COLUMN: Varieties of obligation by Bilal Tanweer
The fools in Nilofar Iqbal’s stories are mostly men. They are either cuckolds or cheats. Either obsequious and considerate, or uncaring and indifferent. But that’s not a weakness or a complaint for that matter: these predictable, two-dimensional male characters vacate space to allow her women to take centre stage and enact their needs and frustrations. And her women are completely wonderful: they are deeply conflicted between their own needs and the demands placed upon them by the world, often insecure and unsure, but also connected with their bodies and conscious of what they want and how — and better still, they understand how to work all those foolish men.
Reading Iqbal’s two collections of stories, her standout characters are women who are go-getters: Miss Romana who is such a thorough professional when it comes to her work that Qadeer sahib, her boss, a middle-aged man with a family and an oppressive wife, is left mostly confused when she starts showing up for work in gauzy kurtas that reveal the matching colours of her lingerie and her handbags. Raufa is another: a 38-year-old who is living in a rented single room but having a good time with Peji — Pervez — a freshman in college, who is milking her for money and expensive gifts in return for his love. Raufa perhaps is Iqbal’s strongest creation — a tragic character who is so impaired by her needs that she’s blind to what’s ironically apparent to the readers all the way through. Her triumph and tragedy lie precisely in the agency and choice she exercises in a society that constrains women in all number of ways but most obviously in their choice of partners.
The real subject in Iqbal’s fiction is families. Her dramatic project is set around examining how people negotiate their needs and dependencies within the demands of the family. A repeated story that recurs in different permutations throughout her collection deals with a dying family member, and how the pressures and obligations of his dependency (it is a he every single time) is being treated by the rest of her family. It results in some of her best work: in “Ghanti”, for instance, we are taken close to the loneliness of a dying father who has been shifted upstairs in the house and has been handed a bell to call for assistance. He misses the familiarity of his old room, where he has spent 15 years, and needs assistance for the smallest things, like using the toilet and turning in his bed. Iqbal meticulously explores the effect this man’s sickness has on each member of the family: the wife’s social life is sacrificed; the children desist from going near the sick man; the son resents everybody for ignoring his father but then gradually begins to feel the tyranny of the obligation of being at his father’s beck and call at all times — even at night.
Indeed, the keyword that defines Iqbal’s families is obligation. Her families are a nucleus of unhappy people united by obligation and who, knowingly or unknowingly, inflict harm upon each other for their own needs: a mother refuses to marry her overage daughter because she’s terrified of being left alone; a father beats up a child for refusing to give up school and take up a job at the zamindar’s who is his employer and might fire him if his boy doesn’t turn up for work; a cuckolded husband feels obligated not to confront his cheating wife in the presence of his son-in-law; an old wife is obligated to take care of her sick husband and put up with ungrateful children — obligation in its varieties features repeatedly in Iqbal’s collections of stories.
Not all of her stories succeed. Many of them feel abandoned at the point where conflict is ripe for explosion and characters are prepared for drastic action. It happens more often in her latest collection, Surkh Dhabbay, where many stories feel like rough sketches rather than fully executed stories: “Fatah,” “Crystal House,” “Musalman,” “Mera Dost Mujahid,” “Dilip Kumar,” “Chooha,” “Operation Mice”. These stories are exciting in setup but disappointing in their eventual realisation. “Chooha” is the story of a man sprawling and kicking in the pits of despair who eventually goes underground (literally, figuratively) without much consequence or drama. In “Crystal House” a couple who have collected valuable crystal from around the world in their house die one day and their crystal is, well, auctioned quickly and readily by their children. In “Dilip Kumar” a servant with a talent for mimicking Bollywood is thrown out of the house and nothing much happens thereafter. Her most ambitious story in her new collection, and perhaps her most admirable failure, is “Operation Mice” where she explores the ‘war on terror’ from four different perspectives: an American army general, his wife, their son on a mission in Iraq, and his fiancee who is waiting for him back home. The story is predictable and ends predictably, staying within the comfortable confines of the received wisdom about the human costs of war, but it also a drastic break from all her other work and for that reason, it represents a laudable risk.
Iqbal’s finest story in these two collections is “Chaabi” where the protagonist, Abida — summed up in the very first line of the story, rather discordantly, as: “abida chai ki aisee piyalee thee jo rakhay rakhay thandee ho ga’yee thee” — after growing disappointed with her family and friends and becoming wholly indifferent to herself and her needs, finds a moment of transformation. It’s a story that’s deeply reminiscent of one of Chekhov’s best stories, “The Kiss”. It details the changes in Abida’s person when she hears that a good looking youth has come to reside in the house next door, which is connected to her room by a padlocked window beneath which there is enough space for her hands to slide into her neighbour’s territory. One day she puts her hand in the window and pulls the handkerchief of the man she has dreamily come to long for.
She’s disappointed with the ordinariness of the handkerchief, its lack of any romantic clues for her, and its harsh smell of tobacco. But as she’s replacing it, her hands are pinned down with the rough hands of a man she’s never seen. She quickly pulls back her hand, but this physical contact sets in motion small changes that alter her relationship with herself, her body and the world. It’s a beautiful gem of a story — and ends on a more hopeful note than Chekhov’s.
And without doubt, the best stories in her ouevre hit the beat and thrum of the world we know and wish we could understand, and yield enormous pleasures. But her latest collection of stories, Surkh Dhabbay, does not fulfill the promise of her widely hailed debut. At least, not yet.