Zaidi, Abbas. Two And A Half Words And Other Stories. Gowanus Books, 2012.
What might it like to live in an atmosphere rife with bigotry, fear, and hypocrisy accompanied by the author’s and reader’s own cackling laughter?
Slip your mind into Abbas Zaidi’s slim and thoroughly delightful, also wondrously transgressive, first volume of short stories inspired by the south Asian Muslim experience and find out.
Truly, Zaidi’s Two And A Half Words And Other Stories comes off a wickedly good trip from the first mention of “Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street” (“The Shadows”) to the pitch perfect near ending wrap-up, “On that rainy evening, the four minarets of the Shahi Mosque were standing tall in the distance surrounded by the dimly-lit alleys where the ladies of the night, their pimps, and customers were getting ready for business. I lit a cigarette . . . .” (“Passions of Khalifa Hakeem”).
From the title story of the collection:
What I remember them saying was that the jhalli kuri in Number 3 had lost her mind after remaining silent and refusing to eat for days. These words had no meaning for me. But one night I woke up screaming. I dreamed that the jhalli kuri was standing over me.
A “mad girl”, a troubled apartment, mysteries . . . .
As this blog swims around in the area of language and politics, I may mention that the volume is not bereft of the latter but for western readers may be uncomfortably startling in its depictions. At one point, for example, a general notes, “if the Americans want to isolate Iran, courting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is not a bad idea” and a reporter similarly struck with grand conspiracy theorizing chimes back, “Don’t be surprised if one day a Taliban squad is found blowing up bridges in Beijing in the name of Islam but actually serving American . . . .”
Wealth may be needed to preserve the conditions in which the literary experience of the 19th Century thrived, either that or equal tolerance for impoverishment, for even reading through the dozen expertly crafted short stories contained in Zaidi’s first collection requires time away from the web and time unencumbered by other concerns — call the proper condition “leisured time”: the experience of such work becomes that of a thin but notable and latent powerful new intelligentsia. For that set — and if you’re here, I hope you’re a part of it — such stories provide both a critique of and a map to the spirit of the world in which the author has lived.
We may never have a perfect world — God forbid it — but in Abbas Zaidi, a part of it may have given the gift of a perfect and perfectly scathing reflector and entertainer.