Shifting Shades of Elements:
A Critique of Rubina Faisal’s Short Story:
(Chaukhat ki Dhoop aur Sham)

A. M. Mooquin
July 07, 2007. 

A writer writes because he or she yearns to say something. What the writer of this story yearns to say I have chosen not to comment on. I chose to concern myself with the elements of the story more than with the story itself, to study the form more than the content, to examine the techniques more than the theme. In this short commentary, I would like to look at how the elements of the story are orchestrated by the writer to express her yearnings and how successfully or adequately they are handled by the writer. In other words I will not concern myself with the writer’s take on the dilemmas created by cultural mal-absorption, but rather concern myself with how artistically the writer has been able to express her take on these issues.   

The reason for this approach is twofold. First, most of the feedbacks I have come across here in Canada in Urdu are usually concerned with the content only and so I thought there is a gap to be filled. Second, I feel that there is also a gap between the literary traditions of criticism in Urdu and English. I feel that Urdu writers may benefit by drawing from the techniques and traditions of English literature. I apologize if this does not fit very well with the audience, but I do believe that drawing from any intellectual tradition is bringing enrichment to the common heritage of humanity.  

I gave this article the title “Shifting Shades of Elements” as that was my first and overall reaction to the story. However, before delving into the criticism which will be focusing mostly on those aspects which in my view require improvement by the rigorous standard of writing on a trans-national platform, I must commend Rubina’s huge effort to work upon the issues that are so important to people who are trying to build their life afresh in an environment that is so totally new and strange to their upbringing. Those issues are extremely complex and are not easy to deal with. Rubina brings her unique perspective to these issues combining the concern of a social critic with the expertise of a writer who had passion for this subject. That surely is a very commendable effort. 

As I said earlier, most of the elements of this story are shifting over the course of the narration. Some shifts are obviously intentional while others seem to be not so intentional. While some do help to create the sense of movement but some are abrupt and some are apparently a slip through the cracks.  

For example let us start with shifts in the settings and what is being expressed by them. Obviously, there is an intentional shift in the settings; however, there is a problem of control over flashbacks at some occasions. The story starts from the setting overseas flashing back to Canada. And in the overseas (forgive me for using the word overseas instead of back home – that is intentional too) it shifts from home to home, from the ancestral home to the home of in-laws and from home to market place and college. In all these settings there is a constant flashback to Canada. In the beginning of the story the flashback seems to be more related to cultural differences but there is a constant shift in the attitude; from negative to positive and from positive to negative.  It becomes hard for the reader to understand how the main character is really seeing it all. Is the confusion in her mind intentional or is it reflective of the writer’s own shifting thoughts? In the later part of the story, further confusion is caused by the fact that the focus of the issue starts shifting from cultural to personal. In that later part, by the time when the setting actually changes to what were flashbacks in the earlier part, the whole focus has shifted towards a total personal tragedy of the protagonist (the main character). This may create a question in the mind of the reader whether the writer is trying to relate this personal tragedy to the cultural issue or not and it leaves the reader wondering about the true moral of the story.  

This shifting, consciously or unconsciously, alludes to the changing background and its impact on the psyche of the protagonist Ainee. This is a commendable technique to maintain a harmonious shift between the physical and psychological movement. However, the harmony and balance between the depictions of backgrounds is less than perfect. For example, the absence of Ainee’s husband from the first part of the story is conspicuous. The reader is trying to guess well into the story if Ainee had a husband and what is the dynamics of their relationship. Even when it mentions about her staying with in-laws it does not prepare the reader for the upcoming drama of the later part of the story. This is a question of the structural arrangement of the narration and how it relates to the unfolding of the plot.  

Before moving towards other matters, there is one more abrupt shifting of the setting which needs mentioning. The scene in the market place where Ainee loses consciousness has its beginning in Faisalabad when the writer weaves in comments about her shopping while she is still in Faisalabad. The following sentence indicates the shift from Faisalabad to Lahore, but then the incident of the servant girl of her mother-in-law watching porno on TV flashes back to Faislabad. Thereafter it seems that the market scene is continued in the shifted setting of Lahore. In that part of the story, it may become hard for the reader to connect all the dots and get a clear picture of what is happening and where. To keep the flow of events more smoother and clearer it seems the placing of the flashbacks could have been more controlled to avoid incoherence in the narration. 

In my opinion dividing the narration into different sections might have been quite helpful. Sections marked by some numbering system or other dividing marks to clearly indicate the end of one section and the beginning of the other would improve the structural arrangement.  

