First time writers usually grapple with the question of how to get a wider readership for their debut publication. This is the case even when the work is creatively rich and deserves to be read en masse. With the exception of three stories, Sheba R Sultan’s work does not fall into this category. Sultan’s collection of stories, The Room in the Mausoleum, offers up familiar stories without the requisite empathetic voice — ultimately these are the tales of many Pakistani dramas, sans the saas-bahu angle.
The first story in the collection From Two Hundred Thousands appears to comment on the tough market that musicians contend with in Pakistan. However, the plot falls flat, with no climax or anti-climax. One of the main characters, Yawar, takes everything in his stride as though unaffected by events; even when things are not going well for Yawar’s band, he appears mildly touched by their bad luck. And when the band gains popularity, the musicians have a lukewarm reaction.
In Nothing so special Sultan delves into the phenomenon of cyber-dating. Zoha, due to marry a man she has met online, meets him over a weekend even as colleagues and friends tell her it is a mistake. The plot and the inevitable conclusion are all too predictable. In another story The Town we are given a parable on valuing art for art’s sake. The characters in this story are not relatable and the few snippets that the reader can glean about their lives do not make them any less one-dimensional.
The author’s true talent shines through in the titular story of the collection, The Room in the Mausoleum. Here we can see Sultan is able to create nuanced, life-like characters. Readers may enjoy meeting characters that are not often given a voice in fiction.
In Abused, we see a different kind of narrative where it seems that over time the author’s written expression and description has improved. Sultan shows a situation where colleagues gossip about another teacher and her apparently controlling husband whom she has to report to every hour. The story highlights how a one-sided view can distract people from considering any other possibilities and the story ends with an unexpected twist.
What these stories really need, even if they lack some originality, is to be told differently. The plots need to have ups and downs, just like life. The characters need to be more fully fleshed out so that the reader can relate to them and be invested in their trajectory. We should want to know what happens to these characters and where they are headed. Only then is a story successful.
Naima Qamar is a Lahore-based student.
She tweets @naimaq
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 12th, 2015.