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Refreshing candour

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RASHEEDA BHAGAT

Gender and feminism form the backbone of this collection and make it an absorbing read.

And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women, edited by Muneeza Shamsie, Women Unlimited, 2005, p.278, Rs. 350. A STRIKING aspect of And the World Changed, by 24 Pakistani women writers, is the candour, honesty and ease with which some of the writers handle the issue of sex and sexuality in contrast to the hypocrisy, awkwardness and double standards that engulf such issues in the entire Indian sub-continent. Whether it is Qaisra Shahraz's "A Pair of Jeans" or Soniah Kamal's "Runaway Truck Ramp", the readers are taken through the various shades through which our societies and cultures deal with skin and sex. The latter candidly describes the brief but stormy physical relationship between Sulaiman (Sully), a Pakistani student in the United States and Michelle, an American, who criss-cross across the country in a car, and, while doing so, grapple with two very different cultural reactions to oral sex. The former is about the rejection of Miriam by her prospective parents-in-law just because by a quirk of fate they catch her in a pair of Levi's jeans, a vest shrunk after a wash, and a skimpy leather jacket, the entire ensemble revealing "an inch of bare white flesh" at the midrib. So what if the story is set in England. The writer analyses how just a pair of jeans and an inch of flesh, nothing unusual for a university student in the West, leads to Ayub, the boy's father, questioning Miriam's moral character. Begum, his wife, does put up a spirited defence but only to capitulate, because she had always wanted a "conventional daughter-in-law, the epitome of tradition"."The Arsonist", by Bapsi Sidhwa, deserves special mention for its racy, flawless prose and its delightful characters — Freddy Junglewala, the scheming shopkeeper, Putli, his wife, who has to walk the tightrope vis-à-vis his relationship with her mother Jerbanoo, the feisty woman who stays with them, till he suddenly changes tack to drip affection on his wary but vulnerable mother-in-law — and the humour and punch the story packs. The climax is hilarious with Jerbanoo being caught in a fire with the red-faced Irish fire chief unable to understand why the "bloody woman" refuses to jump out to safety. He is astounded at the explanation, which pertains to "the modest Indian lady (the story is set in the beginning of the 20th Century in pre-Partition India), not wanting anyone to get a look up her petticoat."

The right mix

The entire story is an extract from Sidhwa's first novel The Crow Eaters, and contains all the drama, suspense and little twists expected from a good storyteller, which Sidhwa is and you can almost hear her chuckling with you as she takes you through the ridiculous custom of secluding Putli in "the other room" through every menstrual cycle. But you can choke on your chuckle if you suddenly remember that even today, in many of our homes, this pernicious custom prevails."Jungle Jim" by Muneera Shamsie has a lot to be recommended, including style. It is about Lalla and Mahjabeen Rook's fascination for their Uncle Jim with his Western ways. They make his acquaintance in the undivided Punjab, where they arrive from England as little girls to stay with their Nani jaan. He stands apart from their other relatives in always speaking in English or an "awkward anglicised Urdu", and strikes them "quite the English gentleman in his sola topi, tweeds and pipe". While his young nieces are amazed at these qualities, Nani jaan can only recall with scorn that "if his father, the Judge Sahib, had had his way, probably he would have been born in England. The way he carried on, you would have thought anything Indian was a sin. He had to have English governesses, English food, English furniture..."In the introductory chapter, Shamsie gives us interesting information on how there was a time when creative writing by Pakistanis was "disparaged as pointless, elitist and a colonial hangover. This rendered Pakistani women writing in English without a meaningful voice, for Pakistan's flourishing English language press was a man's turf."

Gender bias

Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, Pakistan's first woman columnist, wrote for the English daily Dawn from 1948 onwards. The day she wrote a political piece she was hauled up by the editor and advised to stick to "women's issues". She resigned to start The Mirror, a glossy on social issues. But its "fearless political editorials" resulted in its ban in 1957. Gender and feminism obviously form the backbone of this collection and make it an absorbing read. There is a mix of gentle, satirical, lampooning and hard-hitting criticism of how social and cultural issues, ignorance and illiteracy and blatant prejudices always work against women, relegating them to a lower status in society.But the most refreshing part of the collection, particularly looked at from the viewpoint of how the Indo-Pak conflict invariably degenerates into a bashing of the "other side", is the total absence of any such sentiment.


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