The second element where a shift causes the problem of the incoherence is the point of view. By point of view I mean the voice of the story. Obviously, voice of the story is te writer’s own voice, which is consistently expressed through the eyes of the main character Ainee. All the events and thoughts and commentaries on the events are presented through the eyes of Ainee. However, there are a few occasions where the point of view shifts. For example, the description of mali (gardener)’s reaction towards Ainee shows a shift of point of view. A similar shift happens in scenes with Faree. Some readers may consider these shifts in the point of view a minor point but as a technicality, control of the point of view is considered one of the most important aspects. The reason for that is not only that consistency in the point of view provides clarity in the work but also that it directly impacts the beauty of the work. The careful control of the point of view also warrants that the writer should keep herself away from the character. The character should have a life of its own; not just a spokesperson for the writer. The hidden shift in the point of view between the writer and the character reveals the strings being moved by the writer’s hand.  

There is a shift in the style of the writing too. In some parts of the story there is more narration and less description than in the rest of it.  When the author goes into a narrative or rather persuasive mode, she becomes sentimental and that compromises the balance in the style; for example, the part where the gardener’s sentiments are expressed is a more narrative form than the rest of the story.  

The second shift in the style occurs between dialogue styles – in places the dialogues are presented in the style of a drama. I believe names of the character need not to be inserted before the dialogue, as it is obvious from the context. It may be necessary to comment on some occasions on the emotions but not always. 

I would also like to make a comment about the tone of the story quite related to the style. It seems hard for the writer to restrain her judgments, which creep whimsically into the story. It might have been much more effective to convey viewpoint by showing things instead of telling about them. Successful persuasive writing persuades more by showing through description and narration and letting the readers draw their own conclusions.  

Related to style and tone is the matter of linguistic artistry. Though this matter is not related to the main focus of my commentary, which identifies the shifts in the elements of the story, yet for the sake of completeness I would like to observe that there does not seem to be sufficient emphasis on the polished use of the language. This would make the reading enjoyable on its own merit regardless of the topic and the theme. I also feel uneasy about the use of English words in Urdu writing. I know this is a whole new topic that must be explored separately. 

In the handling of imagery, there is an occasion of sharp shift of the story which I cannot help mentioning. The scene of brutal violation of the little girl in the market is in unruly contrast with the ambience of the rest of the story. This shock is too much for the reader to handle, as the shift created by this scene is in so much disparity with the overall temper of the story. I would not object fictionalizing the reality of unbearably painful aspects of life but what I am talking about here is matter of technique. From the technical point of view, harmony between the elements is more important than the viciousness of the theme.  

I would also like to add a few comments about the development of the characters and the plot. It is important in a story how expectations in the reader’s mind are created and handled. How tensions are developed and resolved. The fundamental drama, which is created by the conflict of the protagonist, also does not show up until late; although admittedly there are faint signs of it in the earlier part. The reader is at a loss for a long time as to what the writer is trying to say. Expectations, which are created in the beginning, focus more on the contrast of the two living conditions and less on the basic conflict of the story. In the later part of the story the focus is placed more on the characters’ internal psychic conditions and struggles regardless of their external environment, which is a shift from the earlier development of the story Also, in the progression of events, the late introduction of Ainee’s husband in the story is felt like a conspicuous blank In the description of the events, there appear to be shortcomings in the logical coherence. For example, no reason appears to be in place for the deterioration of the environment in Pakistan. The reader may ask, “Is this a generalization?” As obviously, in other circumstances the garden could have been well kept. Why must it be deteriorating? Is it only because Ainee is not there anymore? The reader cannot know and cannot see what is at the back of writer’s mind, the rational behind the description. 

Some of the events seem to fall short in the sense of verisimilitude and therefore they appear to be a bit unreal. For example, the character and behaviour of Aazim is not very lifelike. Even Ainee’s character seems to be developing only under the watchful composure of the writer and not through the inherent conflicts and struggles of her person in such a situation. She evades the reality of her husband’s infidelity but this avoidance does not seem to be the result of her own internal conflict but appears to be unwillingness on part of the writer to bring it forth at the appropriate time in the story. As the reader may be already suspecting from the circumstances presented and by the tone of the story, delaying this revelation puts the writer one step behind the reader. Such limitations in the development of the characters, and especially of the main character are not in harmony with the intensity of the real conflict, which the writer really wants to portray. 

The purpose of a short story (afsana) is to bring to limelight one particular slice of the life. Too many slices do not allow the sense of taste to feel satisfied and may leave one wondering as to what it was that was to be tasted. This type of mixing arises from the handling of the basic premise or postulate of the story, “what Henry James called a donnée (something given).” I am not going to delve on that as it may lead to the discussion of the theme and I promised not to discuss the theme in this context. But as an all-pervading element, the basic postulate of the story is what governs the direction of the story. Therefore, the postulate needs to be clear and preferably one continuous harmonious thought. Otherwise it can create all types of shifts like the ones, which have been the object of this commentary. 

I would like to end this commentary reiterating that form, style and language are but some of the aspects making for a great short story. Rubina Faisal’s emotive story “Choukhat ki Dhoop and Sham” is touching on several difficult topics and Rubina seems to be well on her way to writing materials of great worth.