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Writing like a miniaturist

In Khalida Hussain’s latest collection of short stories, her strong advocacy of the feminine voice in fiction has become prominent

Writing like a miniaturist

Khalida Hussain has been writing fiction for many decades and it can be said without fear of a rebuttal that she has maintained her stature as a serious writer all these years. Her latest book of short stories Jeeney Ki Pabandi testifies to the above claim since it sensitises the reader to many aspects of our daily lives that would otherwise go unsaid, unstated or unformulated.

Hussain is a writer not of broad strokes or sweeping large canvasses, but like a miniaturist she dwells on what may appear as minor and of no consequence. These ordinary events, daily occurrences of no apparent value, and the routinised behavioural patterns that otherwise go unnoticed, considered unworthy of literature are made significant by her.

Actually this is the true merit of a writer; it is not the subject but the way it is treated. Added to this quality is the test of the text’s time and space, and its ability to evoke the reality of the era that is being written in. This is exactly what happens with Hussain, for it is very easy to place her work in the here and now and the various attitudes that have developed around these contemporary issues.

She is a writer not of broad strokes or sweeping large canvasses, but like a miniaturist she dwells on what may appear of no consequence. These routinised behavioural patterns that otherwise go unnoticed, are made significant by her.

Something else that has become more prominent is her strong advocacy of the feminine voice in fiction. It appears, and without doubt, that the stories have been written from the perspectives of women. It is women’s experiences that dominate and hold sway rather than those of men; the text also does not lie under a pretence of gender neutrality. This may not have been so pronounced in her writings earlier, but it would be erroneous to say that her earlier narrative voice was not feminine, only that it was more embedded, rather than unequivocal as it has become in this selection of short stories.

This could be an unconscious progression because the feminine voice in literature or the arts is no longer seen as being disadvantageous or of a level which is not equal to that of a male voice. It is no longer that it is better or worse, significant or less significant, but rather that it has a different feel and quality about it. It is not valued in terms of judgment but in the texture of its take on the experiences that we try to understand and conceptualise. In this particular aspect, she appears to have matured if ever there was scope for improvement. Established writers therefore find their greatest challenge coming from the standards they have earlier set for themselves. For the next step is to break one’s own mould to touch another level of profundity.

Hussain may not have broken the mould but she has shaded the experiences, making them more relatable, profound and easy to understand. There is a strain of the sympathetic in her and her characters; and the positions that they take are fully understandable. It does not result in disgust or condemnation, rather the loving acceptance of the foibles in human beings, so very natural that any other take would appear to be an imposition.

In her earlier work, too, the suicide bomber had started to figure as one of the characters and it appeared that he was almost taking centrestage to become the hero of our times. In this volume, there is a suicide bomber but seen from the perspective of a mother. The mother has other children but she waits for the one who had died in a suicide attack. It is a very moving story where the fact that the son has gone and will never return is simply not registered by the mother. She waits for him in the same manner and with the same longing that she does for her other children to
return home after being out for the day.

There is this new reality of being old but living, being unwell but living, being totally dependent on others but not dying. The reality of living much longer and just surviving on improved medical care not supplemented by becoming useful members of society. Not being full of life and energy but barely living, breathing so to say and not saying the final goodbye to the world. The years of living more in terms of quantity, but without the enhancement of quality is a question that her stories often raise.

This is also reflected in the title that she has given to the book because it appears that a life lived long but not lived to its full potential is an issue that is being experienced these days and likely to be experienced more in the days to come. Life’s significance in terms of quality should be the concern of an artist living in present times and it is her concern too, living in the here and now.

Jeeney Ki Pabandi
Author: Khalida Hussain
Publisher: Sang-e-Meel Publications
Year: 2017
Pages: 216
Price: Rs400

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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