not so reluctant fundamentalist
Collage of legal aliens
Shivani’s stories are both intoxicating and intriguing
By Bilal Ibne Rasheed
Anatolia and other
By Anis Shivani
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press, New York
I became interested in Anis Shivani’s writings when a friend recommended one of his critical pieces, The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers. His inclusion of Pulitzer Prize winners Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz and The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani in the list is enough to spark anyone’s interest in his own writings.
Anatolia and other stories is his first collection of short stories. The book engages the reader even before he/she has started reading it. The book cover is a collage of several images: Burj al Arab with a camel in the foreground; a lute with some embroidered shawls (or may be rugs) in the background; a woman’s face who is probably gazing into a crystal ball; a Vietnamese (may be a woman) riding a bicycle; an image of a painting of a Mughal or probably an Ottoman prince riding a horse; an intricate architectural design; and a world map. The stories in the book are as diverse as the images on the book cover. We are transported: from contemporary Dubai; to eighteenth century Turkey; to "revolutionised" Iran; to post-independence India; to Texas; to an unnamed ship meant to repatriate fifty to sixty million people; to a creative writing workshop in America.
Shivani’s knowledge is encyclopaedic and his understanding and description of human emotions and the subsequent thought-processes these emotions trigger is remarkable. Most of his characters are thinking individuals and though ambivalent they do not get swayed by the current of their emotions. Although Shivani’s characters come from a variety of cultures and time periods there is commonness among them. Most of the characters are uncomfortable with the societies they live in, the cultural norms they have to adhere to and the kind of people they have to deal with and yet they are not frustrated to the extent to take a radical decision of any kind. Some of the stories deal with immigrants who appear to be more comfortable in their adopted societies and cultures than the natives.
Shivani’s stories do not "hook" the reader right from the start. Instead we have to work our way up to a couple of pages before we are enwrapped in a melancholic ambience which is both intoxicating and intriguing. There are no twists in the plot and no surprise endings and yet the stories are absorbing and engaging and the reader feels sympathy for the characters and their sufferings.
Shivani’s command of the language is admirable and it appears that he does not bother about one of the so-called cardinal rules of contemporary fiction writing: shun every adjective possible. "His Lauren, petite, indecomposable, untouched by the debilities of age, a tight bundle of warmth and energy and empathy, with a prodigious memory for every nuance of debate and scholarship, and the ability to finesse seemingly opposing points of view into a fluid conglomeration of reconcilable ideas."
Although all of the eleven short stories in the volume are remarkable in their own way, however, according to this reader Repatriation is the most powerful and engaging story. Unlike most of the stories which are around 25 to 30 pages in length, Repatriation is only 8 pages long. The story is told by an unnamed male narrator who is on-board a ship which is meant to repatriate several million people from America to Africa. The story is told like entries in a personal diary starting from September 2 and ending on September 21. The unnamed narrator tells us, "All that you’re reading is in my head. I’m not actually writing. I memorise a certain number of words a day. Everyday I repeat all that I’ve memorised so far. Books -- let alone writing materials -- are strictly forbidden, discovery punishable by instant death." The story is narrated with a calculated aloofness which leaves the reader shocked and feeling totally helpless. "The baby will be thrown overboard with much hooting and jeering by the captain’s mates. The captain himself gets to do the honors … Then it’ll be Diana’s turn. But first she must regain consciousness. No one can be processed for death unless they’re conscious. That’s the rule of law."
Having read Shivani’s début collection of stories one certainly looks forward to reading his forthcoming collection and also his first novel The Slums of Karachi.
Sunjeev Sahota’s debut novel is a wonderful narrative of a would-be terrorist
By Huma Imtiaz
Ours Are The Streets
By Sunjeev Sahota
Price: PKR 1090
In his debut novel Ours Are The Streets, Sunjeev Sahota lays bare the diaries of Imtiaz Raina, a confused British Asian of Pakistani-descent who becomes a God-fearing, explosives-loving person within a space of months. While the premise of the novel seems rather hackneyed "boy goes to Pakistan, feels out of place, falls in with bad lot and ka-boom: becomes radicalised". Sahota’s narrative and tone sets the novel apart from the fictional and non-fictional accounts of terrorists hailing from the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.
In a scene where Raina meets a man in Kashmir, Sahota’s acerbic wit shines through:
"I nearly said England, but caught myself. ‘I mean, no. No. I’m from Lahore.’
He looked doubtful. ‘You are not a ferengi?’
‘I’m a Lahori.’
He thought that over and tries to convince himself. ‘I can see it now. It is in your eyes.’
I’d been expecting a wise man of the river. But he were just a fraud.
‘The ferengis, they look but do not see. They are looking at me all the time, wanting to take a picture with me, but they do not see me, you understand? They are a blind people.’
I could feel this strange panic start to clutch at me. ‘Why let them take a picture with you, then?’
‘Rupeya! Why else? I have to smile for them. You think I would let them touch me otherwise? I have heard they do not even use water to clean their arses after the toilet.’"
Sahota takes the reader on a journey or a memory trip, interspersed with snippets from Raina’s present. As he goes through his journey that is meant to culminate in him ending his life, the reader learns about the events that have led Raina to reach his decision, and the role of his family as he struggles with the decision he has made, and the journey he has set out upon.
Sahota also takes care to keep the language true to British slang used by Raina’s real life contemporaries -- although, one does wonder how many British men of Pakistani origin do speak like that; surely at some point it becomes a caricature?
