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Chronicling the past

The Express Tribune speaks to author Shahbano Alvi about ‘A Woman in the Afternoon Sun’ and what’s next for her

By Maheen Irfan |
PUBLISHED October 03, 2021
KARACHI:

Shahbano Alvi was born in Dera Ghazi Khan and lived for many years in Dhaka while it was still known as part of East Pakistan. She grew up there with her family, where she cultivated far too many happy memories of a piece of land that soon thereafter transformed and found a new identity. She moved to Lahore a few years before East Pakistan separated in 1971 and went to Kinnaird College for Women University. There in Lahore, she moved into a hostel and there, her family slowly joined her as well.

In the last three decades, Alvi has found herself a part of the publishing world. Slowly, going back in time the last few years, Alvi has begun chronicling stories from her past. A past that belongs to East Pakistan, one that belongs to Old Lahore and one that now belongs to this world of words. In her recent collection of short stories titled, ‘A Woman and the Afternoon Sun,’ Alvi has penned down stories that reflect many of her past experiences some in Lahore and some in East Pakistan. The Express Tribune sat with her recently delve deeper into the writer’s psyche to learn more about the background of these stories. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ET: How did you get started as a writer?

SA: By profession, I am a graphic designer but I have been in publishing for the last thirty years. I am just very fond of reading. I have been reading from a very young age - both English and Urdu books - everything I could get hold of, I would read.

In 1991, I joined Oxford University Publishing and I set up their design department where all the books are published from. Then later, in 2001, I started my own publishing house, Ushba. I was publishing other people’s books from here and then I started a little bit of translation work as well because I knew both languages, English and Urdu. If someone wanted to get translations done, they would just ask me and I would do it. I didn’t think of it as a profession but just something I did to help.

But then in December 2017, I wrote my first story, ‘One day she walked into my room.’ Then I wrote another couple of stories. I gave them to my friend, the writer Aamer Hussein. I asked him to give me a critique on them and he loved them immediately and suggested I should continue writing. So then I continued and ended up writing a whole of short stories. However, I didn’t feel it was ethical to publish my own work through my own publishing house as I felt that the work wouldn’t have as much credibility this way. So I submitted them to different publishing houses till I heard from Liberty publishing, who loved my work and agreed to publish it.

ET: How much of your own experiences do you think lend to the plot lines and characters of this book?

SA: This is a result of all my own experiences. All the main characters are people I have known or observed over the years. The supporting characters are from my imagination and their job is to lend to the main characters but the rest is all from my own life experiences.

ET: Several of your short stories make references to East Pakistan. Is that due to your own childhood there?

SA: I have many fond memories of my time growing up in East Pakistan before 1971. So when I was writing, I also included some of those childhood memories. My father sent me to Lahore to Kinnaird College for University a few years before 1971 and I was staying in a hostel there during that time.

ET: Many different themes seem to have been touched upon in these stories. Some lighter ones but others are darker or more serious and address abuse or issues related to race and identity for instance.

SA: People had a certain perception of the Bengali race and that’s what my intention was to address. I wanted to portray that in my stories that perceptions can be wrong. My story, ‘The red floor’ is written from a child’s perspective and that’s how children talk to each other.

ET: Most of your short stories are two to three pages long and some read like essays more than stories. What inspired them?

SA: My intention was to show that sometimes what people are doing is in reaction or rather a result of what has happened to them. See it is not that people are all bad or all good. Sometimes circumstances lead to how they end up there.

You’ll notice that all my stories are open-ended. I wanted my readers to come to a conclusion themselves about who these characters are. I didn’t want to decide that for them.

I also showed unhappy marriages or conniving wives. It was not just one thing. There can be all sorts of people.

ET: Microaggression seemed to be another theme…

SA: Yes, that was part of what came with the perception and that is why I wrote about it.

ET: Paedophilia and grooming is also something you speak of…

SA: Yes, I wanted to show that part of it. I wanted to show that are no one is good or bad. People can be of all sorts

ET: Your first story starts off in March 2020 right as the pandemic spread through the world. Did the lockdown inspire you to sit and create this set of stories?

SA: That was actually the last story I wrote. By the time the pandemic hit, I was pretty much wrapping up the book. So I used my last story as the first in the series in this book.

ET: What do you have planned for your next story?

SA: There is a set of Urdu short stories that I’m working on and a set of English stories I’m working on. The Urdu stories are set to be published soon and with the English stories I’m going to finish them up and look for a publisher for them.

With my stories, I just write what comes into my mind and I put it out there on paper. I can’t do a critique of my own stories. It’s the same with my paintings. I put it out there in colour whatever I’m feeling in my emotions. Likewise, whatever I’m feeling with my writing I put it out there on paper.


An excerpt from the story ‘Yusuf’

He came as a young boy fifty five years ago from Dacca, with his father, who was a cook at my grandmother’s house. That was the year when both my cousin and I were also staying there for some reason or the other. He was very dark, had well oiled, combed, sleek hair and big bright laughing eyes. He wore well pressed fashionable teddy pants. And he was always getting us into trouble with amma biwi by reporting our various pranks to her. We couldn’t stand him.

Years passed, he learnt to cook and then was a permanent member of my grandmother’s home. Over the years although his slight frame and boyish look never changed but his teddy pants gave way to kurta pajama. He didn’t go to Bangladesh and remained a citizen of the city of lights.

Yusuf became family; our children and then their children too called him Yusuf chacha and were the fondest of him. In their eyes he cooked everything better than their mothers―and he did.

He used to visit his family often and was away for four to six months but always came back. He would say with smiling eyes that he missed his city of lights.

♦♦♦

I felt numb; unbelieving. He was a part of the background of our lives. A background that had so many images woven into it; each coming undone with time and the cycle of life.

I surfed through the internet distractedly and my eyes stopped at a message written on one of the social media sites. It was my sister-in law’s page and it had a portrait in pastels done by her nine year old daughter. Next to the portrait was her heart felt cry:

Yusuf Bhai was the kindest person I have ever met and he will always be the kindest person... whatever happens.

♦♦♦

These past years he couldn’t get his citizen’s card renewed to be able to travel. The new law required the corroboration of a blood relative, who in his case were miles away in another country; his other country. He couldn’t visit his family; his old mother and wife and daughters.

Torn between two beloved lands, he would say with sorrowful eyes that he missed his family.

♦♦♦