The bond between India and Pakistan is often woven out of poetry and prose

A few summers ago — actually, winters, considering we were at the Jaipur Literature Festival in mid-January – noted Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie expressed a fervent wish to come to India every year, maybe, even more than once a year. “If only the visa regime was relaxed…”

While Shamsie is a much-in-demand author in India, quite popular at literary meets, seasoned poet Kishwar Naheed, in fact, is not too far from being a rage. For proof one just has to attend one of those mushairas organised around this time of the year. A couple of years ago, on a visit to New Delhi, she fought cold and cough to attend a soiree where hundreds waited for her to recite her kalam. Much like Zehra Nigah, who for all her work for television serials in Pakistan, is principally a poet who loves coming to India to attend mushairas and meet up with her fans. Clearly, for all the political vicissitudes, Indians cannot have enough of Pakistani writers. Now, Rakshanda Jalil, never far from an author’s pen herself, has edited a book that has some good, really good, writings from our neighbouring State besides equally thought provoking fare from this side of the border. Simply called New Urdu Writings from India and Pakistan (Tranquebar), this is a collection that teases you, nudges you, and ultimately grips you.

It is scarcely a surprise to find Rakshanda opening the collection with Joginder Paul’s Short Short Stories. They live up to their word and to the author’s stature. It is, however, quite interesting to find Noor Zaheer and Anjum Usmani keeping the venerable Paul company. Noor had caught attention with My God is a Woman a few years ago. The book evinced interest, as much for the title as the content. On the other hand, Anjum, a veteran television producer, had come into limelight with four award winning collections of short stories. Barely a note of controversy there, just good old school work that got the nods it deserved.

Interesting as the Indian collection is, my sights, indeed, my main interest, focussed on writings from Pakistan. Fortunately, the anthology’s second half lives up to the expectations. While some contributors are well known and keenly followed, others are not quite as familiar to Indians who access Urdu writers through English translations. But truth be told, while I liked many of the stories, notably those by Nikhat Hasan and the venerable Intezar Husain, there is none, repeat, none that has the felicity, the trenchant insight, the subtle humour that laces Fahmida Riaz’s ‘Did the Pink Pigeons Win?’. While on Fahmida, my introduction to her work was many years ago when I was in school and perchance saw a collection of poems and short stories by Pakistani women writers in the famous old books market in Daryaganj. I picked up the book, partially out of curiosity, largely because of Fahmida, who at that time had taken refuge in India to escape the political establishment in Pakistan, and occasionally made news with her rebellious writings here. On that Sunday, I stood transfixed with the book in my hand. For more than a while, I read Fahmida as she equated women’s condition with that of grass which is constantly trampled upon. “Be like the grass,” Fahmida advised, “which raises its head the moment the foot is lifted”. “Be like the grass,” I repeated quietly. The message left a deep imprint on me.

In this collection though, Fahmida is a lot more subtle, poised, dealing in understatements. Yet from Alam Ata to Karachi, she strings a tale. Her brevity stands out, as does her ability to spin stories without too much apparent drama. Like the river in the plains, her works thrive on depth. Here too, she talks about issues of identity, nationalism, and above all, feminism. Through Bibijaan, she tells us there is a future for widows as there is for unlettered women. Pick up New Urdu Writings from India and Pakistan to discover a world that has waves all its own.

Now, if Shamsie and the rest could be assured visas, won’t that be delightful for all book lovers?

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