Book: Sondhi Mitti Ka Attar

Book: Sondhi Mitti Ka Attar
Author: Prof Shamim Aleem (
Publisher: Modern Publishing House, Darya Gunj, New Delhi

The latest book by Dr. Shamim Aleem Sondhi Mitti Ka Attar is a worthwhile addition to Urdu literature. A retired Professor of the prestigious Osmania University of Hyderabad, she wields a prolific pen, both in English and Urdu, and has to her credit eight books in English mostly on topics related to her discipline – Public Administration. This is her second work in Urdu and like the earlier book Aks-i-Kayenaat is quite unrelated to her academic field.

I have just finished reading her second book, a bouquet of short essays, columns, stories and lively comments on a variety of subjects. No matter what the genre, her writings carry a generous sprinkling of humour that brighten up the contents and nudge the reader to keep on reading.

Often she weaves subtly her theme into the fabric of a short story. The reader is left to draw his own conclusions. Her write-up on Credit Cards conveys her critique of the hair-splitting Mullahs’ views on riba (usury, exorbitant rate of interest) and how they fault even innocuous, and often unavoidable, commercial dealings.

She has a deep revulsion against the South Asian system of dowry and has given vent in some of her short stories. For instance in her story ‘Contract Marriage,’ the poverty-stricken parents of a young girl are constrained to ‘sell’ her in the so-called marriage after marriage, for a month each, to old Arab Sheikhs with deep pockets. The parents did not have enough money to manage an attractive dowry for her marriage. In another story, the poor father of a young girl agrees to sell his kidney to secure enough money to spend on the dowry for her marriage. Several of her pieces portray the inferior, discounted status of women in the South Asian cultural milieu. Very effective and moving are her stories in which old men manage to seduce poor and subordinate teenage girls. “Badnami ka Gharda” and “Cheeta” fall in this category.

In these stories she also insinuates that man is lewd and lecherous by nature. This trait remains with him till the end. He waits like a predator to pounce upon a vulnerable woman. She describes how men old enough to be their victims’ grandfathers have impregnated poor and young servant girls. Like Manto, Mrs. Aleem has perhaps tried to unveil the ugly reality beneath the sophistication of the nobles.

In her story about the decision of a 60-year old widow to remarry, she portrays the vulnerability of a woman in our society. Hameeda, vivacious and pretty, had endeared herself to all her friends and relations who respected her and sought her company as she injected joy and vibrancy into their monotonous lives. But, this popular lady became a virtual pariah soon after the death of her beloved husband. To resume enjoying life and purveying happiness all around, she decided to marry again despite her age. She explains: ‘A woman needs a protector. As long as a man’s name is attached to her own, every one treats her with respect and dignity. Once she loses the title to have the suffix of a male’s name with her own, she stands devalued and is viewed through a different prism by the same people. She becomes vulnerable.’

Mrs. Aleem’s short story “Kis ka khoon” is an artful projection of the problems caused by the caste system. Noble and likeable elderly Brahman lady of a village refuses to let her son marry a girl of lower caste; how she loses blood in an accident and needs transfusion. The villagers who had the utmost affection for the noble lady were unwilling to give their blood to her, lest they contaminate her by the infusion of their inferior blood. The doctor, educated in the Western scientific tradition, is surprised at the belief of the simple village folks, ignores their apprehensions and arranges the transfusion of the blood of the lowest caste villager as it matched the old lady’s own blood.

On regaining consciousness, the old lady realizes the falsity of the belief and willingly agrees to the marriage of her son to the lower caste girl of his choice. Blood knows no caste, she admits. The realization comes with the intervention of modern education in the form of a doctor in this case and the exercise of rationality.

The write-ups included in the chapter on the glimpses of life in America, shed light on several aspects of life in this country that we normally do not pay much heed to. These sketches are thoroughly entertaining even for persons who have lived in that country for decades. For, the writer’s perceptive mind notices the oddities that generally go unnoticed. Often she introduces personal experiences in order to add a touch of conviction to her narration.

Her writings are invariably thought provoking. And, her compositions make piquant reading and reflect her command of the Urdu language. Above all, each piece carries a subtle message.

Syed Arif Hussaini