Nevertheless, Sahota’s debut novel is food for thought: how many real men like Imtiaz Raina are out there, who are going through the same experiences with identity, racism and a desire to call a place home? As the reader goes through the book, Raina’s inner conflict comes to life on the pages. However, one does feel that there have been far too many novels that have tried to look into the minds of the reluctant, and not-so reluctant fundamentalists -- and laced with heavy tones of earnest seriousness. In this respect, it was perhaps the dark comedy film Four Lions released earlier last year, which was far more evocative than Ours Are The Streets. In a scene from the film, the character Omar, a would-be terrorist, asks after his associate accidentally blows himself up: "Is he a martyr or is he a jalfrezi?"
However, Sahota must be commended for his effort -- in a world of literature where terrorism has become the must-have ingredient in many a novel, Sahota does manage to set himself apart from the rest. His themes of identity and belonging will resonate with the Pakistani audience that has been witness to hundreds of men landing in the country that has become a global export hub for terrorism, who leave to wreak havoc on countries that were for the better part of their life, home.
Ours Are The Streets is available at The Last World in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.
Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at [email protected]
Two people in a room
Harold Pinter had a very thorough theatrical background. He began by writing poetry, studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Central School of Speech and Drama, and under the stage name of David Baron embarked on an acting career which led him to a Shakespearean company followed by years of strenuous work in repertory theatre. He began writing plays in 1957.
Although he became well-known for his television plays, Pinter is a man of the theatre. His theatre is essentially a poetic theatre (more so than the verse drama of people like Fry and Eliot). Most of the time, he is pre-occupied with man at the very limit of his being. In his play, The Dwarfs the protagonist says:
"The point is who are you? Not why or how. You are the sum of many reflections. How many reflections? Whose reflections? Is that what you consist of? What scum does the tide leave? What happens to the scum? I’ve seen what happens. The scum is broken and sucked back. I don’t see where it goes. What have I seen? What have I seen, scum or the essence."
His first short play, The Room contained many of the basic themes and a great deal of style and idiom of this later, more successful plays. The chief poetic image of the play is a recurring motif of Pinter’ work. As he himself writes, "I am dealing a great deal of the time with this image of two people in a room. The curtain goes up on the stage and I see it as a very potent question. What is going to happen to these people in the room? Is someone going to open the door and come in?"
The starting point of Pinter’s theater is a return to the basic elements of drama: that is a stage, two people, a door, a sense of an undefined fear and expectation. His first full length play The Birthday Party is an extension of his earlier pre-occupation with "a room and two men." The menace is there but the melodramatic effects have been replaced by a far more sophisticated structure of events as well as characters. The two characters who enter "the room" (a dingy boarding house kept by a slovenly but motherly old woman) are a sinister pair of strangers who are after the central character, Stanley, who has taken shelter from a hostile world in the seedy boarding house.
The door opens. The two sinister visitors want to rent a room in the boarding house but it soon becomes clear that they are after Stanley. Are these two men emissaries of some secret organization he has betrayed? Or male nurses sent out to fetch Stanley back to an asylum? Or are they representatives from another world? The question is never answered.
Some critics have interpreted The Birthday Party as an allegory of the pressures of conformity; others have seen it as an allegory of death -- man snatched away from the home he has built for himself by the dark agents of nothingness. The play simply explores a situation which gradually becomes more and more menacing. It speaks plainly for the individual’s pathetic search for security, of secret dread and anxieties of the terrorism of the world.
Any attempt at the possibility of an overall allegorical interpretation of Pinter’s play pre-supposes that they have been written (like Shaw’s plays) to express pre-conceived ideas. Pinter emphatically denies that he works in this manner.
Pinter’s plays are neither comedies nor tragedies. If you must assign a category to him he would fall into the genre known as "Theatre of the Absurd." He provides comedy by the brilliant small talk behind which his characters hide their growing anxiety. These characters that are living at the edge of their existence become engaged in desultory discussions of trivial news which are supremely comic and terrifying in their absurdity. The tragedy in his plays arises from the lack of understanding between people of different levels of awareness.
Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005. In his extraordinarily brilliant acceptance speech at the award ceremony, he spoke briefly about his approach to playwriting:
"I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. This is what they said. This is what they did. Most of my plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image."
The play that brought Pinter his first great critical and commercial success was The Caretaker. The theme again is the fight for a room of one’s own. This particular room is in a decaying property. It is inhabited by a kindly man (and his brother) who has brought home a visitor for the night. The man, a tramp, has not only lost his place in the world but his identity as well. To prove his identity he has to go to Sidcup but he cannot go there because he has not suitable shoes and because the weather is never good.
Davies, the tramp has a sickening mind. He is almost offered the job of a caretaker but he cannot resist the temptation to play the two brothers off against each other. Davies is a personification of human weakness. He is irascible, he is prejudiced and he is mean. In the words of Martin Esslin, an authority on the Theatre of the Absurd, "Davies’ ejection from the dingy room that could have become his world assumes almost cosmic proportions of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise. Davies’ inability to resist any chance to impose himself as superior is, after all, mankind’s original sin".
Pinter died three years ago. One of his greatest contributions was to make us aware that the plays of the champions of social realism were no different from the "well-made" plays of earlier times. Playwrights who preach social realism pre-suppose that they have solutions for problems (of mankind) that have not yet been solved and that if certain limited objective were reached we could all live happily ever after. This, Pinter maintained, was an oversimplification. He thought that social realist dramatist fall into the same error as a drawing room comedy that ends when the boy gets girl – at the very point when their real problems, marriage, and the process of ageing begins.
Pinter, a major force in contemporary theatre, declined a British Knighthood in 1996 when it was offered to him by the Tory Prime Minister, John Major. Many in the media shall refer to him as Sir Harold Pinter.