May 25, 2020
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Exquisite Scalpel

Mixes political comment with searing emotional intensity

Exquisite Scalpel
Cool, Sweet Water
By Khadija Mastur
Kali for Women Rs.200,Pages:188
TO read Mastur is to remember. To revisit old pain. Some inner space, undusted, forgotten, layered over with the hardskin of living, surviving.

Lancing hurt, sharp stabs of pain, sudden hot tears, the heartbreaking awakening to betrayal, love and loss, the stubborn clinging to a passionate pride, to an unrelenting dry eyed dignity... You don't read this. You live this. Mastur leaves you with no choice. She compels you into her world.

Not evocation alone though. There's indictment, anger, and startlingly enough for a Pakistani woman writer, political comment in Mastur's writing. What this writer explores with acuity, a rare felicity, however, is the internal landscape of women. Few women writers, luminaries like Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder included, have dealt with female sorority, sexuality, desire, bonding and bondage with such devastating directness. Thus Bittan in the Springtime of Life, whose "simmering breath of youth" fans the flames of her parent's kitchen fire is smouldering with an unrealised sexual potential that desperately seeks consummation. Her scream "get me married then" is the cry of a woman asserting her right to live a life apart from that of service and servitude to her parent's family. Similarly in The Heart's Thirst the suit of expensive fabric the poor young woman seeks from the paanwallah (who uses her sexually in return) becomes a metaphor for all the beauty, fulsomeness, opportunity for economic or sexual liberation that stands denied to her in her poverty-stricken life.

But the stories that really stay with you are those of Rafia in Trust and of Kaneez in Harvest. There's Rafia, giddy with a love realised, always celebrating her happiness that literally bubbles over, with her envious neighbours bleak with unloving, blue from batterings received from unthinking husbands. When the idealised husband finally betrays her it is this hitherto fiercely jealous sorority that huddles around the broken woman. Weeping as heart-brokenly for her as for their own broken lives. Kaneez in Harvest is that eternally-passed-over-poor-daughter-of-poor-mother, mistress to many, wife to none, who enters eyes wide open into a six-month "wedding" with Din Muhammad who's basically seeking not a spouse but a servant for his terminally-ill wife, his young kids. Desperately she wills him to love her. As obdurately he desists. She leaves ultimately at the end of her six months. Not weeping though. Her heart shattered. Her dignity, however, intact.

Dignity, then, is both a motif and message in Mastur's writing. Suraiya in the eponymous story, Chunni Begum in the Hand Pump, supreme exemplars of dignity in adversity.

Remarkably for a woman, more so a Pakistani one, Mastur, married to political activist/journalist Zaheer Babbar, makes bold to indict the persecution of minorities in Pakistan namely the Qadianis persecuted by Bhutto in the 1970s, in her Zameen. The same landlord-mullah nexus is mercilessly exposed in another story The Miscreant. Here pain and politics interweave to create an unforgettable tale of betrayal. Fazlu, the central protagonist, comes to shell-shocked recognition that he's been used, like his whole community, as a pawn, in an ugly war that's less about religion, more about rank greed and covetousness.

It's a rare writer who can deliver a double whammy. Be as powerful in the retelling as he/she is in the telling, which is what any faithful translation, as opposed to trans-literation, is. The late Khadija Mastur's magic - she died young at 54 after a prolonged illness - is recreated for the English reader by translator Tahira Naqvi who displays salutary empathy with both the mood and the milieu of the writer's work.

More power to Kali for Women for bringing out this volume that hopefully reveals to a blinkered Englishwala readership that there's untapped wealth and worlds within worlds waiting to be explored in the backwaters to which "vernacular" literatures have been unfortunately relegated.

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