AT A time when the reading public’s preoccupation with the fad of ‘X, Y or Z made simple’ is waning (and mercifully so), it’s back to literature as literature should be. Tasneem Minto’s collection of short stories, reminiscences and essays fit into this re-emerging category in Urdu literature. She is a natural storyteller in the sense that every mother is, making sure she tells the tales which will stay with her children (readers in this case) as they grow and try to make sense of the world around them.
Her formula: showing just the right amount of empathy will save the tale from becoming a self-righteous account or a grandma’s tale. Not everyone who sets out to write can strike such a delicate balance. In her preface to the book she calls her stories her children; her readers would soon vouch that it’s they who share that honour with her creations.
Zara Si Baat is replete with anecdotal accounts of what went into the making of Tasneem Minto, the writer. Her early childhood environment in Gujranwala, literary activities with her siblings, her erudition and interaction with husband Abid Hasan Minto and their three children remind one of the autobiography of another very gifted writer and poet, Ada Jafri. The latter’s Badayun of the 1930s-’40s and the former’s Gujranwala of the ’50s may be hundreds of cultural and physical miles apart, but their accounts of the home environment come closer sharing a common language that became the vehicle of literary pursuits for both.
Tasneem Minto’s short stories also remind one of a collection of contemporary Hindi short stories that recently appeared, transliterated into Urdu and published in three volumes by the City Press. Like the modern Hindi fiction there is an emphasis in Minto’s stories on never losing track of reality and contemporary issues.
This is perhaps owing to Minto’s long years of commitment to social causes and her active participation in leftist politics in a very politicized and charged city that Lahore once was; that is before it became known for its nouveau-riche and manicured boulevards and funky food streets.
Not surprisingly, Minto’s retirement from social activist brand of politics and her foray into writing coincided with the shift in Lahore’s sociopolitical landscape. Benazir Bhutto’s political failure to deliver the promised goods and the Sharifs’ somewhat ‘earned’ rise to power changed everything. The demise of the Soviet Union dealt a further blow to idealism draining the energies of all those who, until a decade earlier, filled the streets demanding social justice, democracy and all else that informed their cherished ideals as a remedy for our ills.
Lahore eventually cross-voted, and began to enjoy the riches that came with the new-found zeal for ostentatious indulgences.
This was the time when Minto took to writing. Besides short stories, she wrote a couple of TV plays, one of which was broadcast in PTV’s May 1 special transmission. Thus, Minto found some solace in opening up her inner vacuum to the world hoping it could be filled by talking to whoever may want to listen to what she had to say through her fiction. Her audience has since been growing; it was they, besides her younger daughter (also a poet), who urged her to publish her writings and the result is the collection under review.
The book starts with Minto’s own introduction of herself and of her works. This is followed by two scholarly appraisals by Dr Anwar Sadeed and Azhar Ghori, who have followed Minto’s work closely. On the back flap of the dust jacket, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi has this criticism to offer:
“While telling these stories, (Minto’s) observation has not faltered anywhere. Her analytical forte never borders on exaggeration. Her style has a flow that can be likened to that of a river flowing in the plains; it flows without making you conscious of the fact that it is flowing. This quality in diction and style is rather rare among story writers.”
Tasneem Minto’s works combine a unique blend of a woman’s world, where the home and the world coexist in perfect harmony. Her female characters are very much home material; yet they are well aware of the real world that lies beyond the home, and the demands it makes on all individuals — men or women — to fully partake in its affairs.
What is refreshing here is that Minto’s characters never raise a flag or agitate for justice like they do in some of the literature produced by many other activist writers. Her women are not just victims but those who can eventually steer their own lives, shape them and even influence those of others around them. This self-attained awakening of women in her characters is at once fascinating and intriguing, and is one common thread that runs through all the 12 short stories comprising this collection.
The book ends with somewhat emotionally loaded personality sketches of two of Minto’s acquaintances: Dr Azizul Haq, a labour leader with a mysterious disposition, and Saeeda Apa, a neighbour whom she had known from her early married days until her death in old age. It is in these two essays that the spontaneous and natural observer in Minto reveals herself with unbridled passion. Consider, for instance the following passage:
“I have a very weak memory. I can’t remember dates, years, phone or car numbers, birthdays, etc. But three days in the last week of May are engraved on my heart as days of mourning. I am amazed at Aziz’s sinister cleverness at having chosen May 28 for a day to die on. I have a feeling he cunningly did so to include himself among the dear ones whom I lost in these days and whom I mourn for year after year, every year.”
Tasneem Minto, indeed, is a sensitive writer. But, in spite of her sensitive nature, she skillfully resists the temptation of wearing her heart on her sleeve all too often. And herein lies the moderation and the ‘flow’ that Qasmi Sahib so eloquently referred to in his comment on her work.
All in all, Zara Si Baat is a good read, worth every penny.
Zara Si Baat (short stories)
By Tasneem Minto
Writers’ Association Lahore and Multimedia Affairs, 21 Nand Street, Sham Nagar, Chowburji, Lahore