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Celebrating the Ordinary

Radha Chakravarty

Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil
Harper Collins Publishers in a joint venture with The India Today Group, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 191, Rs. 250.00


In Indian discussions of Pakistani literature, writings in Urdu and English tend to occupy centrestage, certain specific themes and issues are favoured by the critical establishment, and the works of women writers, barring a few well-known names, receive scant attention. The present anthology appears to be a welcome intervention in this discourse, for editor Rakshanda Jalil claims to challenge all these trends in her choice of stories by Pakistani women. Unfortunately, although it contains some brilliant stories, Neither Night Nor Day does not quite live up to this bold promise.   This is not the first anthology of Pakistani women’s fiction published in India. One can think of others, such as And the World Changed edited by Muneeza Shamsie, Half the Sky edited by Nirupama Dutt, and So That You Can Know Me edited by Yasmin Hameed et al. Jalil claims, though, that her collection is significantly different on several counts. ‘I chose Ordinariness as my anthem’ she declares in her Introduction. The everyday lives of Pakistani women, their small joys and sorrows, form the stuff of this book, she asserts, decrying the tendency of recent India-Pakistan literary exchanges to pander to a ‘western’ taste for exoticism, otherness and voices of dissent. Jalil wants to focus instead on ‘real’, not stereotyped women, and to enshrine the ‘commonplace’ as the barometer of a society. She takes strong exception to approaches that are ‘overtly feminist and concerned exclusively with issues of gender, space and identity’. The stories, she says, are not ‘of overpowering interest to women alone’. She also rightly points out the dominance of English and Urdu in the way Pakistani literature is projected in India. Pakistan, after all, is not a monolithic culture; its literature reflects its pluralism. To demonstrate this diversity, Jalil affirms, she has presented a spectrum of styles and voices in her anthology: writing in English as well as translations, relatively obscure writers as well as familiar names, rural as well as urban themes, and a wide range of narrative modes.   These are laudable goals indeed, but the stories themselves belie the often contradictory claims of the Introduction. One has only to read the beginning of ‘The Tongue’, for instance, to experience the gap between the editor’s assertions and the actual impact of the stories: ‘It was a land of dumb people. Its citizens weren’t born dumb, though. Going by the edict of its ruler, ...

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