Grazie, Mazhar ul Islam!
ROME: We had the good fortune of meeting Pakistani writer Mazhar ul Islam at the home of some friends in Rome, last July. He was visiting the city to introduce his short story collection The Season of Love, Bitter Almonds and Delayed Rains, which had just been translated into Italian by Dr Sabrina Lei.
We were all very impressed with the author, who told us stories about his life and how a bird he once saw sitting on a piano inspired him to write about the magical elements of life.
Following the meeting, it was inevitable to read his selection of short stories. Reading Pakistani literature, that too for the first time, exposes one to a whole new world.
Islam, like most writers, has his own perception of reality and depiction of symbolism. For instance, in the story Kahani kaise bani (How the story was crafted), each memory of the narrator seems to melt into the next, until the story turns into a bird that flies away. The metaphors are personal yet remain imprinted on the reader’s mind for a long time.
In another story, Kalarkon ke khwab (Dreams of clerks), he portrays office employees telling each other about their dreams. Towards the end, one clerk recounts a vivid dream he had, in which a mouse was gnawing at something inside his chest.
With striking imagery that ends the story, Islam seems to be reminding us to pay attention to the mouse that chews on our own hearts. This kind of writing makes us pause and self-reflect.
The striking concept of a picture that a camera refused to take, but one that the photographer cannot efface from his memory, appears in the story Kaimre men mari hui larki (A girl dead in a camera).
For a student of photography, it lays emphasis on how important it is to preserve our memories. The writer’s empathetic approach and the way he achieves characterisation, through actions and emotions rather than by description, are among his greatest strengths.
Perhaps, some of the most fascinating were the short stories on the difficult topic of suicide. The author cites the example of Sylvia Plath, who took the drastic decision of ending her life even though she had three young children.
In one story, the protagonist seems to be torn by indecision. He doesn’t know whether he should put an end to his life now or later; in the end, he doesn’t commit suicide because there is always something in the way that leads him to put it off. It seems that he is waiting to live the important events of his life, which haven’t yet arrived.
The tales about death were reminiscent of what Islam had told us about the symbolism of the butterfly in Asian cultures. The next day, we saw a butterfly while at the cemetery where we went to visit father’s grave. It felt as if the butterfly was not only a symbol, but a sign. It seemed to embody the soul of the deceased.
All the stories in the collection explore everyday life with grace. Memories turned into emotions take the shape of a toy, woman’s eyes and even something as intangible as absence.
The poems, too, are delicate and poignant. They remind one of the poetry of Italian poet Eugenio Montale. Even though Montale’s verses are difficult and their context is not overt, we can sense the poet’s meaning through their melody. This lyrical quality is also apparent in Islam’s poems.
The short stories are fluid and allow the reader can look through the eyes of the author, thus creating a dynamic amalgam of the writer, reader and fictional characters. This is the beauty of literary fiction at its finest.
Thank you, Islam, for such a remarkable selection of short stories and celebrating, through them, the humankind.
Angelica D’Alessandri has specialised in English and Anglo-American Literature from the University of Tor Vergata, Rome. She is a poetry enthusiast, whose passion for the literary art has made her explore new authors and their cultures. She loves to write poems and short stories. She lives in Valle Martella, Zagarolo, Italy.