Release and Other Stories
Here is a wonderful collection of short stories about Indian Muslims and thankfully there is no talk of terrorism or communal riots, no lurking presence of the vicious right-wing Hindu politicians, no discussion on the collective marginalisation of the community or Islam being in danger, no frequent invocation of Allah's name. Further, all major characters, to my surprise, are middle class Muslims. And like their Hindu, Christian and Sikh counterparts, they don't live in ghettos, but in bungalows and apartments. They don't work as masons, factory workers, and labourers but are businessmen, engineers, officers, software professionals... They speak English and drive cars. Like other middle class Indians, their mundane lives are guided by the social mores of their class and are, of course, not governed by the Sharia Laws.
The first story of the book, “A Mighty Heart”, is a simple but interesting tale. It is about a woman who discovers at the funeral of her son that her husband has a second wife when her step-sons come to participate in their half-brother's last rites. But for her husband's ‘deceit and duplicity' she doesn't detest her step-sons; instead she shows magnanimity and accepts them as her own.
“A Perfect Couple” is another story that touches upon the issue of marital infidelity and is a portrayal of the emotional dilemma of Samir who suddenly finds out that his seriously ill gorgeous wife loves somebody else. Heart-broken and green with envy, Samir unexpectedly empathises with his wife's lover, Ali, because “Ali's grief and terror is so like his own”.
Later, you meet charming but mysterious Dia Mirza in a story called “A Real Woman”. Dia's journey from a 19-year-old shy divorcee from a middle class Muslim family to a beer-drinking, cigarette smoking, and opinionated middle-aged modern woman amazes you. The idiosyncrasies of the character have been beautifully, but credibly, captured by the author. The narrative has the pace of a thriller, which makes a reader turn pages quickly. The best and most poignant, however, is the title story “Release”. This is an exquisitely woven love story of Hasan and Azra who are first cousins. Engaged to be married, they grow up together and develop a very strong fascination for each other. But, Hasan's mother's pathological aversion for his aunt and to-be-mother-in-law ends this relationship. Azra is married elsewhere and Hasan remains single. Years later, Hasan, an officer of Indian Foreign Service and the narrator of this story, returns to see Azra who is in coma at a hospital. Standing near a comatose Azra, Hasan remembers his past. His trip down nostalgia lane has been deftly handled and one feels great sympathy for these two unfortunate lovers. The story draws its inspiration from the traditions of Urdu Afsana-nigari as far as the thematic treatment is concerned.
For each of these stories, Rakhshanda Jalil adopts the florid style of Urdu short story writing and you can actually feel the fragrance of ornate Urdu idioms and phrases in her sentences. The scenes are so vivid and evocative that you can see everything playing out like a movie. This kind of magical effects can only be created by an author who is equally at home with English and Hindi-Urdu and who can efficiently translate the emotions expressed in a native language into a foreign language and that too without losing any of the dramatic elements of the original. And Rakshanda does that with finesse.
Of the 10 stories in this collection, only two disappointed me. The remainder tickled and exhilarated me, made me cry, forced me to smile and, at times, coerced me to re-read them.
Release and Other Stories; Rakhshanda Jalil, Harper Collins India, Rs. 299