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Pakistan’s Writers: Living in a Minefield

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India Today Group/Getty Images
Daniyal Mueenuddin, New Delhi, India, April 2010

Lyric poetry has long been the most popular literary form in South Asia and the Middle East; poets rather than novelists became the unacknowledged legislators of the new nations that emerged after the breakup of European empires in the mid-twentieth century. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of people would attend mushairas, public recitals of Urdu poetry, in North Indian towns. At my provincial university, I knew many connoisseurs of literature who rarely read novels but knew by heart the poems (in Hindi or Urdu translation) of Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The most famous member of this socialist Literary International was Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose centenary falls this year. Faiz’s more romantic Urdu poems were set to music by some of South Asia’s most gifted classical singers. It didn’t bother his Indian admirers that he was a citizen of Pakistan, with which India had fought three wars since 1947. Faiz, a journalist and newspaper editor as well as poet, had emerged from the cosmopolitan 1930s of undivided India—the time when many writers vigorously campaigned for freedom from colonial rule even as they embraced the modern literary forms of Europe. In the 1980s, Faiz’s elegiac cadences recalled the idealism once shared by people on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan.

Many of these hopes of a fresh postcolonial beginning never recovered from the partition of India in 1947, which, coengineered by the departing British and power-hungry Hindu and Muslim politicians, led to the worst violence in South Asia’s memory. Shortly before unfurling the Indian flag on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, spoke grandiloquently of India awakening, “when the world sleeps,” to “life and freedom” and moving to its “tryst with destiny.” These were hollow words to the partition’s many victims. Faiz expressed a widespread bewilderment and outrage over the official mood of celebration when he wrote, in one of his most admired poems:

These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light—
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it…

Now listen to the terrible rampant lie:
Light has forever been severed from the Dark;
our feet, it is heard, are now one with their goal.
See our leaders polish their manner clean of our suffering:
Indeed, we must confess only to bliss;
we must surrender any utterance for the Beloved—all yearning is outlawed.

But the heart, the eye, the yet deeper heart—
Still ablaze for the Beloved, their turmoil shines.
In the lantern by the road the flame is stalled for news:
Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light. Come, we must
search for that promised Dawn.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

Faiz never found the promised dawn. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, died before he could build a civilian—and secular—democracy in what had been India’s most feudal regions. As happened in Egypt during its chaotic postcolonial transition, men from the army—the country’s strongest institution—soon seized power. Faiz’s advocacy of a socialist society exposed him to the malevolence of both secular feudal and military elites and religious fundamentalists. Imprisoned in the 1950s for allegedly conspiring against the state, Faiz, like many Pakistani writers, chose exile when General Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup in 1977 and began to speedily “Islamize” Pakistan—an effort aided both by Saudi Arabian Wahhabis and by the CIA after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Perennially embattled against his country’s self-serving political and landowning classes, Islamic fundamentalists, and military despots, Faiz died in 1984. By then he had helped define a powerful tradition of politically engaged literature in Pakistan—one that resembles in its preoccupation with the fate of society and clear aspiration for stability and justice such other postcolonial efforts as the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Buru Quartet.

Six decades later, Faiz’s promised dawn is still elusive. Pakistan remains an unrealized ideal in the works of its most contemporary generation of international writers in English—an incoherent nation rife with the oppressions of class, religion, and gender, and full, too, of shameful silences.

The contrast with neighboring India couldn’t be starker. In 1947, India received most of the colonial state’s institutions intact. In power for nearly three continuous decades, Nehru’s Congress party would ensure a degree of political stability and continuity, and keep India free of compromising international entanglements. Early investments made by Nehru in industrial production and higher education steadily expanded the middle class. In the 1980s, India’s indigenous bourgeois class, which is predominantly Hindu and upper caste, began to steadily produce novels in English, which, for many readers in the West, soon came to represent, notwithstanding a large trove of untranslated writing in indigenous languages, Indian literature in general.

The novelist and critic Amit Chaudhuri complains that the Indian postcolonial novel in English often reproduces a history classroom “national narrative”—one that presents India as a “recognizable totality” and that “every member of the Indian ruling class is defined by.” Certainly, India’s own many conflicts and failures of nation-building have not directly affected most of the post-Nehru generation of Indian novelists who write in English. A novel like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which panoramically details a professional bourgeoisie serenely assuming its postcolonial inheritance in the 1950s, could not be set in Pakistan, whose perennial state of chaos has allowed few certainties to even its most powerful and wealthy people.

Some recent novels by Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and Aravind Adiga manifest a darker sense of India’s postcolonial situation, its older as well as new violence of politicized religion, class, and caste. But there have been many more of what the novelist Rana Dasgupta calls “sari-and-mango novels with brooding trans-generational plots delivered in monsoon-drenched prose.”

The “fragrant lyricism” of the Indian novel in English may seem, as Dasgupta puts it, “disingenuously meek”; and its old feudal-colonial or upper-class complacencies about India may look threatened by an aggressively vulgar nouveau riche class as well as Hindu nationalists, militant Communists, and new alliances of corporate businessmen and corrupt politicians. Yet linguistic playfulness and intellectual confidence remain, in the West at least, the most distinctive features of Indian writing in English, buoying the larger popular notion of a vibrantly democratic and capitalist India cruising to, if not already arriving at, its tryst with destiny.

