Book Review | Exquisite stories that are not for the faint-hearted

The Asian Age.  | Rupa Gulab

While the stories are grisly, even horrific, Malik writes beautifully — like an angel — with imagination, craft and honesty

Coverpage of 'Midnight Doorways'. (By Arrangement)

Midnight Doorways is a collection of seven short stories set in Pakistan and steeped in fables, science fiction, magic, the supernatural and other inexplicable things. While they are fantastically weird, they also have moorings in real life.

“Ishq” is about undying love between Parveen, a respectable young lady, and a boyish shakarkandi vendor. Parveen’s parents don’t object because she has polio, and they are aware that chances of finding a respectable boy for her is close to zero. Their romance outlives death, and while it’s beautifully tender, it’s decidedly squeamish.

“Resurrection Points” is another powerful story about death. The opening sentence grabs you by the throat: “I was thirteen when I dissected my first corpse.” Teenager Daoud talks about how his father, a doctor, teaches him how to press points in corpses to jerk parts of the body momentarily back to life. A communal riot between Muslims and Christians breaks out in the middle of the narrative (there are warning rumblings at the beginning) and tragedy hits all, including Daoud’s family and friends.

In “The Fortune of Sparrows”, we meet young girls in a haunted orphanage, and four-legged Mano aka the “wedding cat”. Mano could predict when the matchmaker Rishtay Wali Aunty would come to the orphanage to set one of the girls up for life. Or death.

“Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung” starts out with aching loss. A hakim visits a park inhabited by junkies and desperately shows around the photograph of a young missing woman. He befriends one of the junkies and together they follow a fantastical fable to find the missing person.

Attacks crop up frequently in the stories. “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” is dedicated to victims of the 16/12 Peshawar terrorist attack. We meet Tara whose husband and sister-in-law were killed in suicide and drone attacks. Her devastated brother leaves for the mountains, and when her mother dies, Tara is completely alone. “A young widow with no family was a stranger amidst her clan. At best an oddity, at worst a seductress.” She moves to the city, and gets herself an education. Life looks better for a while, but then suicide blasts upturn her life again.

History comes calling with “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro”, where teenage cadets and their teachers are on an educational trip on Eid. They are suddenly instructed by the army to spend the night at the site because of a Taliban attack. The bus driver protests — he’s scared of this place at night, particularly on “The Day of the Goat”, because the dead apparently rise. The visitors are caught between Taliban terrorists and supernatural monsters.

In “The Wandering City”, a ninth-century heritage site that is constantly on the move, suddenly pops up in Lahore. More enjoyable than the fantasy is Malik’s satire on corrupt politicians and government officials who try to milk it for all it is worth.

While the stories are grisly, and infinitely worse than nightmares brought on by a surfeit of cheese, Malik writes beautifully, like an angel.


Midnight Doorways

By Usman T. Malik

Hachette India

pp. 219, Rs.499