Monday, 19 August 2013

Introduction to Canadian Literature: A comparison of the short stories 'A Cap for Steve' by Morley Callaghan and 'Shahrazad's Golden Leopard' by Muneeza Shamsie

Compare and contrast the parent-child relationship in the stories A Cap for Steve and Shahrazad's Golden Leopard.
Morley Callaghan was a Canadian novelist and short story writer. His A Cap for Steve is a story about a boy's deep longing for a father that he can look up to and emulate. This craving of Steve's is expressed symbolically in a baseball cap. Steve is the son of a man who had 'learned how to make every dollar count in his home'. Dave Diamond had been taught the value of money and its importance in life. For him, the power of money and pride was something that he coveted. Being a money-oriented person, Steve's unrelenting obsession with baseball was beyond Dave's understanding. Every moment that Steve spent on the game was a disappointment for Dave, because Steve could be using that time to earn money for the household. Since the importance of money had been 'ground into' Dave ever since he was a child , he expects the same to be for his son. The discrepancy between reality and expectations is what causes the major conflict between father and son. Dave expected his son to be earning when it was his time to be playing games and enjoying life as a child. On the other hand, Steve expected his father to understand what was important to him. Steve expresses his feelings through his gestures and body language and Dave is non-vocal about his true feelings as well. This lack of proper communication adds to the tension between the two.
The relationship between father and son unravels quickly with the acquisition and loss of a prized baseball cap. The cap of a famous baseball player makes a dramatic change in Steve's personality. He feels as though he has gained some source of power that can change his status among his peers. He becomes confident and his self-esteem augments. The very thing that Dave coveted, power, is now in the possession of his son. This fact makes Steve proud of his son for the first time, although he doesn't openly show it till Steve loses the cap. Dave's anger at the loss of the cap is enough to reveal his true feelings.
Steve's gestures at the sight of his cap being worn by someone else hint to the fact that Steve was ready to do anything for the cap that had brought glory to him. The cap was priceless to Steve, not only because of where it came from but for what it meant. With the cap came power, authority and leadership, and Steve, for the first time, had these three things. Dave is proud of his son for being ready to fight for the prized cap that once belonged to him. The cap brings pride to not only Steve but also his father. Both of them attain courage through the possession of the cap. Seeing Hudson display confidence and boldness because of his father, Steve automatically looks to Dave for the same source of confidence. Just as Hudson had a blind faith in his father, so did Steve, who expected his father to be well-aware of the importance of the cap.
The power of status and money displayed at the Hudson house dazzles both Dave and Steve. Money makes Dave lose sight of the value of the baseball cap, or the value of his son's passion. As Steve's expectations of his father rose to a pinnacle, Dave's expectations rose as well. Dave started believing that the sight of the money being offered would somehow make Steve realize how much they needed it. Dave expected Steve to make a grown-up decision and denounce his possession of the cap. But he failed to see that it was an unfair expectation of a child like Steve who had never before achieved what the cap had given him. The happiness, pride, and status in the neighbourhood was all that the cap brought with it, and Steve relished every moment of it. Steve lacked a father who understood him and who would serve as a role model for him. Dave did not understand his son's true passion for the cap until the end. Money was not a replacement for all that Steve had achieved with the possession of the cap.
In the end, the lack of understanding on Dave's part led to Steve's loss of both trust in his father and his prized possession. Steve is let down badly by his father's decision and is hurt that his father failed to protect what was valuable to his son. For the failure had been his, and it had come out of being so separated from his son that he had been blind to what was beyond the price in a boy's life. However, Dave learns from his mistake and comes to terms with the expectations a little boy has of his father. He immediately struggles to make amends and re-establish the bond of trust with his son. 'The price a boy was willing to pay to be able to count on his father's admiration and approval' was suddenly apparent to Dave and he grew into a caring and loving personality who respected and supported his son in his decisions and passions. In this way, what starts to be a series of wrong expectations and lack of communication and understanding between a parent and child resolves into a positive development and reconciliation.
Where A Cap for Steve is mild in its impact and leads to the resolution with relative ease, Shahrazad's Golden Leopard is extreme in its lack of understanding and trust between parent and child. Written by Muneeza Shamsie, a Pakistani writer, the story is about a complete absence of trust, mutual understanding and genuine care between a mother and her daughter. In the very beginning of the story, it is revealed that 'Shahrazad longed to please her mother'. Throughout the story, Shahrazad follows her mother's orders and does as she is told even if she hates it. She longs for the motherly affection and care that is expected in the relationship. Her mother scolds her ruthlessly in public for every mistake or error that Shahrazad makes. 'You're such a stupid, stupid girl', her mother would screech at her without a thought of the impact it would make on the little girl's mind. A series of small incidents build up together to create a large crack between the mother-daughter relationship. The mother praises her son more than her daughter and openly declares her partiality. She expresses her dislike for Shahrazad's lack of proper friends and even goes to display doubt on her daughter being mentally sound. She shows no concern on the nickname that Malcolm has for her daughter. The continuous chant of 'Fatty-ma' adds to Shahrazad's inferiority complex and her confidence drops drastically. She feels isolated from her family and believes that there is no one who understands her or gives her importance.
