“I just felt like I read someone else’s Facebook post and nothing more.” That’s a man on Facebook, reacting to Kristen Roupenian’s short story, “Cat Person”. He added that this New Yorker fiction piece about a horrible date between a 20-year-old sophomore and 34-year-old man “wreaks” of self-involved literature. Both Cat Person and Roupenian pissed him off.

But it’s not just him. The story pissed off other men, well enough that someone created a “Men React to Cat Person” Twitter account to document their responses. Almost none of them milked the 280-character limit for its worth, furnishing the story with labels like “mundane,” like that’s a bad thing, “anti-male,” and “essay” instead. “Essay” – even though “Cat Person” appearance in the New Yorker’s Fiction section.

Roupenian doesn’t write in a subversive form, but men wish she had, so they can relegate her work like they do the women who transgress by denying them what they want: sex. Arguably, Roupenian’s early contemporary and Indian counterpart is Wajida Tabassum.

A LiveWire article about her short stories asks in its title: “Pornographic or Polemical?” Pornography is a relegated literary form. Its close cousin erotica, however, sits on the comparatively higher shelf. Tabassum’s writing is suspended in between, unevenly swinging to both sides like a broken pendulum.

Her “non-conformist, semi-erotic work” angered her family. They feared her writing would tarnish her name. But fear often accompanies truth-telling, and Sin, a collection of short stories written by Tabassum and translated by Reema Abbasi, is an exposé.


“Set in Hyderabad’s old-world aristocratic society of the 1950s,” Tabassum’s stories surgically pick apart the lives of Muslim women. Despite Abbasi’s claims that Tabassum’s “persistence” for “the pursuit of equality” was “furious,” the writer doesn’t hold back from writing from the male perspective, the gaze proudly erect. This choice is perhaps purposeful, unravelling the male psyche and the transgressions, veiled as loopholes, it leaves unaddressed.

In “The Alms of Death”, Nawab Zain Yar Jung proposes a “temporary marriage” with the eldest daughter of a family. The Nawab promises Sakina if he divorces her daughter Ujala, the girl with whom the Nawab wants to have sex, he’ll give her alimony. He adds that he will arrange for an abortion if she becomes pregnant, for otherwise, his bloodline will become “impure.” The Nawab pursues tradition when it suits him.

Tabassum’s writing doesn’t argue that this imbalanced partnership is a form of veiled prostitution, stripping and pushing helpless women to lower societal ranks. Instead, she scours the anger of these women. Ujala has a Gone Girl moment without the inner monologue.

“She had broken her silence, slaughtered the pride he fed on and discarded the mask of her smile with words that killed him.”

Tabassum relies on the reader to construct this monologue in their interpretation. Some people love Gone Girl, but others don’t, and Tabassum’s neutralised language allows the wronged woman to see herself liberated while provoking the wronging men to anger.

This trait is evident in “Up, further up!”, a short story with a deceptively simple premise: man cheats on wife, wife cheats on man. Pasha Dulhan rebels against her husband Nawab Sahab’s infidelity and his unabashed admission of it by seducing Rehmat, her 14-year-old masseur. And on recognising he has been cuckolded, Nawab Sahab sends Rehmat away to a village, only for Pasha Dulhan to seek another young masseur, Sharfu. With a double entendre for a title, the story’s loop of cheating glares at the hypocrisy of the marriage contract.

“She traced the contours of his pubescent frame with her eyes as he kneaded her legs in slow, distracted motion. Pulling up the deep purple garment – ‘Umm, up, further up.’

‘More... Further up.’

‘Move up, hor upar!’

With a frenzied swing he sent the bowl of sandalwood oil flying in the air, and covered her, moving high up...filling her till there was no space left to go ‘up, further up’ any more.”

Fizzling out

“Adam and Eve” takes this idea of proving a point to an extreme, arguing that preening for a man doesn’t necessarily help. Written in less than a hundred words, the story makes you gasp without the foreplay of a thousand. Tabassum’s ability to chart these unacknowledged territories was why mobs set out to torch her publishers’ offices.

Her stories let you take rein, and the moral operatives governing them stem from your reaction. Tabassum understands that fiction is not an autonomous subject. And that if your writing makes someone angry, it’s a good sign that you shouldn’t stop. A short memoir sits at the heart of the collection, attesting to this idea.

“Every attempt to defend my work was futile. The moment I held a pen and paper in my hand, Nani appeared and said, ‘ What are you writing? Read it to me.’ A commanding woman, she was not one to be cajoled, misled or evaded. When I told her that it was a letter, she was unwilling to trust me. ‘Are letters ever that long? I am sure you are writing a story,’ she replied. She then began to repress my correspondence with editors.”

But a question remains: Are these stories controversial enough for their recontextualised existence in the 21st century? Without the historical context that disappears without paratext, they fizzle like flat soda. You will drink it if there’s nothing else in the fridge. But when a rape scene that’s not ambiguous enough to pass off as bad sex lingers without acknowledgment from the translator, it’s probably not the smoothest to swallow.

These stories can’t stand the test of time if they lose their capacity to stir the pot. Yes, a woman wearing a ghagra, as opposed to a salwar, as Pasha Dulhan does for her masseur, is erotic. But so what? You’re dressing up for a man, big deal. On the prude-slut scale, it’s all the same. The stories are more polemic than pornographic – there wasn’t an instance capable of arousing a millennial woman – and the ladle sits still.

Sin: Stories

Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum, translated from the Urdu by Reema Abbasi, Hachette India.