Today’s Deep Cuts is “Laal Andhi” (via Nightmare Magazine) by Usman Malik. Malik is a Pakistani writer who draws on his background to craft brilliant fiction, as well as inspiring others to do the same. In addition receiving the Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Awards for his fiction, Malik also led Pakistan’s first speculative fiction workshop in 2014 – bringing his unique perspective to bear in welcoming new voices into the literary community.
“Laal Andhi” begins with an act of terror and then sifts back through the narrator’s childhood to try and trace the course set in motion years before. Set primarily in the Pakistani city of Lahore during 1985, “Laal Andhi” draws on closely observed concrete details to create an authentic portrait of that time and place. As you read, however, pay attention to how the sweltering prose builds the atmosphere of oppression and tension not just in the titular “crimson storm,” but everyday life. Surrounded by violence and the unquiet dead, is this a story about the narrator’s quest finding meaning, or to create it? By the end, we readers can understand that it is clearly a story about hauntings, but of what house(s)? Join us as we peel back some of the layers, but don’t be surprised if some aspects resist complete explanation. There are no easy answers here.
If you haven’t read “Laal Andhi” yet, this is the time because – you guessed it – there are ***SPOILERS BELOW***.
Hellnotes: Normally we start with the question of where the story came from. In your “Author Spotlight” interview with Nightmare Magazine, however, you’ve already revealed that you’d written the first version of “Laal Andhi” in Urdu when you were nineteen. What do you remember of the story’s genesis from back then, and what was it that inspired you to come back to it?
Usman Malik: Growing up in Lahore, my cousins and I would whisper this warning to each other: Never go out in a laal andhi. This crimson storm (as the story reveals) was a dust storm that would cover the city and, like a sandstorm, would get inside your nasal passages, yours eyes, your clothes. You’d scrub and scrub and still feel grainy. I don’t remember now whether it was really red dust or the light made it look red. Regardless, folks were superstitious about it and the atmospherics and subsequent metaphor shaped itself into a story. I remember thinking, after I’d finished writing the very first draft in Urdu, that there was something powerful here that I couldn’t quite grasp. Those kids, the haunted house, the story–it was a powerful piece. I just had to fix it and put it together better. That is what I did after more than a decade and there you have it.
HN: This story’s prose style and structure work together in a unique way. The dense and often alliterative descriptions build up an overwhelming tension that buries the characters beneath Lahore’s violence, secrets, and the red rain itself. Similarly, the narrative isn’t strictly linear (even leaving aside the first and last sections’ framing narrative). Instead, the dramatized scenes are interspersed with recollections and the minutiae of daily life in 1985 Lahore, which similarly builds a tension that finally breaks during the catastrophe at Bad Bricks. These shifts, especially the quotidian digressions from the strict plot, not only contribute to the atmosphere, but also are reminiscent of the kind of interruptions that would pepper a true oral recounting.
What was your approach in developing the structure and style of this story? Were these effects consciously developed during the writing, or did they arise from the material? Was this interplay between theme and style present in the first drafts, as well?
UM: The very first draft (in both Urdu and English) was linear and held little of the eventual thematics or structure play. It was a simple haunted house story with kids chased by an unnamable something– nigh Lovecraftian. I wrote many versions and tried my hand at several styles. From a craft point of view, writing it was a nightmare. It took me several years, honestly, to level up and achieve a semblance of a style that would work to the story’s strength. Next was the question of thematics. It couldn’t just be a haunted house story anymore. There is that David Foster Wallace line “Every love story is a ghost story.” I suspect the converse is also true: “Every ghost story is a love story.” To or against whom that love is directed sets the tone and terror of the piece. Laal Andhi was a story about childhoods surrounded by violence. It just had to declare itself as it eventually did.
HN: One of the themes that emerge from “Laal Andhi” is the desire to give meaning to tragedy. Most notably, this is the “game” that the boys play – they go to places afflicted by senseless violence, where they create “elegies and dark fables . . . . [t]ales of terror, torture and turpitude” to “read to the dead.” By “giving meaning to their slaughter” – albeit through imagined lives and other fictions – the boys graft some sort of meaning onto the meaningless and, in their way, “stopped and paid [their] respects” to the dead.
At the end, when the reader finds out that Saleem has become a suicide bomber, there is no single answer as to why. His mother blames the city – a corrupt and violent environment that decades earlier had “disappeared” Saleem’s father. Pointedly, she says, “Blood seeks blood. My son was killed by your city. . . . You turned him.” Moreover, the story itself (which the narrator tells his wife) seems to be the narrator’s attempt to trace Saleem’s change back to the supernatural forces at Bad Bricks. Neither of these, of course, is a complete answer.
