After reading Kaali Haveli, a collection of Urdu horror stories by Hijab Imtiaz Ali, I was inclined to call Ali Tahir, Hijab’s grandson, and ask him if the stories in the collection are based on real-life experiences. He replied in the negative, telling me that they are fictional.
The question came up in my mind as a result of the realism that prevails throughout Hijab Imtiaz Ali’s short stories. And this is despite them being horror stories. This realism lies not only in the conversations which take place between the characters, but also in the way the settings and characters are developed. The narrator is a stock character throughout the book, who relates the stories in the first-person narrative, taking place both in and out of Pakistan. A woman named Roohi – possessed by wanderlust and someone who loves to write as well – this protagonist of the book’s stories resembles Hijab Imtiaz Ali herself. For Hijab was not only a writer, but Pakistan’s first female pilot too!
True to what one might expect, in her book Kaali Haveli, she makes us travel the world, and from the standpoint of Roohi, describes horrifying experiences encountered in various corners of the world, the geographical descriptions of which are surprisingly authentic. I was repeatedly inclined to google the names of places mentioned, and always found that they do, indeed, exist in real life.
Romantic imagery is not merely translated from Western sources in her works, but is reproduced from the mind of someone who observes her own natural surroundings, smells her own flowers, and is swept off her feet not by the winds of the West, but of the East
Through Kaali Haveli, Hijab Imtiaz Ali draws a very fine line between what is horror and what is thrilling, and that is why this book holds a special place in my heart, for I am an ardent fan of horror fiction and am least attracted by growling animals and detective stories taking place at night time in the name of horror. It is not only the atmosphere which Hijab creates for her terrifying tales through moonless, cloudy nights, whistling wind, silent landscapes, dilapidated and uninhabited buildings. She tells us stories of ghosts, of people dead from thousands of years ago, yet incarnated to haunt places. She writes of creepy figures walking in the middle of roads whose very look can send shivers down the spine and of mysterious rooms in which frequent deaths take place.
At the same time, all these stories are told in so realistic a manner that they don’t seem to take place out of the realm of comprehensibility. Either another stock character named Doctor Gaar is often found treating patients who have been victims of the frightening experiences, or the characters are found wandering in the streets of our very own Gulberg after midnight, only to find corpse-like humans to scare them out of their wits.
Adding to the book’s literary quality are its lines incorporating vivid natural imagery. When I first read that Hijab Imtiaz Ali is the queen of Urdu Romanticism, I thought that it is the romance of the modern times, which is true to some extent if her works like Meri Na-tamaam Mohabbat and Woh Bahaarein Yeh Khizaayen are considered. But it was when I read Kaali Haveli that I realized that it is Romanticism with a capital R – the very literary movement of the West that produced ample poetry reflecting a desire to return to nature. It finds an exhibition in Kaali Haveli from an Eastern person’s point of view and in the writer’s own language. Hijab Imtiaz Ali gives pictorial descriptions of trees, flowers, birds and the sky and mingles the feelings of her characters with these elements from nature. Olfactory imagery also makes its way when it comes to flowers, an example being the following line:
Kamray mein Hinaa ke itar-baiz phoolon ki nighatein awaara theen.
The writer also keeps referring to Asian winds, making us realize that Romantic imagery is not merely translated from Western sources in her works, but is reproduced from the mind of someone who observes her own natural surroundings, smells her own flowers, and is swept off her feet not by the winds of the West, but of the East. And then she puts all of this on paper, using a literary and pure Urdu idiom.
When the feelings of a poetic mind coupled with realistic settings find their expression in stories that are horror, a piece of literature is produced with is quite unique. It is a piece from which one can learn language, for it comes from the pen of a canonical writer. It can be taken as an authentic piece for its locations which exist in reality, and it can be enjoyed because it contains stories sincerely meant to scare the readers – because they occur at places which seemingly surround us all the time, on our very own earth.
Putting it in the context of modern times, Kaali Haveli is progressive writing indeed, for the protagonist is a woman who is ready to undertake any task that comes in the way, even if it involves risking her life. She is bold, adventurous and has the guts to travel and stay at far-off places alone, even if there is no man to accompany her.