Talking in whispers

Raja Shehzad’s recent collection of stories is sensitive, raw and bold

Talking in whispers


rdu is apparently the youngest language spoken in South Asia. Yet, the poetry, music and fiction it has produced can claim a place amongst the finest in the world. Thanks to the patronage Urdu received from royal courts, discerning nobility and ruling states, creative souls from the entire region came to use it for artistic expression, even if it was not the first language for many of them.

Looking at the journey of Urdu fiction, one notices that the most outstanding novels and short stories were produced by writers active between the fag end of the Nineteenth Century and the later years of the Twentieth Century. Some of the works have acquired the status of classics. As the Twentieth Century greats passed away one by one, offerings in the realm of fiction continued to be produced at a steady pace, however, the quality of the stories, the variety of subjects and the beauty of expression declined.

Raja Shehzad is originally from Karachi. Urdu is neither the language of his mother nor his father. Yet in his recently published collection of stories, the diction and expression employed by him come out in such splendour that one can’t help but draw parallels with the best works of Urdu literature. Titled Log Sargoshiyon Mein Goya Hain (People are talking in whispers), the collection comprises 64 short stories and a novella.

The collection is unique in the sense that it brings together many impactful stories, most of them no more than two or three pages long, in a single volume. Among the many remarkable things about this book, one is the persistent parade of new characters, each with their own distinct voice. There’s no monotony or repetition. They come from diverse backgrounds, speak in a variety of accents, belong to various social classes and are a motley mix of contradictions, just like people we meet in real life. The lead characters of many stories belong to what we may call a fringe of society. The non-mainstream aspect of their identities can be on account of their faith, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or preference and outlook on life. Reading their stories from the lens of the mainstream, one is surprised by how accessible and relatable their personalities are. In these characters, one frequently comes across images of people one has encountered in real life. It’s like the stories are told from the fringe about the fringe because they do not reduce the mundane complexity of their nature to keep them in line with the simplistic perceptions held about them by the mainstream.

Extemporaneous and candid, the narrative of the stories is sensitive, raw and bold. Zahida Hina, in her endorsement on the back cover, accurately identifies a reflection of Qurratulain Hyder’s style in Shehzad’s stories, particularly in the novella Agiyari. However, his storylines remain refreshingly original. Shehzad has revived many idioms and turns of phrase that have gone out of vogue, but the prose flows effortlessly and is not burdened by linguistic acrobatics. At the same time, he has deftly reproduced peculiarities of accent and expression used by various communities represented in his work. In addition to ahl-i-zabaan Urdu speakers, one can hear Parsis, Memons, Pashtuns, Punjabis, and Goans speaking in their characteristic styles. There are rare glimpses into the way of life of communities that are slowly disappearing. One of the stories may take you into the community dynamics of the Parsis of Karachi and another provides an account of an evening in the company of the last remaining Jewish family in Karachi.

The way the richness and diversity of South Asian culture has been presented shows that the writer’s heart beats to the rhythm of local culture and traditions. The separate yet shared worlds inhabited by people from varying social classes and the resulting interplay of their relationships in the same households, neighbourhoods and cities is portrayed beautifully. Various neighbourhoods of Karachi feature prominently in many stories, reflecting the deep love and pain the author feels for his hometown. However, he also takes us on journeys far and beyond. We hop from different localities in Karachi to Peshawar, from Lahore to Daska, from Mirpur Khas to Sanghar, from Dhaka to Calcutta, from Aligarh to Maunath Bhanjan, and even beyond to Shiraz, Haifa, East London and Mississauga. Accounts of all these places are so alive in these stories that they assume the form of characters. The reader can’t help but believe that the author has an intimate personal knowledge of these places. Incredibly, he has never visited many of them. The sense of place and time comes to the fore impeccably and demonstrates the power of Shehzad’s rich imagination.

One can also discern a lament for the syncretic culture that used to exist in South Asian cities and villages, which is giving way to an environment of hate and suspicion, but then there are stories that highlight living examples of that rich legacy that still exists in smaller pockets of population.

Every time I read these stories, I was left amazed, entertained and surprised by them. If I were to identify the running theme through the book, I would say it’s the tumultuous interplay of human instinct, desire and spirituality, expressed through existential angst, depression and at times, a compromise with the affairs of the world as a tacit acknowledgement of meaninglessness of life.

Amongst other themes, we see heteronormativity being turned on its head. Transgender persons are shown to be consumed by ordinary everyday concerns instead of their gender identities. Strong bonds are shown to sprout in spaces left vacant by the betrayal of biological relations. Evolution is defied when images of former lovers mysteriously reappear in the faces of offspring from new relationships. From behind deeply ingrained biases emerge olive branches. We see hopeless lovers flitting about in all their silliness to the amusement of onlookers. Age-old idioms come to life in unusual ways. Elephants in the room remain unnoticed by all. When all is said and done, people continue to speak in whispers.

It is evident that Shehzad doesn’t withhold his pen from telling it like it is. He neither employs euphemisms nor moderates the thoughts or speech of his characters. You may come across expletives and profanities but never do they sound out of place when you consider the nature of the characters that utter them.

The incredible thing is that, up until the publication of Log Sargoshiyon Mein Goya Hain, Shehzad had been quietly writing stories for decades without ever making a serious effort to get them published. The book is now in the hands of readers but the stories in this book are just a fraction of Shehzad’s creative output. In addition to many unpublished stories that need to be retrieved from his archives, he has a half-written novel awaiting completion.

Here’s hoping that one would get to read more from him in the coming years.

Log Sargoshiyon Mein Goya Hain

Author: Raja Shehzad

Publisher: Maktaba-e-Danyal (Pakistan Publishing House)

Pages: 332

Price: Rs 900

The reviewer is a chartered accountant by profession and an avid traveller and photographer by passion. He has travelled to 85 countries on his Pakistani passport. He shares picture stories from his travels on his Instagram handle @ShueybGandapur

Talking in whispers