owing to the lady’s susceptibility to the virus and fears of Zehra being a potential carrier. True to character, Zehra sneaks out to meet her friend. Adverse consequences follow.

It’s interesting that the editors both have two stories each, while other writers feature only once. And while The Stained-Glass Window has many hits, it is not without misses. Nirvaan Nadeem’s ‘Corona Man’ has a cheeky premise, but the execution falls a bit flat. Iffat Sayeed’s ‘Fertility and Fecundity’ is set in rural Punjab but, despite being an interesting story inspired by local folklore, it sticks out like a sore thumb, since it does not even remotely relate to the collection’s corona-centric theme.

Another quibble I have is that postfaces in anthologies usually run to a few lines about the writers; here, the postface comprised long biographical paragraphs and, in a few instances, took up almost the entire page. This gave the book an amateur feel.

Nevertheless, the book does a valuable service in introducing us to some promising new voices alongside veteran writers, with its kaleidoscopic view of home-grown experiences of living in the times of corona.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan
Edited by Taha Kehar and Sana Munir
Liberty, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729394
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 13th, 2021

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