Siyani Diwani (Short Stories)
By Noor Zaheer
Maktaba-i-Daniyal
ISBN: 978-969-419-119-5
196pp.

Noor Zaheer, daughter of Sajjad Zaheer — a committed Marxist and member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement — is expected to be an iconoclastic author. What comes as a welcome surprise is that she can also write well.

In Siyani Diwani, Noor has put together 21 short stories which are a pleasure to read but which also make the reader very uneasy as they unfold. The author attacks patriarchy, archaic traditions and customs and women’s acceptance of their position in life. She even tackles more sensitive issues, such as infighting among Muslims as they face pogroms in India, and Hindu-Muslim relations.

Story after story forces the reader to look at the uncomfortable situations that most of us try to avoid. With a clear eye and simple prose, Noor weaves her stories without commentary. The Urdu she uses is unpretentious. She does not want to impress us with her vocabulary. But her words are so apt and so perfectly placed that the stories flow like water.

The use of certain words marks her as an Indian writer, for instance ‘jaankari’. Some common verbs are used in a different way as well, and some words are quite alien, e.g. ‘how bhow’, ‘tempu’or ‘karamchari.’ Nevertheless, Noor’s chaste Urdu flawlessly encapsulates her meanings and each story is delivered to the reader like a gift.

A collection of Urdu short stories lifts the curtain and reveals for us the lives of ordinary people in India, especially its women

Noor’s output has been prolific since her first story was published at the age of seven. She writes in Hindi, Urdu and English and has published five novels, three collections of short stories, two travelogues, 24 plays and has edited and translated many other works of note. Noor is also a classical Kathak dancer, who has performed on stage around the world. For her literary and artistic talents, she has received many prestigious awards, both in her home country and abroad.

With such credentials, when Noor picks up her pen, she does not write about trivial matters. At first glance, her stories, such as ‘Mamooli Larki’, seem innocuous but pack a heavy punch. In this story, a new neighbour watches and admires a girl, who sits and reads in a swing in the flat opposite hers.

The girl’s absorption in her perusal and the consequent aura of peace that envelopes her captivates the watcher. Then one day, she witnesses a scene between the girl and her husband that forces her to reassess the situation. When confronted by the watchful woman, the girl refuses to acknowledge that any problem exists, rejects the neighbour’s help and soon returns to her serene position on the swing.

In the story called ‘Sarrak Chalnay Lagi’, an educated, liberal, mixed-religion couple bring up their only son with the sole aim that he become rich and important. The sacrifices they have made, both monetary and familial, can only be borne if the son is successful in the eyes of the world. Their hopes are dashed when he spurns the path they have carved out for him. After the initial disappointment, the parents realise that the direction he has chosen actually embodies their own most noble impulses.

The subject that Noor focuses most upon is the conjugal scene. Many stories in this book highlight the relative position of husbands and wives. Over and over again, the wife is denigrated, reminded of her inferior status, abused, tortured and even raped. The threat of divorce hangs over her head constantly, like the mythical sword of Damocles. The entrenched gender roles and attitudes render the females helpless. They suffer, but do not consider their lot to be unique or even remediable.

In the title story, ‘Siyani Diwani’, the female protagonist takes matters into her own hands. She devises a method of making a life for herself, despite her circumstances. But her blatant dismissal of all the sacrosanct mores of society label her as mad. No woman can be deemed sane if she defies social conventions. She even loses the sympathy and respect that she has been garnering as the downtrodden and slighted wife.

Since the stories in Siyani Diwani are set in our neighbouring country, the question arises whether patriarchy is quite as virulently present in the ranks of the educated and well-to-do of Pakistan. Among the poor and illiterate, the oppression of females is nearly a given in our country, but things have changed somewhat in the case of women who are schooled and more upscale. Most of Noor’s stories centre around educated and relatively financially stable couples. Yet, the traditional stereotypical gender roles are etched in stone even in their lives.

In several stories, there is also a strain of overt male hatred. The minute a man is introduced into the plot, tyranny, cruelty and unreasonableness can be expected. This is neither a likeable aspect of the tales, nor is it realistic.

‘Cigarette Wala Mazar’ is the story that epitomises this concept. In this story, a 10-year-old boy, dependent on his mother for everything, enforces his dictatorial rules over all his female relatives and they are shown to bow down to his will, out of habit and societal pressures.

The special feature of the collection is that it presents the reader with an array of diverse characters. Noor has a vast repertoire and she grabs the reader’s attention by continually bringing interesting personalities to the fore.

We learn about Hindu superstitions, which are followed in the face of all evidence to the contrary. We read about Syrian Christians who consider themselves to be the most superior brand of Christians in India. We are introduced to people living in Mumbai, in Bengal and in Gujarat. This variety adds to the appeal of Siyani Diwani.

Without meaning to do so, Noor provides the Pakistani reader with something that is difficult to come by. Bollywood films with their jingoistic messages are unable to do so. But Siyani Diwani lifts the curtain and reveals for us the lives of the ordinary people of India.

We are enthralled by this glimpse into our neighbour’s world. Although all of Noor’s topics are not pertinent to the time and place in which we live, she does discuss many universal truths and familiar themes, and the quality of her prose makes the entire collection easy to read and to like.

The reviewer is a freelance writer, author of the novel The Tea Trolley and translator of Toofan Se Pehlay: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 31st, 2024

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