Through the narrator’s efforts to tie the crushing conditions of 1985 in Lahore to a definitive endpoint – including attributing the phantasmagoric scene with the Rampuri chakoo and the thing in the bag to 1985, even though he isn’t sure (but knows in his heart) that’s when it occurred – he can make their shared misery assume some semblance of order, even if the outcome is bad. Could we read this story as the narrator’s attempt at the “game” – giving a reason to violence and imbuing his past traumas with significance, rather than acknowledge their meaninglessness? Stepping out of the fictional world, could we view the text itself as perhaps an “eleg[y] and dark fable” similar to the ones the boys tell?
UM: Yes. I’m pleased that some of what I wanted to do with the story comes to the fore when read carefully. There’s more, which I won’t delve into. I believe it was Samuel R. Delany who once said (paraphrasing) that endings, to be useful, should remain ambiguous.
HN: Taking place in Pakistan in the 1980s, “Laal Andhi” presents concrete details of a keenly observed place and time, as well as draws from proverbs and belief systems that many Western readers might not be familiar with. Given that this is a horror story, one group of details that readers may find particularly chilling is the imagery that you’ve chosen for the terrors in Bad Bricks – the black hair, the putrid smells, the sacks, and the coal. Is there an exterior source for these, or are these personal fears that you’ve drawn from? Along those lines, are there any specific folkloric elements that you drew on elsewhere in the story that non-Pakistani readers might miss out on?
UM: I grew up reading stories about witches with long black hair, watching Bollywood horror movies where strands of long black hair are manifestly associated with black magic. My cousins and I did live in a joint family system and we had a basement quite like the one in the story with sacks of coal and broken furniture and dust. (I don’t know why we had coal in the house. We didn’t have a coal furnace.) The little boy in the story who gets locked in the basement was me. That did happen when I was nine or ten.
HN: Unlike haunted houses in other stories, the one at the center of this tale – Bad Bricks – doesn’t necessarily have evil in its bones. There doesn’t appear to be an ancient curse or old burial ground that causes the haunting, yet over time Bad Bricks comes to be associated with all manner of violence: the military (the original owner was a general); crime (the reporter’s murder by the mafia); illness (the maid who dies of a seizure); random tragedy (the fleeing couple’s car wreck); and finally terrorism (Saleem’s suicide bombing). However, instead of anything being done about the house, it is left to fester and rot in the middle of an affluent suburb. It is a conspicuous problem that people seem incapable of dealing with, and so they have given up on it and left it to its own devices. In a way, too, this is what happens to Saleem – he becomes a haunted house filled with ghosts (his father’s “disappearance”; the bag in the tree; the specters at Bad Bricks), but is left to rot for twenty more years until he takes his own life as a suicide bomber.
Is this neglect a mirror for how the characters view the crimson storm and, perhaps, the environment of Lahore a whole? Is there a shared perception by the people in the story that violence – even explosive, thunderous violence – is a cyclical and elemental occurrence, and, as such, that attempts to stop it are useless?
UM: In the last sixty years Pakistanis (and South Asians in general; note many of these peoples live in former British colonies) have become inured to violence and deprivation, have acculturated to fatalism. Is that what the story is about? I don’t know. I prefer to let the reader think on that.
HN: While this story’s setting may be very different from what most Western horror readers are familiar with, there are certainly readers who not only can identify with “Laal Andhi,” but who are also not used to seeing these lives represented in genre fiction. Moving away from this specific story for just a moment, what importance do you see in telling stories about Pakistan? Should authors and readers look to use stories like these as tools for understanding other places and people, or is it enough for them to serve as exposure and representation? In this regard, what do you hope to see in the future regarding speculative fiction involving these types of communities?
UM: I think what’s important is to welcome writers from those countries into western literary communities. Making a deliberate attempt to talk to them, to humanize them and their hometown, homelands, is different from thinking of reading those books and stories as charity that needs be done. There are stories out there, hundreds of thousands of them, waiting to be read. Good different stories with new ideas, themes, plots, yours to be had were you brave enough to venture forth. That is a different mindset than worrying about prescribing a quota for ‘those writers.’ The latter act ‘others’ the writers and lets you, the powerful gatekeeper, retain power or the illusion of power. The former is an act of humility and humanity.
HN: Finally, for readers who are new to your work, which other story or stories of yours should they look for if they want to read something similar? What about if they want something completely different?
UM: For horror fans, “Resurrection Points” (published in Strange Horizons) is free to read online. Joe Hill really liked that story. For science fiction and fantasy fans, “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” (free at Tor.com) is a novella fine folk such as E. Lily Yu, Jonathan Strahan and Ken Liu seemed to have liked.
Usman Malik is a Pakistani writer of strange stories. His work has won the Bram Stoker and British Fantasy awards, been nominated for the World Fantasy and Nebula awards, and appeared in several Year’s Best anthologies. He resides in two worlds.