The Opium Eater & Other Stories

by Iqbal Ahmad,
170 pages,
ISBN: 0920953743

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Anne Denoon

ALTHOUGH the author of The Opium Eater and Other Stories (Cormorant, 166 pages, $12.95 paper) lives in Toronto, only one of these stories

refers, very briefly, to life in North America; the rest are set in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. However, Igbal Ahmad's themes, and the sensibilities of his characters, should arouse a feeling of recognition in any thoughtful inhabitant of this last decade of the 20th century. The tone of the stories ranges from the tragic to the ironic to the bawdy, but most evoke an encounter with what one character calls "the terror of modern space"; that is, the necessity of facing death, suffering, and loss without the comfort of faith. Many of Ahmad's protagonists search for a way to resist or postpone this confrontation: a poet chooses the alternative universe of hallucination; a philosopher, unable to scale the "dark wall" of his impending death, takes up snake-charming; a teacher assumes the comic persona of the absentminded professor to mask his unquenchable and unacceptable grief for his dead son. Not all the tales are grim: in one, a timid civil servant unwillingly faces down a tiger and becomes, for a moment at least, a hero despite himself.

The author views his characters' sorrows and foibles with a mildly ironic compassion, but is not indulgent. In the fine story "The Kumbh Fair" he illuminates the self-absorbed altruism of his protagonist, a college student, by juxtaposing it with the tragic resignation of a peasant girl forced into prostitution. Ahmad's style is acute and graceful, with a pleasing air of formality that suggests a borrowed, rather than owned, language: "a tool of the mind, not a limb," as one of his characters puts it. He has a particular ability to create visual metaphors, especially those involving light: a suicidal student sees "someone dragging a chain of light through the darkness," which is actually "a train passing over a bridge." A man facing death becomes lost in contemplation of a rectangle of light, "half [of which] lay on top of the desk, half hung down along one side.... as if its back had been broken by the edge." These, perhaps, are the only transcendent moments available to the denizens of "modern space."


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