The sound of silence

November 28, 2021

Shahbano Alvi’s new anthology comes through with a candid portrayal of our association with people and places

The sound of silence

Shahbano Alvi’s A Woman and the Afternoon Sun is a collection of stories that doesn’t promise explosive plotlines or the thrill of an action-packed adventure. Even so, readers may be prodded to read the 23 stories in this slim volume on account of the author’s ability to weave complex fictional worlds in a quiet, unsentimental voice.

Short fiction opens a portal into self-contained fictional realities that we can only fleetingly inhabit. With the stories in A Woman and the Afternoon Sun, a reader’s forays into these make-believe realms remain brief but rewarding. Each story reflects a voyage between past and present, and weaves a moving mosaic of life’s adversities and absurdities.

Alvi’s debut collection begins with an ode to our troubled times. March 20, 2020, is set in the initial days of the pandemic when few could have predicted how the virus would obstruct the rhythm of our lives. The unnamed protagonist prepares to board a flight at an airport and finds himself crippled by apprehension and lack of knowledge about how to protect himself against the virus. Amid the uncertainty, he finds solace in the comforting words of a fellow passenger. In a world where people-to-people contact has been shifted to the digital sphere, the story is a compelling reminder that our lives will always remain inextricably connected. Alvi tackles the theme with flair and steers clear of melodramatic flourishes. What emerges is a realistic portrait of the optics of fear in a stressful situation.

The subtle shifts in relationships surfaces in many of the stories. Roma builds the lingering effects of heartbreak and abandonment. Haunting in its beauty, Good Morning reveals the terrors and complexities of a marriage that becomes the playground for cruelty. A more nuanced portrait of domestic strife is presented in As The Crow Flew... where a woman converses with a bird about how some choices can handcuff us to an unpredictable fate.

The physical and spiritual emancipation of women remains at the heart of the collection. Using mythology and imagery to great effect, The Slap shows how even a narrow escape from a dangerous domestic life can leave us with invisible wounds. In 49, Victoria Road, we are introduced to a family of women who resist the oppression of their vicious husbands. The story is a paean to the possibilities that come with choosing dignity over exploitation. In the enigmatic yet profound One Day She Walked Into My Room, two women step out of their comfort zones and find contentment. As a counter to these optimistic stories of survival, Cocoon points towards an undercurrent of despair that lurks beneath the precincts of a woman’s sheltered world. The story offers a powerful account of the vicissitudes of our lives as we drift from the carefree passions of youth to the solitary “nothingness” of an unfulfilled life.

The disintegration of the familial ties is also a major theme that recurs in Alvi’s debut collection. However, the author reins in moral judgment and instead explores the pressures that have led to the breakdown of families. Broken Marriage explores the impact of infidelity on a family. The subject is handled with sensitivity and leaves readers with a question that is open to interpretation. In A Man And His Wife, a woman chooses to maintain a distance from her toxic, troublesome mother while Ten People Lived in a House laments the gradual collapse of a large family unit.

It would be a mistake to view the stories in A Woman and The Afternoon Sun as mere meditations on the perils and constraints of the private sphere. If an event shakes the foundation of the public arena, its echoes can be heard in the thoughts and choices of Alvi’s characters. Cocoon makes a reference to Kalashnikovs in the hands of underage boys as they forcibly close down shops on a major thoroughfare in Karachi. The chaotic way of life in an insecure city is also explored in Open The Gate, where the memory of a traumatic incident continues to play havoc on a character’s psyche.

The dichotomy between the erstwhile eastern and western wings of Pakistan figures prominently in a vast number of stories as memories of a bygone era. These memories serve as a springboard for the pain of the dismemberment of the country’s eastern wing in 1971. Through this technique, Alvi captures the displacement and alienation that emerges when a familiar setting becomes foreign and inaccessible.

The author depicts these memories in telling detail – a nod to the years she spent in East Pakistan. Shadows begins with a recollection of the sandy beaches of Cox’s Bazaar that serves as a window into the life of a unique protagonist. The discontentment that accrues from being displaced from the eastern wing is seeded into the title story, which moves expertly between the past and present. The Red Floor contains an exchange between children that reveals the sheer magnitude of the prejudices against Bengalis in the western wing. The story juxtaposes the plight of the Bengalis against another injustice: the maltreatment of a transgender male at the hands of his neighbours. Yusuf builds on the separation of East Pakistan in 1971 from the prism of the underclass.

Distance is a theme that resonates deeply throughout the collection. In Bhalla Sahab, the author views the highs and lows of his titular character’s life from the perspective of an unknowing narrator who doesn’t intimately experience the university professor’s misfortunes. In other stories, distance is achieved by narrating stories from the perspective of animals and trees. This could invite debates about whether Alvi’s stories lend themselves to magic realism. However, the author appears to be using this technique to present a narrative perspective that is untainted by the idiosyncrasies of the human mind.

In the foreword, short story writer Aamer Hussein has compared Alvi’s stories to those of writer and journalist Zaibunnisa Hamidullah as they bring to life the “topography” of East Pakistan. Upon closer inspection, a few stories in the collection remind us of Hamidullah’s The Young Wife and Other Stories. One Summer Night is somewhat reminiscent of Hamidullah’s Motia Flowers. This may seem like a flawed comparison as the former is a djinn story and the latter falls neatly within the category of horror. Nevertheless, the stories achieve the desired spine-tingling effect that readers expect from such stories. In addition, The Old Man’s Crutch and Mango Tree Outside The Window seem to be written in the same vein as Hamidullah’s tales about old age.

Written with deceptive simplicity, the stories in A Woman and the Afternoon Sun bear a distinct clarity of truth and come through with a candid portrayal of our association with people and places.

A Woman and the Afternoon Sun

Author: Shahbano Alvi

Publisher: Liberty

Publishing, 2021

Pages: 150

Price: Rs 660.25

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

The sound of silence