A Labor of Love
Amna Ali and Moazzam Sheikh have embarked on a labor of love in translating the short stories of Nadir Ali, a prolific Punjabi writer, and giving the world Nadir Ali’s first volume of short stories in English as a posthumous collection.
Such a project of translation brings a vernacular literary tradition from South Asia into the public spheres of North America and the global South Asian diaspora. This book underscores the variety of linguistic traditions of South Asia, challenging not only the primacy of global English but also the hierarchy of national languages. Punjabi is a neglected language within Pakistan, and it is no accident that Nadir Ali who subscribed to Marxist ideals eschews Pakistani devotion to Urdu in favor of Punjabi, that is common to both India and Pakistan and not the exclusive domain of any one religious community. It is also a language that is connected to common folk, the farmers, and laborers of rural South Asia, rather than those cultural elites.
In their introduction, Amna Ali and Moazzam Sheikh point to the salient events in Nadir Ali’s life which resurface in his stories. It must be noted that Amna Ali is the daughter of the author Nadir Ali and Moazzam Sheikh is her husband. Sheikh is a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library and a writer of short stories. Both Sheikh and Ali have done considerable work in translating Pakistani writers.
Sheikh reminisces about Nadir Ali not as father-in -law, but as a literary comrade and mentor. Nadir Ali experienced the traumas of the Indian Partition in 1947 followed by the crisis of the 1971 War which led to creation of Bangladesh. These traumatic events surface in the experiences of the characters.
Bundu, Washerman, Consoler of the Rich
The story “Bundu, Consoler of the Rich” is a nostalgic evocation of a washerman who kept the clothes of the narrator spotlessly clean thus enabling his ascent up the social ladder. Many years later, Bundu appears in the narrator’s dream, but his appearance is that of a Bangladeshi woman. This is not an accident. Nadir Ali went through an intense mental breakdown after serving in the Pakistani army in Bangladesh. The protagonist in the story is not a soldier but an academic appointed at Dhaka University, who like the author succumbs to mental illness after the 1971 war. Even though the narrator recovers from his illness the transformation of Bundu into a Bangladeshi woman suggests that the wounds of that war are still fresh in the psyche of the author and his nation.
Balwant Kaur & the Loss of Connection
Other stories in the collection evoke the rippling effects of the 1947 Partition in the lives of myriad characters. In “Balwant Kaur,” Nadir Ali represents a marriage between a Sikh woman and a Muslim man against the backdrop of religious conflict unleashed by the division of the Indian subcontinent based on religious lines. Balwant marries for love but lives a life of isolation, intensified after her divorce. She loses all contact with her natal family in India, especially after the Indo-Pak wars. It is only after her death that her son is able to establish contact with her brother’s family in California. The ending emphasizes not only the deep loneliness of the protagonist but the longing for connection that many families experience after the fractious division of nations.
Love & Human Relationships
A similar loneliness and difficulty to assimilate into the husband’s family is depicted in “Nooran Niari,” which leads to a homoerotic relationship between the narrator’s mother and the only woman from her natal town, Nooran. Against the background of the turbulent Partition these two women develop an intimacy which is deeply unsettling for the adolescent narrator.
The theme of homoerotic love resurfaces in a medieval setting in the story “Quissa of Shah Husain” In this story, we are transported to Lahore’s past and plunged into the homoerotic relationship between Shah Husain and Madho. Shah Husain is tried in court charged with homosexuality, and then killed secretly. However, at his funeral there is an outpouring of love and solidarity. This story highlights the palpable presence of the Sufi tradition in Nadir Ali’s oeuvre which prioritizes human relationships and a personal devotion to God rather than strict adherence to religious doctrines.
The title story of the collection “Hero,” presents the author Nadir Ali as a narrator and observer of life in Lahore, in the aftermath of the bloodbath of Partition. Nadir Ali is a lecturer at a college in Lahore and becomes acquainted with a man who is a professional kite maker but who has dreams of acting in films. He is well dressed and eloquent and has all the qualifications of a film hero. He even secures a part in a film but kite making duties prevent him from completing the shooting. The protagonist of this story seems to have all the potential for social ascendancy, but fate seems to confine him to poverty and illiteracy. His children are not able to get an education. The final blow to his precarious life is when the kite festival is banned by the government. ‘Hero’ evokes a sense of sorrow in the author as a man of unfulfilled potential mirroring the state of the new nation.
Feeqa, Water Carrier
The violence of the 1947 Partition and its traumatic memory is most directly evoked in the story “Feeqa’s Death.” Feeqa is a humble water carrier whose life becomes enmeshed in violence when his friend Mehr gets into a fight with Sheeda and Feeqa in an effort to protect his friend kills Sheeda in an instant. Soon after this Swai Ram, a Hindu merchant in the same neighborhood is killed by Dhurrey Shah, in a spree of ethnic violence. Even though Feeqa is never caught by the police, he drinks himself to death following these events. This story highlights the randomness of violent events during the Partition and its psychic effects not only on perpetrators but also on those who witnessed these atrocities.
This collection of stories is an important addition to the archive of South Asian literature expanding not only the scope of Pakistani literature beyond its offerings in Urdu and English but also serving to expand the archive of Partition memories. Most significantly, the characters in Nadir Ali’s stories often have rural roots and belong to the lower socio-economic rungs of society. Stylistically, these stories are taut and compressed, relying on an aesthetic of minimalism rather than ornateness and striving for maximum impact while practicing a remarkable restraint in language.
Hero and Other Stories by Nadir Ali. Translated by Amna Ali and Moazzam Sheikh
San Francisco: Weavers Press, 2022.