Immortalising memories of the pandemic

New anthology explores fictionalised experiences from confinements of lockdown
Oct 31, 2020

When shops closed, schools went into cyberspace, and people were confined to their homes, some found solace in ink and paper.

The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan is an anthology of fictionalised experiences from voices both young and old.

Paralysed by lockdowns and strict curfews, we’re now stuck in a waiting game. The desire for normalcy has made many of us curious of what lies beyond our confined spaces. The anthology is fuelled by this curiosity—Taha Keha, co-editor.

The book was launched Saturday evening in an online session of the 7th Islamabad Literature Festival, moderated by journalist Wajiha Hyder. Editors Sana Munir and Taha Kehar spoke at length about how an idea transformed into a document of diverse experiences.

How it happened

The idea came about in an Instagram conversation, and by the third day Munir and Kehar had a list of people who could contribute.

“It’s a result of our curiosity,” said Kehar, who is also the author of Typically Tanya and Of Rift and Rivalry. “We wanted to produce something that captured what the people were going through during the pandemic.”

Munir has books such as The Satanist and Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women to her credit. She said she started working on The Stained-Glass Window with Kehar in late May, when the arc of the pandemic was felt strongly emotionally, physically and biologically. 

“One reason the book happened was because it [COVID-19] was the only thing around us—be it in papers, news or on social media.”

What’s beyond the stained glass? 

The cover features a round, many-hued window against solid black with a girl positioned strategically so that the silver stains from the glass cast a mask on her face in the foreground. When Hyder asked the editors about the title, they said it held different meanings for them.

“When I think of titles, images come to my mind before words,” said Munir. “Every story in the anthology has a different meaning despite the same underline, just as every bit of a stained glass painting has its own shape and hues. But it all comes together in a wholesome view.”

Kehar said the title entailed more of an experience for him than an image. 

“It’s like sitting in a room with a stained-glass window, with sunlight streaming in through different patterns throughout the entire day,” he said. “It’s about how we exist in those confined places trying to see what’s going on outside of the window.”

‘Each story with a different flavour’

The anthology features contributions from 26 Pakistani writers belonging to different age groups, the youngest being a 15-year-old. When asked if diversity was always part of the plan, Kehar said it was intentional but the contributors surprisingly took it further.

“Each one of them was experiencing a diverse spectrum of emotions,” he said. “We gave writers space to explore the theme in their own ways, and they became the measure of their own imagination.”

The duo ended up compiling a diverse body of work through this approach and captured the nuances required to preserve the memories. Kehar said they wanted the writers not to document their stories of escape from the pandemic’s confinements, but of lives within them. The anthology also provides a platform to writers who have not been published before.

“We wanted to inculcate experienced voices as well as new perspectives,” said Munir. “Every story has a different flavour to it.”

‘Creative choices, not disagreements’

Responding to a question about the challenges they faced while compiling the anthology—besides conflicting schedules—Kehar said it was “a tale of two cities” as he is based in Karachi and Munir in Lahore.

“We were able to deal with all the technological hurdles quite efficiently,” he said. “The major challenge we might have faced was the ordering of the stories. But they were purely creative choices, not creative disagreements.” He said the stories were discussed “intensely” before edits were made to them.

“I think it was because of our respect for each other’s editorial choices that everything flowed naturally.”

Munir said working on a book from home was one of the experiences she’d learnt from and that technology provided them with a “transparent process”. Speaking of the editorial policy, she said she and Kehar agreed on almost every change.

The anthology comprises flash fiction and short stories. It has been published by Liberty Books.

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