There has never been a dearth of pieces of fiction that deliver enthralling narratives set against the backdrop of the city of Karachi, capturing the metropolis in all its glory. Although such pieces make for interesting reads, they are limited in their scope and lack originality in terms of themes and genres.

This is noticeably apparent when new, incoming works touch upon clichéd, oft-depicted dilemmas and encompass narrow sets of themes. Thus, any piece of fiction that seeks to change this is a breath of fresh air that sets a much-needed precedent for future works.

Tales from Karachi, a slim anthology compiled by Taha Kehar, is one such example. Kehar is a law graduate from the SOAS University of London and a novelist based in Karachi whose works include Typically Tanya and Of Rift and Rivalry. In Tales from Karachi, he puts together riveting narratives that amalgamate multifaceted aspects of life in the city, with underlying truths and lessons.

The idea of compiling an anthology took off when Kehar set up an Instagram page calling for submissions of flash fiction that revolved around Pakistan’s largest city. Many writers enthusiastically answered the call and sent in compelling stories that ranged from 200 to 400 words in length. At the end of the compilation, Kehar has included brief introductions of these writers whose works have been featured in the book.

The book is divided into three parts, each based on different ideas. Part one comprises short stories that echo, in Kehar’s own words, “larger truths that aren’t always apparent.” Part two introduces poetry that signifies Karachi’s connection with its people through vivid, impassioned verses. The last part contains stories and poems that won contests organised on the anthology’s Instagram page. The works collectively allude to a plethora of themes and plant ingeniously crafted, bona fide characters into real-world situations, casting a spotlight on typically obscure truths.

An anthology accomplishes what it set out to do: unravel and collate hidden, neglected tales from Karachi that dig deeper into traditional genres

Flipping through the anthology story by intriguing story, one notices that the theme of tragedy is frequently portrayed, with many works illustrating varying aspects of it. One such aspect is street violence. The Incident, authored by Kehar himself, talks about the protagonist finding out about the death of a long-forgotten childhood friend in a violent mugging on the streets of the city years earlier. Similarly, Pardon, also penned by Kehar, is a stirring letter written by a woman to her ex-husband, woefully recollecting the death of their unborn child owing to violence by assailants.

The poem ‘Karbala’ by Rumana Mehdi is a poignant account of the suicide bombing at the Ashura procession in 2009. Mehdi skilfully juxtaposes excerpts from Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s presidential address in 1947 with elaborate and tragic details of the incident. The hauntingly beautiful verses, coupled with satirical allusions to Jinnah’s address, illustrate how the prevalence of violence in the city is in stark contrast to the very ideals Jinnah stressed upon.

Other works revolve around personal tragedies. Tayyaba’s Tree by Hafsa Maqbool is one such example, incorporating supernatural elements and illustrating the reality of dealing with the loss of a loved one. The Sun Will Set Soon by Sundus Saqib is a first-person narrative that walks the reader across Karachi’s Sea View beach, taking in the sights, sounds and sensations. In essence, the story has a somewhat gloomy air to it, as it deals with heartbreak and conveys how a vibrant, energetic setting can become unbearable for somebody, reminiscent of painful experiences.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of Tales from Karachi is that issues plaguing society are widely explored. At first glance, Lottery by Maheen Usmani appears to be a short, engaging piece of crime fiction with no overarching lessons to be drawn. However, it summons attention to violence among family members over property disputes — in this case, a son murdering his father. Such cases are, sadly, not unheard of in our society.

Drawing attention to another important socio-cultural issue, the poem ‘Language of Whispers’ by Sameer Shah laments about the Sindhi language being “reduced to whispers” in Karachi. It implicitly stresses the need for more efforts to be undertaken to revive the language in the city.

What may come as a pleasant surprise to horror enthusiasts is the presence of numerous horror fiction stories. These spine-chilling tales are different from other pieces of writing that centre on solemn, introspective topics, and thus make the anthology even more enticing. Shadow, by Maheen Usmani, is nothing short of an intense thriller, with the story taking place in a large house dating from the pre-Partition era.

The Banyan Tree is a horror fiction piece composed by Huma Sheikh, centring on the ghost of a young girl living with two elderly women. This sad, albeit chilling, narrative won the ‘Ghosts of Karachi’ competition held on the anthology’s Instagram page in April last year. Tree, by Saif Ahmed, is another short story that won the horror-story competition held in May 2021. Told from the perspective of a witch, it is a terrifying monologue that is bound to make one steer clear of trees at night.

Other commendable pieces worth mentioning are ‘Anything’, a poem by Hafsa Maqbool, that won the poetry competition on the anthology’s Instagram page. A heartfelt tribute, it paints a picture of the metropolis through its unique flavours, sprawling beaches and bustling streets. Meanwhile, The Uncles by Farrukh Kamrani is a brilliant short story that won the children’s fiction competition. Revolving around a group of curious children, it calls attention to environmental issues, culminating in a fashion somewhat similar to the tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Tales from Karachi accomplishes what it set out to do: unravel and collate hidden, neglected tales from the city that dig deeper into traditional genres. The works featured in the anthology embody a diverse collection of themes, integrating novel plotlines that bear striking resemblances to reality. A one-of-its-kind compilation fundamentally different from traditional fictional pieces about Karachi, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The reviewer studies at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Tales from Karachi
Edited by Taha Kehar
Moringa, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9692352420
100pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 16th, 2022

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