Rakhshanda Jalil’s debut collection of ten short stories strings together gentle, at times wistful, ruminations -on what it is to be human, to be (wo)man, to be ill, to survive, to be from certain times and (un)certain locations. Sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third person, these skillfully wrought stories prod a reader to muse on life itself. As with reviews, one can only draw on a few of these stories here. The opening story, ‘A Mighty Heart’, is a most ordinary tale of a middle-class woman whose teenage son dies in a freak accident on a football field. When the sons of her husband’s other wife come to the funeral, she embraces them even as her ashamed husband runs away from the grieving household. Of course, the title reminds one of Marianne Pearl’s memoir of the same name, and the eponymous Hollywood production.
‘A Mighty Heart’, then, is not just about dealing with loss that can be represented on a magnificent scale; it is also about the forgiveness and acceptance that ordinary people undergo though life deals them with an uneven, nay raw, hand.
Exemplifying an ongoing concern of the collection is the story, ‘The Perfect Couple’. It tells the tale of an overwrought husband falling apart when his wife-a young, successful software engineer working for an MNC- suddenly keels over. Even as his stoic mother-in-law deals efficiently with the hospital, the doctor, neurosurgery, God and her likely-to-die daughter, Samir staggers about helplessly. To add insult-to-injury his wife’s colleague Ali arrives in the evening in an even worse condition than the anguished husband. The evidence of his beloved and perfect Sara being involved with another man shatters and enrages Samir by turns, until he suddenly understands the sense of grief and loss of this man and extends an arm of sympathy. (Though one cannot help wonder: what has happened to the two children in bed when their mother crumpled unexpectedly? Strangely, they never re-appear in the narrative which seems to set up a bleating Samir and the curiously unflappable mother-in-law as emotional contrasts!)
A little nugget is ‘The Stalker’. A married, middle-aged mother of two, not especially good-looking, notable only for her moderation -conservatism ‘nurtured and bred’ with ‘single-minded devotio’-has attracted an unknown stalker. When she finally musters up the courage to chase back her stalker and confront him, she is astounded. The words she offers her stalker, her reflections as she turns away-‘Who can ever really fathom the depths of another heart?’-sum up a very non-judgmental take on our lives. A take that perhaps we need to take into our hearts.
The two stories that call for attention are ‘A Real Woman’ and the title story, ‘Release’. To take up the latter first, ‘Release’ draws on the flashback of a seventy-year-old, fit and self-sufficient former diplomat, Hasan, when he is called upon to visit his dying cousin Azra, once his betrothed. As the memories unfurl, we are lulled into an old-world romance of cousins engaged to each other almost from the cradle, growing up together, and affection turning to something deeper as life unfolds idyllically even though, somewhat predictably, their two mothers cannot stand each other. Jalil carefully evokes the tropes of a vernacular romance: the chintz ghararas, the crinkled cotton duppattas, the bela strands tied around the clay water-pots, the bhisti who goes around sprinkling water on the dry earth during the evenings, the cord-woven cots laid out under the skies in summer nights and made up with white sheets-one row for men and another side marked for the women and children. As in such romances, the lovers are torn asunder by the world: she is married off to another, and he has ‘moved on’. But the narrative is at its most sear(ch)ing when describing Azra’s comatose body on the hospital bed, fifty years later: she who loved fragrant bela blossoms is lying in a room rancid with the stench of stale urine, the harsh indignity of a bag of sloshing amber liquid lying underneath her bed. The habitual twinkling diamond on her nostril has been replaced with a coiling food pipe that feeds and keeps her body alive, her once-lively eyes carefully lined with smoky black surma are now closed in dark rings, ‘dark as a raccoon’s’, and the gleaming skin of bygone memories is now creased and dry. Through the nostalgia of ifs and buts, what the narrative evokes most poignantly is the triviality of logic-in-hindsight, the mindlessness behind decisions that alter lives so drastically, the cold reason of a headstrong yet strangely vulnerable youth that comes to pass as ‘If only’.
‘A Real Woman’ is the real find in this collection: the narrator’s memory of a shy nineteen-year-old child-woman is severely challenged when he meets her unexpectedly twenty-five years later. Dia, who even after a brief marriage and divorce at nineteen, was a ‘delicate, tremulous, quivering’ girl has trans-formed into ‘a real woman’. Jalil’s prose descri-bes a vivacious, opinionated, even aggressive protagonist with verve and vim. An earlier prim convent accent is replaced by a nasal American twang as she swigs Chivas Regal and smokes Dunhills, even as she ‘spew[s] venom’ at the ‘lib-dems’. Dia can speak passionately about Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and all of West Asia. Quixotically, Zulfi is attracted and afraid of this ‘full-blown flower’. Once again he hesitates, as he had twenty-five years ago. Once more, the moment comes and goes. Nonetheless, the man-of-the-world Zulfi cannot resist: as he is leaving, he cannot stop himself from making a crass comment that invites a mincing riposte: ‘Grow up, Zulfi’.
And this brings us to a key question that arises as one picks up the book: is being Muslim important for the figures in these stories? In a certain way, these stories could be the stories of any urban, upper-middle class, upper caste ‘Indian’ (wo)men of north India. But these are, nonetheless, stories that complicate the coming-of-age of hyphenated Muslim identities (urban-upper-caste-upper-class-heterosexual-able-bodied-…). And why not? After all, one cannot always go around for the ‘right’ kind of Muslims to rescue or recriminate over! Rakshanda Jalil’s elegant prose invites us to mull over and contemplate the eternal quandaries of being and becoming for these other Muslims.