Small Troubled Worlds

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An assembly of minute details observed with a sensitive eye and put together in a series of stories that celebrate every day life. Nighat Gandhi’s Ghalib at Dusk is noteworthy because of the fact that the author manages to put her finger on the common pulse that unites daily life in Pakistan and India.Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories  By Nighat Majid The stories crisscross places and cultures, travelling from Karachi to Ahmedabad and Allahabad, towns that are out of the mainstream bustle. They also traverse emotional tangles and domestic dilemmas and the contrast between outward life and inner emotions.

This is most apparent in the story that gives the collection its title, the tale of the partially handicapped Babar who lives with his sisters and is a Ghalib aficionado. The narrator Nishat, a married woman and their neighbour, drops in to visit them, as she frequently does, and on that particular evening, carried away on a wave of poetry, Babar confesses his love for her.

Ghalib at Dusk has its parallel in Desire by Any Other Name where Saeed, crippled, virgin and tormented by desire goes to an encounter with a prostitute arranged by a sympathetic friend. The girl settles him down and goes about her work and he can only watch and wonder. ‘To him human movement, the willed exercise of one’s limbs to make the body achieve some purpose, was one of the most novel feats of Nature.” However the second story is a pale candle in the sun of the first with its longing for the ‘snows of yesteryear’ or rather, Ghalib’s world where romance was a constant whisper of possibility.

“Gandhi’s language while seemingly simple, often has a lyricism to it…”

For Gandhi disability runs like a leitmotif through the book and with it the baggage of loneliness and alienation. Many of her characters suffer from what is regarded as “the wrong gender, class, religion or ethnicity” which is hardly surprising considering that the author is a women’s rights activist and a mental health counsellor. The other counter theme is that of domesticity and the difficulties of preserving the façade of a marriage while contemplating adultery, another form of loneliness and alienation you might say. And she plays no favourites between the sexes. Her sensitivity encompasses vulnerable men as well as women. Mehru in Love: Unclassfied is the only one who stands out, succeeding in her attempt to move Zainab from her submissive self into rebellion.

Gandhi treats all her characters with understanding and compassion but never once falls into the trap of sentimentality, which is all too easy in stories like these. A keen observer of day to day life, she realizes that nothing in life is clear cut and that there are always two sides to a situation. Family Duty, for example, where Jamila is forced to care for the disturbed Rabia, her sister in law and where the reader is caught in a dilemma between pitying one and understanding the reasons for the other’s resentment and her craving for an ‘unfettered life’.

Many of her characters grope to find their roots, as in Trains, where Urmila clings to the four walls that she calls home, despite the fact that her husband has had an affair with the maid and so violated the marriage tie. It is only through finding the ground level of security, Gandhi suggests, that small town dwellers can find pride and respect in the claustrophobic worlds that they so often inhabit.

Gandhi’s language while seemingly simple, often has a lyricism to it, which haunts the reader in phrases like “In the dying light of dusk, he flitted between the tap and the trees, a waif of a man, watering his garden.” And in the end, it is the language that makes this book what it is.

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Ghalib at Dusk
by Nighat M Gandhi

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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