Tuesday, May 6, 2014


by Rukhsana Ahmad

  • The gatekeeper’s wife

A book review by Rabia Ahmed
Pique May 2014

This is good writing, if good writing is one that keeps you reading and makes you think

That list of books written by Pakistani writers in English grows before you can lay down the last book and Rukhsana Ahmad, a recurring name, has added another book on that list with her collection of short stories.  It is entitled ‘The Gatekeeper’s Wife and other stories.’
Rukhsana Ahmad grew up in Karachi, studied English literature and linguistics at Karachi University and taught there briefly before moving to England where she continued studying English at Reading University. 
Ahmad’s plays, stories, translations and reviews have been produced on the radio and stage, and printed for several years, and one of her plays reached the finals for the Susan Smith Blackburn International Prize.  Ahmad’s first novel ‘The Hope Chest’ was published in 1996 by Virago.  Writing about that novel Fay Weldon said, ‘What a find Ahmad is! She writes about women’s legacy of grief without self-pity and if there is anger, it surfaces as wit.’
It is no surprise that this new paperback printed by Ilqa Publications (Readings) is such an enjoyable read.  In fact Bapsi Sidhwa has called Rukhsana Ahmad ‘a magnificent writer.’
‘The Gatekeeper’s Wife and other stories’ is a collection of Ahmad’s short fiction. The story that gives the book its name was first printed in Lakshmi’s Holstrom’s collection ‘The Inner Courtyard’ where, as Ahmad says, she was euphoric to find herself in the company of Ismat Chughtai, Mahasweta Devi and Ambai.  It was also dramatised and produced in theatre.
Ahmad has long championed the cause of Asian writers, and women in particular, and is a founding member of the Asian Women Writers’ Collective.  In fact one of her best stories in this current collection ‘Cassandra and the Viaduct’ printed first in 1994 also by Virago in a book called Flaming Spirit, was taken from writings of that Collective.
Ahmad’s stories are set in Pakistan and England like the stories of most Pakistani English writers that shuttle between Britain/the US and Pakistan reflecting these writers’ own experiences and the changes of person and values that arise as a result of the entire migrant experience.  Cassandra in Cassandra and the Viaduct is really Qaiser, a young girl who lives with her family in Wandsworth in England, and who has ‘surrendered her unusual Pakistani name with its impossible glottal fricative at the beginning’ to become Cassandra or ‘the more user friendly Cass or Cassie.’
Her best story however is the last one in this collection, ‘A Day For Naggo,’ which was first printed in 1988 by The Women’s Press.  The story raises a strong voice for the rights of women and minorities and in a masterly piece of fiction which is not fictitious in the least portrays the treatment of both in Pakistan. I would, if I could, make this one compulsory reading for everyone in the country. Naggo is a young mother who lives in a tiny house, an encroachment on the bungalow of a larger house in Lahore where she works.  Like countless other women she labours tirelessly to raise a pathetic income for her growing family, even washing a load of clothes a few hours after delivering her first child. It does not even occur to her otherwise benign husband that he could help her, and he sleeps while she works. The story reminds the reader that all women and mothers, and not just female doctors and managers at banks are working women with rights to a proper wage and holidays. Yet there are no care services for the children of these working women and no contracts ensuring their wages, vacations, bonuses and other rights. It is a striking piece of writing that points out that it is never easy to bring about change but it can be done, and that those who think of themselves as liberal and the educated women who themselves work have no empathy for the rights of the downtrodden.
This is good writing, if good writing is one that keeps you reading and makes you think.                

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