“I’m puzzled. You have Khadija and not Hajira,” Qurratulain Hyder — who mentored my progress in reading modern Urdu prose — commented when she looked at a list I’d compiled of women writers I wanted to include in an anthology of Pakistani fiction I was editing to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Independence.

The truth was that, at that time, I’d probably only read one story by Hajira Masroor in translation; but I always took QH’s suggestions seriously, and located a dusty copy of one of her earliest collections, Hai Allah, on a Soas library shelf. There wasn’t anything I could use; the stories, bold as they were for their time in their depiction of burgeoning adolescent female desire, didn’t reflect the themes I was searching for.

It wasn’t until two decades later, when I was given a copy of Sab Afsane Mere (Sang-e-Meel, 2015), Hajira’s collected works in Urdu, that I really discovered her writings. I remember reading ‘Teesri Manzil’, one of her most acclaimed stories, on a flight to Karachi: if memory serves me well, Asif Farrukhi had highly recommended it to me and, in a critical essay appended to this edition, Mumtaz Shireen praised it highly, comparing it to Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I’d never read anything like it in Urdu before. Written in the early ’60s and set in twin apartment blocks, owned by a Gujarati-speaking landlady, it chronicles the doings of the multiethnic, multilingual tenants of one of them.

Most of these, the central male character included, are ‘muhajirs’ from UP, but the focus of their attention (Hajira slyly never adopts her point of view, letting us, instead, observe from different perspectives) is a castanet-wielding, heel-tapping Goan dancer called Dorothy Pereira, who has migrated to Karachi in search of a career, but she has, we gather, ended up working in one of the nightclubs that proliferated in the city at that time.

Spied upon by neighbours who suspect her of immoral activities which they can never prove, Dorothy becomes the devoted second wife of a shoe-shop owner, and dedicates herself to his professional and personal wellbeing.

Several of Masroor’s stories are about migrants in Karachi, whose fortunes have declined, leaving them imbued with nostalgia for a lost lifestyle. Among the most interesting of these are ‘Mol Tol’, in which the protagonist watches the rise and decline of an upwardly mobile male relative, Gullu Miyan, who marries into a family of Gujarati-speaking migrants from Bombay and becomes a booze-swilling casualty of their sordid machinations.

Another one is ‘Kaneez’, in which the eponymous character, after her husband divorces her and takes custody of her children, and her beloved grandmother returns to India, finds herself in the position of a glorified maid, faced with the onslaught of age, with all chances of future happiness lost.

These stories portray, in fleeting images, the Karachi of the time: Civil Lines, Bunder Road, Clifton, and the distant promise of the beach at Hawke’s Bay which we never see.

For all their grim realism, there is also a melancholic delicacy in these stories — the disappointments of the heart, the fading of youth, the sound of leaf-fall in Karachi gardens — which is in marked contrast to those which tell of cruelties inflicted on the female body.

‘Chand Ke Doosri Taraf’, set in a Karachi teahouse, contains a story within a story: a crime reporter listens to Tajdin’s account of his beautiful 18-year-old daughter’s murder; ‘Maut Aur Doodh’, set in the Punjab, deal with the self-immolation of Hindu women in the dark prelude to Partition; in ‘Bhag Bhari’, a woman doctor witnesses the abuse of the titular character, a teenaged servant, by a landlord with the silent complicity of the women in his household; and ‘Ummat-i-Marhoom’, in which a young woman visits refugees in Lahore’s Walton camp — written in 1948 but published later, it is a startlingly prescient picture of Pakistan’s future. (This is one of the few stories in which her way of telling resembles her sister’s.)

One of the most significant aspects of Hajira’s stories is her versatile, flexible prose, which ranges from a rich, dense, modernist style to a starkly lucid and mostly linear narrative mode. She also has an ear finely tuned to the dialects of Urdu we hear in Karachi, and she particularly delights in the vagaries of ‘Bambaiyya’ as spoken by the Bohras and the Memons of the city.

Her early work was compared to Ismat Chughtai; comparisons to her sister are inevitable. Actually she resembles neither, especially in her Karachi tales. If anyone, I’d say that the world-weariness of her first person narrators’ accounts resembles the underrated Rashid Jahan.

The stories above, and others, have been translated by Tahira Naqvi, the doyenne of Urdu translators, in ‘The Monkey’s Wound’ (2022), a generous selection of Hajira’s work. But it has some surprising omissions: to name a few, the very subtle ‘Standard’, a Karachi story in which a woman observes a neighbour whose husband pimps her to a VIP for the sake of his career; the hauntingly beautiful ‘Sharaf Cottage’, in which a married couple encounter a mysterious woman in a guest house; and ‘Ek Aur Naara’, a vivid depiction of a public whipping during the regime of Gen Zia.

Naqvi has, however, included the exquisite ‘Phuar’ (translated here as ‘Drizzle’), in which Farkhanda Khanum longs for some declaration of love from her detached and pragmatic husband. And then a chance memory of a childhood sweetheart she shares with him elicits a passionate response beyond her expectations.

There is no shadow of Partition in this story, no reflection of the grimness of modern life; we don’t even know where the story is set. We just see this very fine writer examining the corners of the human heart in love.

The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 10TH, 2024

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