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~Life and Death~
It's often said that in the moments before you die your life passes in front of your eyes. I'm sceptical about how true that is since anyone who's had it happen to them is unlikely to be able to report back after the event. By contrast, I can believe that in their final days, the sick and dying probably do look back on their lives and think about the people they loved, the chances they missed and the things that might have been different if they'd come to life's junctions and taken a different direction. This is the theme of Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed's short story 'A Change in the Weather'.
An old man lies in his bedroom in India, gathering the people and things he loves around him. His wife's oil paintings from their honeymoon in Kashmir hang on the walls and he remembers their first days together as man and wife. His granddaughter's comic books sit on the shelf and he thinks about her coming to visit later in the day, to sit beside him and laugh as she reads and plays her music. His wife of over 40 years has lined up all his medicine bottles and he lies by the window watching and listening to life go on outside. His son rolls up in his sports car and reluctantly discusses the arranged marriage his parents hope he'll accept and an old friend visits to help him plot that son's future.
One day his daughter picks up a book on his shelf - a Dylan Thomas - which has an inscription inside: "R., for changing the weather of my heart, E." She asks him who are R and E and his mind drifts off to think about his youth.
Fifty years earlier he was a medical student in London, taking advantage of Britain's post-war drive to suck in the best of the educated men of the old empire and involve them in the new National Health Service. He struggled with the cold and the strange ways of the locals. He met a girl, Emily, whom he loved and who loved him. She called him 'Raan' - the R of the inscription and short for Imran. He recalls how they met the first time, the second and then for the following months, becoming first friends and then rather more until circumstances back in India sent him home. He hadn't intended to stay in India, had planned his life to be in England with her, but as we all know, life and family don't always respect our plans. When he left England Emily put the book into his suitcase - "In case you forget me." Of course he never did.
~Past and Present~
As the book flips back and forth between the London of his past and the India of his present, the absence of much of a future is at the back of our minds. Imran doesn't tell us why things went wrong, why he left Emily behind or what happened to her. We're left to discover that through a bunch of undelivered letters which Imran believes to have been destroyed many years before. As readers we are let into secrets that have never been shared with those around him and we're left to wonder if he took the right decisions, weighing up the happiness of his life with his wife and family against the life he could have had thousands of miles away.
This is the second of Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed's short stories in her 'Purana Qila' series. Purana Qila is a large house, owned by Imran's parents and is the focal point around which all the stories are connected. I've read and reviewed the first, 'The Dust Beneath her Feet' and recently received her third short story. All have been published as Kindle e-books and if you are tempted but don't want to part with your money, they are available on free loans via the Kindle Owners Lending Library - a scheme which offers members of Kindle 'Prime' a free book each month on loan.
This is not a book that will take you long to read but you may find as soon as you've finished it that you go straight back to the beginning and read it again. I found subtleties the second time around that I missed the first time. I missed the revelation about why his son lost his parrot first time but it all made sense the second time. However I'm also lucky in now being able to g direct to the author with any questions since she's kind enough to answer my rambling emails and enquiries about subtleties of the plot.
I will acknowledge that not everyone likes short stories and I'm not always a fan myself. Too often a short story is written because the author hasn't got a big enough story to make a 'proper' book out of it but that's not the case with this story. Fortunately Shaheen's short stories are exceptional. They are tasty nuggets of life which leave the reader with plenty of unanswered questions and lots to think about. I enjoyed the snippets of Imran's life in 1950s London with Emily as well as the finely crafted details of the minutiae of his elderly life. The pictures she paints of the room Imran lives in, the things he has around him and the family he loves are so strong that we can easily imagine we're sitting on that hard chair in his room watching everything that happens.
I interviewed Shaheen for a Q&A feature on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk and had a lot of email exchange with her around the questions. Despite reading 'A Change in the Weather' twice through, I missed the connection between it and the first of the Purana Qila stories until she reminded me that Imran was the son of the family which employed and supported the poor family from 'The Dust Beneath Her Feet'. This boy had appeared as a kind young man who let the girls ride on his bicycle and walked them to school when political tensions were high. In 'A Change in the Weather' we get to see how life has changed Imran, how his disappointments and joys have made their marks on his life and on him as a human being. In the third short story, we get to go back to the days after he returned to London and meet the characters of both the first and second books again. The more Purana Qila stories there are, the more they each knit together and each adds to the ones that go before. However each story stands on its own and can be read without the others though undoubtedly you don't get quite so much out of them in isolation.
I received all my Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed stories via Curiousbookfans. Many thanks to her for her generosity and time and to Vlad at CBF for setting up the contact.