#DesiBooksReview 2: The Urdu Afsana Meets the Anglophone Short Story in Farah Ali’s Debut

#DesiBooksReview Issue 2

People Want to Live by Farah Ali | McSweeney’s Books, USA | October 26, 2021
Reviewer: TALIB JABBAR

“What’s fair?” asks the title of the final short story in Farah Ali’s debut collection. The question lingers over each of its fourteen stories. It is a provocation to dare to understand a life stricken by its circumstances and yet brimming—vital, intricate, involved. 

Ali has known she was a storyteller from a young age. And though this is her first collection, some of these stories have been published elsewhere and some have won awards. It is exciting to see another contemporary Pakistani woman to join the short story tradition of Pakistani literature.

The Anglophone South Asian novel has been the target of global praise and literary criticism since at least the 1980s. Its Pakistani subset has been led by the likes of Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, and Mohsin Hamid, among many others, especially writers in the diaspora. The Pakistani short story tradition had its heyday in the Urdu afsana in the decades preceding and succeeding Partition and the establishment of the nation-state. Then, feminist writers like Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai, along with others part of the Progressive Writers Movement, tracked the cultural politics of the new nation. Perhaps the most revered Urdu short story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, wrote incisively about the Partition and portrayed lives of the downtrodden—often tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless damning of his society. Underlying these afsanay was a leftist agenda that endures in their writing but is as much about depicting the internal worlds of its inhabitants. Partly, the genius of the afsana is how, in such a short span, it is endowed with much detail and packed with conviction.

In Ali’s collection, there are the finer details that recall Pakistani life, like the boundary wall of a house with shards of glass set atop to stop burglars, or the enjoyment of apricot preserve while staring out at the turquoise water of the Hunza valley. Yet the stories are entirely contemporary, grasping the conditions of a neoliberalizing country in the twenty-first century, unequal and imbalanced, diverse and dangerous. It is party to the new Anglophone afsana, drawing on Urdu traditions but joining more recent collections, such as Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and Mira Sethi’s Are You Enjoying?

These stories are populated by poverty, trauma, grief, mental illness, malaise. Rather than a moral account of these characters’ lives, Ali portrays the very human motivations that lead often to wreckage or out of it. There are lives full of absence, marked not only by indigence but also a lack of joy and meaning. Relationships are often transactional, sometimes fraught, with the obligations of society and family. The plots themselves are character-driven—they contain Pakistanis with a “Pakistani sensibility” (which, inevitably, doesn’t quite exist) in a Pakistani context (which is vast, but particular.)

Ali offers her characters voices that mark their proximity to the city or place where their lives unfold. The level of address serves as a register for how close or distant her characters are to Pakistan and to one another. Multiple stories employ the second person address. In ‘Tourism’, an unnamed protagonist leaves Karachi to visit Gilgit-Baltistan, and the overall tone and structure of the story reads like a pamphlet scattered with intimate details of the tourist as well as advice: “You must give yourself some time to get used to the altitude, to acclimatize to your escape, to ease into your freedom. Take a Xanax and go to sleep.” The lighthearted address marks the Karachiite as a stranger to the region, an internal migrant, especially when he comes into contact with a local woman who knows the name of every turned rock.

In ‘Foreigners’, an older Pakistani couple visits the American embassy as part of their visa application process to visit their daughter. The couple isn’t given a voice and the entire story is recounted through the American’s unbroken series of questions and commentary. There is a narrow border of plastic between them, and the air of formality kills any genuine connection the Pakistanis and the American may have had. The American describes their city as a “disorderly mess.” It’s an aside from a foreigner we have heard before. And he keeps reminding them that “I’m the only one allowed to ask questions here.” The story highlights the one-way relationship in which the American holds all the power of address. But the American also divulges that he is having his own marital problems and seems to present his thoughts as if confiding in an old friend. The reader can sense—even through the American’s voice—that the Pakistanis seem to sympathize but aren’t allowed to express themselves. The tension between emotions and verifiable facts guides the awkward exchange. In the end, the Pakistanis will be foreigners in America, even at the American consulate, and the American man is a foreigner in Pakistan. And in that foreignness, there is a likeness. The second person “you” is jarring and accusatory at times, and though the story does not overcome the distance initiated by this address and mono-voice dialogue, there is still a momentary desire to overcome that distance, to see one another as people—even if foreign, distant.

Bounded by the lives of their characters, the stories stay close to their habits and daily encounters. But the larger world is always at the margins, be it American economic power or public acts of violence. Ali’s Pakistan is global, where Pakistanis go abroad for education or to visit family; a nation populated by its people, not its religions or politics. Certainly, there are extant politics within the stories, but they don’t feel politicized. The political is not outsized, as it is in everyday conversations about Pakistan outside of the country. The world at the margins never overwhelms the interior world of the characters. 

What we think is a political kidnapping in ‘Present Tense’ turns out to be a husband leaving his family of his own volition, for his own personal reasons. And in ‘Heroes’, a family loses their son to a senseless act of violence. The mother, Salma, is invited on a talk show and is expected to play the role of the grieving mother who is against violence for the community, but she refuses. Instead of playing the “hero” or martyr for the nation, she becomes the anti-hero, not representative of anything but her own anger and loss, abating the politics as usual.

Together, the stories cohere into a depiction of a multiethnic, multilingual, class-segmented, sometimes violent, and vast nation that is still becoming. The stories recall one another—in one visual and metaphoric link, the plastic partition in the American consulate in ‘Foreigners’ recalls the glass of the eponymous ‘Bulletproof Bus’ that the protagonist longs to drive. And violence literally bookends the collection: the first and last sentences describe gunshots: in the first, a son is “shot dead in the street,” and in the last, “the sound of a gunshot, tearing through the night.” 

So, what’s fair in Ali’s Pakistan? 

Fair is a manmade concept—her characters understand this. Their world is an unfair place full of unfair people, affected by the weather, violence, longing, mental health. It’s an exhausting world. But, ultimately, it is marked by that human impulse and will: to live. 

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Talib Jabbar is a doctoral candidate in literature and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His current research examines racial and sexual formations under American empire in Pakistan and the Philippines. He is an associate editor at Zócalo Public Square.


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