In comparison, Pakistani writers in English—now drawn more to fiction than to lyric poetry—assume the burden of representing their country to the world at a very difficult time in its history.1 As a fickle ally in the “war on terror,” and apparently holding the key to Western security and dignity in Afghanistan, Pakistan has seemed ominously inscrutable since September 11, 2001; and many Pakistani fiction writers in English now find themselves catapulted into the noisy confluence of geopolitics and literature.

Short-listed for the Man Booker and Dublin’s Impac prizes, Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which describes the political radicalization of a Princeton-educated Pakistani, is an international best seller.2 The three novels of Pakistan-born Nadeem Aslam, whom Colm Tóibín and A.S. Byatt praise as one of Britain’s finest writers, seem to trace an ever-expanding arc of extremism from small-town Pakistan to the metropolitan West. Mohammed Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, revolves around the mysterious death in 1988 of Zia-ul-Haq and the American ambassador to Pakistan in a plane crash. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short fiction In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, describing a harsh rural world in which the powerful relentlessly prey upon the weak, has been widely praised as giving a telling picture of Pakistan, not least by the late Richard Holbrooke, who recommended it to Barack Obama.3 The fall 2010 issue of Granta, devoted entirely to Pakistan, with articles on Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, and Jinnah as well as new Pakistani fiction, seemed to respond to the same nervous Western curiosity about the country’s complexities.

Suddenly, Pakistani writers appear to be globally omnipresent, at book readings, conferences, literary festivals, and on Op-Ed pages where they frequently take on the delicate task of clarifying ideas and prejudices about Pakistan, Muslims, and the larger world of Islam to their British and American readers. But what is their position within Pakistan itself—a country where very few people read fiction in English, and which, furthermore, is a place of unending mayhem and tragedy?

Last year’s floods, the worst in over a century, overwhelmed one fifth of the country, leaving more than 20 million people homeless. Near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan almost daily now American Predator drones kill suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, and a usually unspecified number of civilians. Retaliatory suicide bombings by the so-called “Pakistani Taliban,” an assortment of radical Islamists aiming to defeat America and its allies and impose a more Islamic government in the region, have become part of everyday life. As Mohsin Hamid, who lives in Pakistan, wrote in these pages, nearly 35,000 Pakistanis have been killed, and millions displaced, during the last decade of “terror and counterterror violence.”4

Widely perceived as venal, inept, and dishonorably beholden to America, Pakistan’s civilian government is rapidly losing its authority in not only relatively isolated border regions, where the Pakistani Taliban are resurgent, but also parts of Punjab, the country’s cultural and political heartland as well as its richest and most populous province, which shares a border with India.

The Taliban are like Nazi Germany,” Daniyal Mueenuddin told me, “they cannot be persuaded to stop.” Mueenuddin lives part of the year on a mango farm in Southern Punjab, whose overwhelmingly poor and religious population is particularly vulnerable to fundamentalists vending instant social and economic justice. I met him in 2009 at his large family estate in the Margalla hills near Islamabad, a few miles south of the British-built town of Murree.

Mueenuddin’s American mother, a writer and journalist, had built the estate’s main house in the 1960s, incorporating a gigantic rock into the living room; some of that decade’s literary taste and intellectual curiosity seemed to have been embalmed in the dark wood-paneled library with books by Robert Lowell, C. Wright Mills, John K. Galbraith, and Paul Goodman. From the house’s verandah the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi on the plains seemed lost in mist. But Pakistan’s ongoing ordeals were never far from our conversation. Mueenuddin said, “I have lost my confidence. I don’t know what is going on around me, and I worry about the day when the Taliban will knock on my door.” Living in Lahore, Mohsin Hamid tries, as he wrote recently, “not to think too much about the snipers on the rooftops of primary schools and the steel barricades at their gates, telling myself my daughter still has some years left before she has to enroll.”

  1. 1

    As in India, where R.K. Narayan and Anita Desai, among others, had published novels in English well before the era of globalization, Pakistani writing in English actually dates back to the 1930s and 1940s. Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster admired Ahmed Ali’s novel Twilight in Delhi. Attia Hosain’s novel Sunlight on a Broken Column and Sara Suleri’s beautiful memoir Meatless Days are some of the less-well-known monuments of this literature. An excellent selection is available in A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English, edited by Muneeza Shamsie (Oxford University Press, 1997). Tariq Ali’s “Islam Quintet” impressively covers a wide panorama of Islamic history. For many of the other important contributions to literature in Urdu, see The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, two volumes, edited by Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Oxford University Press, 2008). 

  2. 2

    See Sarah Kerr, ” In the Terror House of Mirrors,” The New York Review, October 11, 2007. 

  3. 3

    See Caleb Crain, ” A Very Different Pakistan,” The New York Review, November 5, 2009. 

  4. 4

    Why They Get Pakistan Wrong,” The New York Review, September 29, 2011. 

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