There are several moments where Shahrazad is scolded and made a fool in front of other people by her own mother. Shahrazad works hard to gain some approval from her mother but all in vain. Although her father is a passive character who does not express his affection for his daughter, he does not fail to hint the readers from time to time that he disapproves of his wife's treatment of their daughter and that he pays more attention to Shahrazad's merits than her. The fact that Shahrazad comes top of her class is of no significance to the mother, as it means she only remains buried in her books and doesn't play with other children. Shahrazad is a symbol of shame and disgust for the mother and this is revealed throughout the story.
The leopard in the story is a symbol of passion for Shahrazad. It is a symbol of something she can look up to and feel hopeful for. Since her mother has let her down time and again, she feels that everything bad that happens in her life will go away if she finally gets a chance to play with the leopard. The leopard was something she owned all by herself and it had no share in anyone else's life. It was her one possession she was proud of that made her feel worthy and confident. The leopard exuded self-esteem and self-worth for Shahrazad. 'He could read her thoughts. He understood her every word. He had the power to take away her pain'.
Shahrazad longed to have such beauty and admiration that her mother held, she wished to be admired in the same way. The golden leopard was her source of confidence and of satisfaction. What the people in her life failed to give her was provided to her by the leopard. Her mother's constant scathing criticism slowly chipped away parts of her self-esteem. Shahrazad's mother is different from Steve's father as she does not even attempt to understand her daughter or support her in her passions and hobbies. She even keeps the leopard away from her on the pretense that she is too young to play with it. If Dave felt proud of his son for his cap, Shahrazad's mother shunned and disapproved of everything that could make her feel proud of her daughter if she became open-minded. Unlike her, Dave did not thrust his own desires and orders on his child, he did not force Steve to work for earning money. The mother in this story (Mehru), however, forces Shahrazad repeatedly to do things that would benefit her (the mother) and become a source of agony and embarrassment for her daughter.
More than once Mehru fails to support her daughter and take her side. She prefers to demean her own child than exhibit some faith in her. Shahrazad is let down by her mother repeatedly in the story, and this repetition of mistrust and lack of support creates a massive rift between the mother and child. These feelings of mistrust are much more potent than what Steve felt when he had been let down by his father.
'Shahrazad had been left behind with Kishwari Bua for being a naughty girl and a liar. Shah Rukh had been taken out for a drive. The mere memory brought tears to Shahrazad's eyes. How she hated Malcolm's parties'. In these few lines the daughter's feelings are visible. Mehru's sheer disapproval and her angry retorts are piled by the unjust and almost cruel difference of treatment between herself and her brother, which in return is topped by Malcolm's savagery. To add fuel to fire, Shahrazad's mother gives away her most beloved and prized possession, the leopard, to Malcolm as a birthday gift. The mere act in itself breaks Shahrazad's spirit and her heart. 'You can't have him! She wanted to cry. You can't have him! He's mine!'
Malcolm's parents and friends loved him and supported him even in his faults. 'Everyone wanted to be on Malcolm's side, the winning side', Malcolm has the status and position that Shahrazad could never have because nobody loved her and nobody was willing to support her or put their faith in her. The feeling of abandonment and isolation made her feel miserable. Her mother failed to understand the importance of the leopard in Shahrazad's life even when she voiced it. Even her nightmares are imbued with the loss of her prized item and Malcolm's cruelty. In her isolation she creates an imaginary friendship with the leopard that was no longer hers and held long conversations in solitude with it. She even looked forward to visiting Malcolm for the sake of seeing the leopard. Her extreme obsession with the toy leads to an immense feeling of absolute loss when she realizes that Malcolm and his friends broke the leopard during a game. 'His tail was broken, his luminous eyes had been pulled out. There was a slit down the center of his stomach; straw and stuffing were hanging out. Her leopard had been murdered.'
The shock that Shahrazad feels on the loss of one good thing from her life drives her to extremities. Since her whole being relied on the ecstatic utopia that the leopard created for her, its loss drives her into action. The way Steve was willing to fight Hudson for the cap that he cherished, the same way Shahrazad is ready to fight, however, she fights not for possession, but for revenge. She wanted to punish Malcolm for being the reason of the loss of the one thing that she loved in her life. All the anger that was building up inside of her because of her mother's attitude and injustice came crashing out on Malcolm. The complete lack of reconciliation and re-establishment of trust and understanding between the mother and daughter led to a dangerous and extreme end.
A Cap for Steve is a story where if something is lost, something is regained as well between father and son. Shahrazad's Golden Leopard is a story based on utter loss and abandonment of all feelings and emotions between mother and daughter. The mother is responsible for instigating negative and dangerous feelings in her daughter's mind and for the outcome in the end. Shahrazad's extreme obsession with the leopard and detachment with the human figures in her life should have been checked by her mother. The hatred that Mehru exhibited of her daughter led to a wild frenzy on Shahrazad's part and as a result the outcome of the story was ghastly. Both stories are poles apart in their resolution and represent two different sides of treatment of the parent-child relationship. 
Credits: Muneeza Rafiq

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