The subtitle of Sana Munir’s Unfettered Wings (Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women) suggests that these are non-fiction: anecdotes, perhaps, of indomitable courage or resilience or other virtues, culled from the lives of everyday women. As the blurb on the back cover further explains it: “From the barren dust bowl of Nushki… to the posh white marble bungalows and immense mansions of Lahore, this captures vignettes of the lives of Pakistani women who brave battles, big and small….”
But no, the women of Munir’s book are fictitious women. Farida, who is uprooted from her village in Patiala and taken to Pakistan in 1947. Maria, a wealthy prostitute, who entrances a carpet-seller. Habiba, ‘the girl with topaz eyes’, whose closest male relatives—father, younger brother and cousin—kidnap people as ‘assignments’. The divorced single mother, Nazia, who has escaped an abusive husband only to find herself ostracised by a society which regards her as the guilty party.
Of the 10 stories contained in this book, only one—‘Maria: The Wanton One’—is told from the point of view of a man. The others are all from the perspective of a woman or a girl. All the stories are of a woman living life on their own terms, whether she’s a police officer investigating a crime, a girl defying the purdah that stops her from giving food to a hungry stranger, or a woman trying to come to terms with being raped in her childhood. Or a professor who refuses to buckle under pressure to conform. Or a woman who’s such a diehard fan of Shahrukh Khan’s that her idea of the perfect wedding anniversary celebration is to watch the star’s latest movie with her husband.
All of these stories are, to some extent, grim: at times horribly and realistically so (Habiba, Farida, and Reema stand out in this respect). Others have the grimness softened by the counterbalance provided by love, friendship, and other aspects that make a woman’s life less of a challenge from birth to death.
The stories themselves are a varied lot, with the best at the beginning of the book. It is in stories like Farida, Maria, Habiba, Summi and (in some ways) Reema that Munir’s storytelling shines through: her descriptions evoke a Pakistan that few Indians, at least, would be familiar with. Not just the physical aspects of the country, but its people, culture, society. In these stories, she displays adeptness at depicting life in a gripping, hard- hitting way.
In contrast, the stories further on fall a bit flat. Meera and Eeman veer off into more ‘telling’ and less ‘showing’, thus diluting the message; and Saima, which is a whodunnit, does not really fit with the rest. The language goes off the rails now and then, with grammatical errors and incorrect idioms. And Reema has several embarrassing anachronisms (I doubt if the average Pakistani home had TVs and freezers in 1948; and were there really call centres in Pakistan in 1960)?