11 January, 2002

The Bitter Truth: Talat Abbasi's Bitter Gourds

The stories are small, but with a spicy aftertaste that could be from nowhere else but the subcontinent. Talat Abbasi's Bitter Gourd and Other Stories is a collection of nugget sized, delectable tales laid out, in typical desi fashion, amongst the detritus of social stratification, family ennui, economic marginalization and diaspora. Gently dousing her stories with a generous portion of irony and satire, the Karachi born writer brings to the fore the small hypocrisies and the mundane corruptions of everyday life in Pakistan. Whether dealing with a birdman or a poor relation, a rich widow or an immigrant mother, Ms. Abbasi touches the mythic heart that ticks besides all these caricatures. The ghostly narrative influence of Virginia Woolf, with a pinch of Victorian lit thrown in for good measure, is discernable, although most of the voices are centered around the "how kind, how kind" echoes of South Asia.

The book starts, appropriately, with a story about a feudal patronage relationship between a poor relation and her wealthy patron, and ends with a diasporic mother struggling with a child with mental disabilities in New York. In between, there are treats like "Going to Baltistan", where a prominent leader of the women's movement reveals her location of privilege, her priorities for publicity, and her lack of interest in feminism and non-elite women's lives in a few sparse and brilliant pages. In "Simple Questions", a poor mother wonders about the arrogance of the school teacher who dares to barge into her house to ask her why she is taking her eldest daughter out of school. In "Mango Season", a fretful widow expatiates her responsibility to think about her dead husband by sending mangoes to the orphanage.

This book is more a collection of parables told by great-aunts and grandmothers as they sit sewing around a quilt, and less the magnum opus literature of contemporary South Asian diaspora. And yet within the repetitive resonance of these stories lies the knowledge that the fault-line between the cultures of Pakistan and India, heightened by political tensions, melts under the mundane, everyday similarities of people's lives. Fundamentalists on both sides have tried to heighten the differences, but the simple truth of the matter is that Pakistan and India are shaped by similar social and cultural milieu, with the same material conditions, and the same obsessions. They share a long history, and more importantly, the same humor - and even the craving for the same fruits and vegetables. After reading these stories, one cannot help feeling that the mines being laid in the border between the two countries is like barbed wire erected between the houses of two siblings, with the same parables, the same concerns of family and society, and even the same eating habits. Including, of course, the bitter gourds.