The collection is about acute loneliness where one is completely divorced from the world
Ushering in the era of lockdowns and hygiene protocols in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic did not only push the whole world to the brink of a collapse but also exposed the great divide between the North and the South. For centuries, pandemics have inspired oral storytelling as well as written works. We have been able to feel the agony and to unlearn it. We have learnt to turn to writing and literature for familiarity and solace.
In Pakistan the ideas about the origins of this pandemic have ranged from fantastic and dangerous to mildly hilarious. There have been no great movies about the asphyxiating effect of loneliness. The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan, edited by Sana Munir and Taha Kehar, is a compilation of 26 short stories that deal with loneliness, death, compassion, loss and love.
The whole anthology is about our conscious and subconscious experience of the lockdowns and their memory. Like the light that passes through coloured window panes, the stories take on the colour of the medium. So do our moods, which in a way are a reflection of what is happening around us. The authors include the likes of Naveed Shahzad, Aamer Hussain, Attiya Dawood and Nirvan Nadeem. The characters in these stories are connected by a singular backdrop, Covid-19.
The Fourth Day by Naveed Shahzad deals with the prolonged sadness of waiting. Written in lyrical prose, the story traverses over the period of a single day the routines of a woman and a man who is introduced only as a memory. Shahzad depicts the personalities of her characters through a reverie. Consider these lines from the story: “A search of the apartment revealed no photographs, no documents, no books, diaries, records of any kind, except meticulously filed bill receipts, but for which, one would have thought that no one had ever lived there.” The lingering memory is palpable. The story relates in a poignant way how isolation renders one paraplegic and handicapped. The ghosts lurking in the shadows come to the fore in times of deep isolation. Gulmohar House, The Unwritten Story and Shadows of the Past similarly deal with the days past and, submerged in someone else’s routine. The tasks one leaves to somebody else, one finds unfinished.
The stories, like the light passing through coloured window panes, take the colours of the medium. So do our moods, which are in a way a reflection of what is happening around us.
The anthology also addresses various social and financial problems from the points of view of women, men and children. Women in the households, as well as various professions are the ones to handle the baggage of all relationships. In many situations patriarchy leave them incapacitated. Stories like Unlearning the Ropes, Gulmohar House, A Dead Daughter, Motorcycle and A Slice of Once Open Sky deal with women in different settings, different social backgrounds and having different levels of education. The common thread that connects them is what they have gone through and how unwavering support they provide keeps the entire households and professional lives going.
This collection of short stories makes a case for women. The pandemic related lockdowns resulted in a higher number of cases of domestic violence being reported. In some places the numbers quadrupled. Unfortunately, a person associated with religious piety speaking on television in the presence of the prime minister blamed the pandemic on women’s immodesty.
Out of twenty-six writers featured in the collection, twenty-one are women.
The book stitches together accounts of various aspects of lockdowns. It handles the anxiety of the upper middle class and the elite. Intruders, for instance, is about how weddings and festivities were hampered by the lockdowns and how families had to shift celebrations online. It’s about a couple wanting a destination wedding but getting an online wedding instead due to the pandemic. Coming of Age deals with the financial anxiety of a young businessman, who is a son of a business tycoon. If the author had wished the rich to appear more humane, the story fails to achieve that. Their giving seems patronising and unconvincing.
The Stained Glass Window presents characters and situations from many backgrounds. The War Zone is an account of crumbling infrastructure at a local hospital. The differences between descriptions of public and private hospitals are stark. How people from minority communities suffer on account of prejudices is also highlighted. Nowhere to Go by Awais Khan describes the agony and anguish of a well-off man in his forties, losing his job and his mental health.
The Stained Glass Window is a compelling collection that examines various aspects of acute loneliness and isolation. It reminds one of Anthony Bourdain where he says, “Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.”
The Stained-Glass Window
Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan
Edited by: Taha Kehar and Sana Munir
Publisher: Liberty Books
Price: Rs 995
The reviewer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore