The idea of Pakistan instantly conjures clichéd headlines and images: angry bearded men protesting, and questions about how Osama Bin Laden managed to hide in the country. Over the past decade, the discourse on Pakistan has been stuck in a time warp: a nuclear weapon-armed country on the perpetual brink of collapse.
It isn’t surprising then, that writing on Pakistan features the same. At bookstores in Washington, DC and elsewhere, ominously-titled books are a constant: Descent into Chaos, Deadly Embrace, and Eye of the Storm.
In his novel Shame, Salman Rushdie describes the country, newly formed in 1947 when India was split apart after the British withdrew and handed over power to the new India and Pakistan, as “moth-eaten.” Pakistan is, Rushdie writes, “a country so improbable that it could almost exist.”
While no one denies that the country is in a dire state, Pakistani fiction writers are working at making sense of Pakistan, with subtlety, nuance, and colorful tales far beyond the reach of the foreign correspondent.
As author and historian William Dalyrmple puts it, Pakistan has always needed explaining, “When (author) Nadeem Aslam first came to the Jaipur Literature Festival, he said that we need to write about Pakistan as if we are writing with a burning quill. I think that provides the energy that fuels the engine of Pakistani writing. Just like Latin America in crisis in the 1970s produced remarkable writing from authors like Marquez. In Pakistan today, the situation is so fragile, so complex, so much in need of understanding and explanation and clarity.”
A sense of this need for clarity came from the buzz surrounding journalist Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Set in the 1980s, the book provides a fictional account of General Zia-ul-Haq’s reign and his death in a plane crash. The crash was real, as was the iron grip that Zia held over the country. The wry story, with an Air Force officer as the protagonist, made one wonder if Hanif’s version of events was actually true. The author is routinely questioned at book readings if he has written a journalistic account of the events.
The release of A Case of Exploding Mangoes prompted many to wonder if Pakistan was the next hot spot for English-language fiction. But this was far from the first novel that originated from the country. In the 1960s, Zulfiqar Ghose wrote The Murder of Aziz Khan, a heart-wrenching tale of life and death in a village in Punjab. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bapsi Sidhwa wrote a series of novels chronicling stories of the Zoroastrian community in Pakistan, set against the backdrop of the division of the Indian subscontinent in 1947 or in the U.S in the 1970s. In 1997, Mohsin Hamid published Moth Smoke, based on the differences between the haves and have-nots of Lahore, and in 2007 The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a tale of a man who turns to religion. Kamila Shamsie developed a cult following for her poignant tales of characters from the elite Karachi.
Growing interest in fiction from Pakistan appears to have coincided with a tumultuous time in the country’s history: Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the resignation of General Pervez Musharraf after nine years of rule and a war against militants in the tribal regions of the country. A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and was followed by a flurry of new books that made headlines worldwide.
In 2009, Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, published his collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Mueenuddin, a Yale Law graduate, is a farmer by profession. The short stories, set primarily in rural Punjab, provided a glimpse into life away from the big cities, on farmlands where landowners held sway, and sex was used as a means of influence.
But why is it important to read fiction from Pakistan to understand the country? While books will sell on their own merit, there is an urgent need to make sense of the country and the region as a whole. Foreign correspondents parachute in and out of the country, and are largely limited to the cities, but authors with varied and rich backgrounds have tried to portray life drawn from their own experiences.
However, the release of fiction books from Pakistan has often been termed as a remarkable event at a time when the country is grappling with militancy.
Aysha Raja, a bookseller and publicist based in Lahore, says that in the past few years, the foreign press has viewed fiction from Pakistan through a geopolitical lens. “In addition to being a fallacy it has hurt fiction writing in Pakistan by suggesting the ‘geopolitical context’ as a tantalizing device. There is some evidence to suggest that readers, at least in Pakistan, are becoming increasingly weary of this theme.”
“There are many difficulties to being a writer in Pakistan, but it is also a gift. It provides exciting stuff to writers which more comfortable Western Europeans, and to a certain extent, comfortable Indians don’t have. And there isn’t that great fiction coming out of India at the moment,” says Dalrymple, adding that while India has been producing great non-fiction work, the Pakistani novelist is well ahead of its Indian counterpart at the moment.
But there may be some truth to the cliché that fiction is being produced in a country with near-daily terrorist attacks. “I have now become so hardened that I just need a desk to be able to write, so surroundings no longer matter. But it matters that these surroundings be somewhat peaceful: that is why I have moved from Karachi to Lahore,” says Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Farooqi published his first novel The Story of a Widow, after the success of his translations of two epic tales: The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba. He has just published a children’s book, Tik Tik, The Master of Time. His latest novel Between Clay and Dust is a tale of wrestlers and courtesans set in Lahore, once a prominent city in the Mughal empire that is considered the cultural capital of Pakistan. Farooqi’s characters are not exotic; he painstakingly presents them as ordinary people just trying to do the right thing, with base emotions: pride, anger, empathy. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize in January this year. Farooqi says the shortlisting has spurred interest in the book from American publishers He is currently working on two books. “One is about the Anti-Christ launching himself in Karachi (my estimation of Pakistan’s political situation can be read here). The other one is about a group of book lovers spread across the globe who join forces to revive a beloved institution.”
In 2011, Jamil Ahmad, a retired government official, released his debut novel The Wandering Falcon, which he actually wrote when he was serving in the 1970s but was released when he was over the age of 70. Ahmad’s book chronicles life away from the urban centers – in the mountains of Waziristan and the deserts of Balochistan — with stories of people that one can’t access in the mainstream press.
In the last month, both Karachi and Lahore have played host to literature festivals, with authors attending from the U.S., England and India. New novels, Pakistani-born author Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are being released this year. A film adaptation of Hamid’s bestselling book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, helmed by Amelia director Mira Nair, is set to premiere in 2013. The New York Review Books has also just published a translation of Basti, Urdu writer Intizar Husain’s novel on the partition of the Indian subcontinent. With these releases, one hopes that more aspiring writers will emerge and open up a dialogue without the shadow of Pakistani politics or terrorism hanging over it.