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The Old Banyan and Other Stories.

Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi. The Old Banyan and Other Stories. Faruq Hassan, tr. New York/Karachi. Oxford University Press. 2000. xxxiii + 229 pages. $19.95. ISBN 0-19-579328-5.

AHMAD NADEEM QASIMI IS one of the leading literary figures of Pakistan, a writer whose career spans seven long decades. A member of the former Progressive Writers Movement started during the British colonial period in India, he has always remained true to its ideal that "literature is a utilitarian activity directed toward social and political change." To that purpose he has produced an impressive body of creative work: sixteen collections of short stories and ten collections of poems. The present volume, titled The Old Banyan and Other Stories, includes fifteen stories from his various original collections in Urdu.

The title story is about a patriarch named Syed Amjad Hussain, who considers an old banyan outside the window of his bungalow his "companion and friendly elder," because it has been there for four generations. His son does not understand the importance of this banyan in the life of his widowed father. So one day Socrat cuts down the tree, because, he thinks, it hides the bungalow from view. The old man is so troubled by this senseless act that he destroys the flower patch of his son and his wife, who are devastated by the loss of their garden. All three of them suffer because of their self-centered natures, their inability to understand or respect others' feelings. Similar themes of dissonance between generations or social classes also appear in "The Rest-house," "The Unwanted," "Lawrence of Thalabia," and "A Wild Woman."

Social criticism is at the heart of Qasimi's work. His denunciation of war, which causes not only death and destruction but also tears off the living from their near and dear ones, is apparent in "Old Mann Noor" and "A Mother's Love," a story that takes the reader to Hong Kong during World War II. It is the only story set outside Pakistan, besides "Parmeshar Singh," which is a moving tale of a benevolent Indian Sikh who has raised a Moslem boy lost during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. He is wounded by a thoughtless Pakistani soldier at the border when he tries to return the boy to his mother. The rest of the stories portray religious superstition, bourgeois habits of dissimulation, and blind adherence to tradition. Qasimi suggests in his stories that if people -- and their religions -- cannot adapt to changing times, they will never grow, never develop.

The fifteen stories in this collection -- preceded by an excellent introduction by the translator himself and followed by a bibliography of Qasimi's oeuvre -- give us a panoramic view of a society steeped in tradition, superstition, greed, discord, and poverty, all woven in a masterful fashion in story after story. These socially conscious pieces are, however, not devoid of art. Some of them, especially the multilayered love story "The Resthouse," can bear comparison to the best of Tagore or Chekhov. Others are also Chekhovian in detail and, in their anticlimactic conclusions, a sheer joy to read.

Ronny Noor University of Texas, Brownsville
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Noor, Ronny
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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