Rating: 4.5 Stars
I have never been very enthusiastic about short stories in English. While I love reading Urdu short stories, somehow English short stories have never held any fascination for me. Furthermore, contemporary Pakistani writers have, with the exception of one or two, always left me disappointed. It was these two factors that made me wary of reading this collection of short stories. In addition to all this, the biggest stress factor was that the writer, Tehmina Khan, is a new friend, and I was afraid that I might not have anything good to say about her book! The truth is, if I hadn’t liked the stories, I would never have written anything about them. It would have been just one more book that I read and forgot. Thankfully, I didn’t have to avoid writing a review. As a matter of fact, the reason it took me so long to write it was because I actually read a few stories multiple times to make sure I don’t forget anything!
For me, the problem with Pakistani fiction writers is that when they write about the underbelly or the lower strata of society, they sound quite condescending and judgemental; like someone who has never really experienced it but is seeing it through a window from the outside. This is okay when you’re reading about something you have no idea about, but when you are living in that society and have seen things with your own eyes, these writers start sounding fake and ignorant. I’m saying all this because I want to emphasize how big a surprise this book was.
There are a total of twelve stories, some interconnected by a common thread, while others just glimpses into the lives of different individuals. All of them are steeped in reality and a mirror to the society we live in. There wasn’t a single story where I felt like I didn’t know what the writer is talking about.
The first story, about a maid and her son sounds fictional, but unfortunately, it is very close to how we treat our maids, and how their children are ripe for manipulation and exploitation.
“To Allah We Pray,” tells the tale of how destiny works in strange ways to bring the most unlikely people towards their death as a young man, fresh off the plane from Canada, is convinced by his friend to offer prayers at a targeted mosque before proceeding to party with other friends.
In “A Stranger In My Own Home,” Khan tells the heart wrenching story of a trans woman who returns to her home after five years, to find that she still has no place there. Reading about the mother who tries to protect her “different” child, and who loves the child no matter what the sex, is like a true glimpse into the heart of a mother.
The titular “Things She Could Never Have” continues the story of the trans woman, Saleema, and her love for Kiran, and all things pretty. Tragedy, in the form of a suicide bombing at a mosque, takes away a life, leaving the other mourning the loss.
“This Is Our Secret” is the story of every house. It is the story of how an adult in a trusted position molests a little girl and asks her to keep it a secret. This story is also a documentary on our attitude towards these incidents in general. The girl keeps it a secret, until she tells it to her mother, who, while shocked and distressed, tells her not to tell it to the father. The real sad part of this story is what the little girl takes away from this whole experience. An eye opener for all mothers and sisters.
The thoughts and apprehensions of “The Engineer’s Bride” are familiar and very relatable to the majority of middle class girls who have gone through arranged marriages. Their looks play a big part in attracting suitors, and the main criteria of a “good” match is a man who is “well-settled” in life. The most important step in their lives is decided by others, and they are expected to immediately settle into whatever their fate has in store for them.
“The First” is a story that made me sad because, again, it is reflective of real life in college hostels. The young girls who come from all kinds of different backgrounds, form strong, unbreakable bonds and become each others’ secret keepers and protectors. How these girls become willing victims to men leading them on, and how they fool themselves into overlooking what is in front of their eyes, is what this story is all about.
Surprisingly, the story that really broke my heart and made me cry was the least tragic of all. “Flying In Andalusia” can easily be a true story of so many men and women I know in real life. In a society where parents have the final say in who their offspring gets married to, the result is often what is depicted in this story. It is most common to get a son married off to a “suitable” girl, even if he is interested in someone else. No thought is given to the said “suitable” girl, and she is expected to compromise and be satisfied with her lot. Oh, and she has to be happy about it too! This one made me feel really depressed and sad.
“Born On The First Of July” tells the tale of a family left shattered when their daughter leaves to join ISIS, and the callous way others treat the already bereaved family.
“Closed Doors” is, again, a heartbreaking story about a much-anticipated pregnancy gone wrong. There can never be enough words to describe what a woman goes through when she has a miscarriage.
Physical abuse of children is at the forefront of “Stealing Apples From Heaven”. A girl who is much-loved, is astonished to see her cousin being punished by her mother for a small transgression and her mind tries to come up with excuses for her aunt’s behaviour.
The last story, “Come Listen To Me” is different from all the rest of the stories. It is the reminiscences of an old woman about life after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. She relives all her experiences as she talks to her long-dead husband and tells him about her life since she left him to visit her parents. It is about the resilience of the human spirit even during the worst of times.
For such a slim volume (it is only 121 pages long), this book sure packs a punch. For everyone looking for good, realistic Pakistani fiction, this is one book you need to check out.