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A Look At The Latest Volume Of The Aleph Review

Since I have acquired “The Aleph Review” Vol 5, it doesn’t leave my bed-side table. It is an addictive collection, with a strong impact. The front cover is a mysterious tree of life, depicted by artist Suleman Aqeel Khilji, which keeps speaking to you, every time you glance at it. Eventually, the spell is cast and you pick it up for a longer perusal. Sometimes it seems as if the roots are buried underneath the ground, but made skeletally visible. Other times, it seems like a pale brown-orange tree is branching into a half moon which carries names of the writers featured. The connotation then, that you are left with, is that the work of these writers have made the very roots of the tree of life, visible.

The poets, artists and writers symbolize the ‘tree of life’ in society, and The Aleph Review has created a space for their expression in a world drowning in meaningless entertainment on the one side and extremism on the other. This is their 5th Volume, and they have carried this torch for 5 continuous years now. Each year they come up with a new theme that many of the works featured are weaved on. This year’s theme was: “Tree of Life.”

It’s a creative anthology and is divided into 10 sections: Poetry, Translation, Memoir, Fiction: Fantasy, Fiction: Realism, Travel, Reportage, Interview, Essay and Novelette. In another way of putting this: there’s something for every kind of reader.

In this review, I will be looking at a few select pieces that caught my attention to give you a taste of what’s in store. To truly experience the work is, of course, to read it in its entirety for every poem, artwork and story featured is an important study.

I’d like to start with Nida Shah, who in her poem “Now That You Are Away” describes the experience of living with someone who is in acute pain. The reader seems to have a real-life encounter with the on-goings in the poem. It is the last stanza, however, which is the most endearing:

Someday, very soon, I may go to places/ and see where I lost the old you” – this tendency of love which outlasts difficult circumstances, is intriguing.

Salman Tarik Kureshi’s “White Room” is sparse and direct. One can feel a backward motion and a constant battle within the speaker of the poem. Trying to come to terms with a certain past, and not being able to: “white walls deep cold/ but almost/no grief not/ anymore.” The constant repetition of the color white, creates a blank emptiness. It seems to be the selected color for trying to erase the past. The phrase that strikes the most, is placed toward the end: “history is cold.” If the past is dead, it is cold. If the past is cruel, it is cold as well.

This stellar and reaching work is further enhanced by the work of art that is placed alongside it. This is “Clean Rain” by Rabeya Jalil, and like Kureshi’s poem, this tells of a pattern of wanting to ‘white out’ the canvas. The impressions of the struggle are there, and are perhaps infused with the possibility of coming into the arena of ‘clean rain.’

Imran Aslam’s poem, “Eulogy to Be” laments the loss of slowness and older times. The poem creates a trance-inducing effect and as the speaker describes that the “slowness is stuck in my memory” the reader too is drawn into the self-same web. With touching movie references, the poem starts the poem with confronting the reader directly: “Do you remember Brando dying in Last Tango in Paris?” He then takes us to understanding that perhaps everyone should be given a chance to face fate and death “at his own pace.”

An English anthology, and yet placed at the center of the volume, are translations of three works by Muneer Niazi, with the Urdu text alongside. It is a mystic experience to gaze at the elegant font chosen for the Urdu verses. This text, only adds to the beauty of this refined book. One gets tired of reading books online or in poor quality paper, but Aleph Review is a fine quality book with strikingly colorful pages which are a pleasure to hold and experience.

Amitabha Bagchi relates his experience of translating Muneer Niazi, as going searching for gold and diamonds in the mine of his works. The verses he has selected are magical in both languages. “Vohee qareeb-o-duur ki manzilein/ vohee sham khwab-o-khyal ki” translated as: “those same near and distant destinations/ that same evening of dreams and ruminations.” A beautiful rendition of that memory which is both near and far at the same time, the familiar haunt of it is palpable.

The refrain of memories is also felt in Zunaira Nadeem’s short story, “Cooking Memories.” This story is a call out to dreams and desires, of those who are lonely. The curiosity of the onlooker at such a life can be felt vividly in the lines:

“The child glanced down at her and looked puzzled.

“But don’t you get bored alone?”

“Oh no. The old are never alone, dear.”

In the interview section, the reader of Aleph Review is invited to intimate talk sessions with Kamila Shamsie, H.M. Naqvi and Saleem Haddad. In separate interviews, Kamila Shamsie and H.M. Naqvi both talk about places and the important part they play in their narratives. Naqvi states that “there is a story around every corner” in a city. Shamsie points out the crucial difference between citizenship and belonging – one is a “legal status,” while the other is an “emotional/psychological state.”

Shamsie explains that the title of her novel, “Home Fire” can be read in two ways: a burning house or fire lit at a home. Naqvi quotes a sage: “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know yourself,” in explaining a certain plot point in his work. Whereas, Haddad confesses that he doesn’t regard a ‘creative block’ as a hindrance to his writing. He has realized that it is with ‘time and distance’ that writing gains its natural momentum.

Julien Columeau’s “Kamran Ali Khan Qawwal,” the solo novelette featured in Aleph Review, is a page turner. The story is told as the protagonist recalls his life when faced with imminent death. The passion for art, dreams, someone’s success, another’s failure, crime, death, murder – are all those themes that pervade this inviting story. It’s a must read and the art work that it embellishes is of a mystical strain: “Still Point of the Dance” and the “Belief Series” by Mudasar Manzoor. Manzoor’s work features a divine longing and a state of meditation. This provides new avenues to look at Columeau’s novelette: has the protagonist, caught in the throes of life and corruption, reached a mystic clarity towards the end? Columeau’s work has been translated from the original Urdu version by Sana Riaz.

Featuring around 60 writers and also chosen artists, Aleph Review is a carefully selected anthology. It is obvious that the editors have worked painstakingly to achieve the perfect impact, both in the beautiful physical form of the book, as well as the content featured in it. Launched from Lahore, Pakistan, it brings acclaim to the country for having achieved this milestone which is a first venture of its kind after a long, long time.

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Naya Daur