For those of us who live in Karachi, we are definitely acquainted with and have spotted Peerzada Salman at a variety of cultural events. Be it an Urdu Conference, a literature festival, an art exhibition, a play at NAPA, or a Mushaira, we have all read his reviews with keen interest. Salman is a well-known journalist and literary personality. He is associated with Pakistan’s largest English language daily, Dawn.
With a Master’s degree in English Literature from Karachi University, he also dabbles in short fiction and is a bilingual (Urdu and English) poet. In December 2017, his first collection of poems in English, titled Bemused, was published, followed by his first collection of Urdu poems, Waqt, in 2018. His book of short stories, called Ephemera, was launched in December 2021.
I often wonder if the sensitivity of a writer’s overall disposition and their sense of observation are inborne or inculcated over the years given their experiences in life. The need to self-isolate during the ongoing pandemic has led many among us to spend more time to reflect and truly examine our lives. How we were, what we are, and what we can be.
I understood Salman’s slim but poignant collection of short stories mirroring who or what he is, and/or believes himself to be. His stories seem to stem from his own experiences. And these are everyday experiences. His prose captures themes of modern-day male / female relationships and of reminisces of a foregone youth. They explore existential angst, but hope for a better and more meaningful future for the coming generations. Plath, Shakespeare, Kafka, Marquez, Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera seem to be his influences. Their names are strewn in most stories. Stories which oscillate back and forth between pathological pessimism and hopeless romanticism.
There is a constant clash of choices that one makes between creating original content versus being a ‘corporate slave’. The story “Dialogue” captures this struggle: how one fights with their personal demons and also keeps up with the society
The book starts off with “Lizard.” We get acquainted with the fears of the protagonist, his depression and witness a camaraderie between a husband and wife, and a revelation of his own shortcomings derived from a medical condition. The reader is gripped instantly to discover more. “Blue” revolves around the contemporary male / female relationship in which, just like in real life, the male ends up imposing and projecting (mansplaining) his thoughts and opinions on the more complying party (read: female). The way I interpreted it, it was more about relating to an image of one’s idea of someone rather than acknowledging and accepting who that someone actually is.
Moving onto “If on a winters morning a traveller,” we get a glimpse of how the protagonist (like Salman) has a penchant for patronising local dhaabas and street food and how he is envious of youth (exuberance of youth). The story suddenly takes a left turn towards black comedy of sorts, involving a little girl and a cat. This one reminded me of Facebook posts by Salman, from where one can get a flavour of happenings in his daily life. Too bad if you miss them as Salman does not let them linger on Facebook for too long. Well, I guess, most of them ended up in Ephemera.
“For the love of Marquez” revolves around how the younger generation (the millennials) challenge the older generation (Generation X) by being gender fluid and / or more aware of their sexuality, having their own own worldview and dressing sense which puzzles the slightly more introverted Gen X-ers.
“Boys and Girls” is a simple, coming-of-age story about growing up in an era in which there was no Google, no iPads or smartphones. Salman romanticises that era as being simple, even though the fact is every bygone era, no matter how complex, seems simple as compared to the era that it gets replaced with. The story thus, is an exploration of nostalgia. Or so it seems.
In “Numbness,” Salman seamlessly navigates across various emotions that a person experiences, such as of loss and of the need to be responsible, but at the same time giving in to the physical urges to release the daily stresses of life in a large, cosmopolitan city. Themes of (in)fidelity and lust are captured well in phrases like “You never know with such women. If they can two- time their husbands, they can two- time their lovers.” These could well be passages from pages of his own life.
The themes of stories “Scent of Cyberspace,” “Non-story” and “Naked” are similar: thoughts about either living in the past, or reminiscing about a fulfilled life with abundance of youth and time on your side as opposed to trying to imagine what the future will be for generations after you. Will they remember you with fondness and respect or with disdain at the choices you made? The protagonist in this story is in the throes of middle-age where one is constantly reflective of the past and apprehensive of the future. Salman seems to be asking, does ageing make one wiser or weaker?
Another battle faced by creative people is how to balance what they create versus a life that is materially comfortable. There is a constant clash of choices that one makes between creating original content versus being a ‘corporate slave’. The story “Dialogue” captures this struggle: how one fights with their personal demons and also keeps up with the society. How bonds and deeper connection with other humans take a back seat as the pursuit of creative urges takes priority.
Reflective juxtapositions of life and death, loss and love, fear and ambitions sum up this debut short story collection. Salman’s stories may be short (some too short), but the meaning they portray is complex.