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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.”

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Ed Kashi/Corbis
Mohsin Hamid, Lahore, Pakistan, May 2004

Karachi, where ethnic sectarianism and ruthless local mafias pose a greater menace than the Taliban, and which has recently experienced a cultural revival (new bookshops, theaters, an annual film and literary festival, TV news channels where anchors interrogate politicians and officials with remarkable asperity), is not immune to the larger national mood of anxiety. “I am hoping,” Mohammed Hanif told me in 2009, “the Taliban will take a long time to get to Karachi.”

Hanif laughed, but he was being quite serious. After a decade working for the BBC’s Urdu service in London, he had moved back with his wife and ten-year-old son to Karachi in 2008. Recently in Swat he had visited the infamous town square, renamed locally as “Slaughterhouse Square,” where the Taliban had hung blood-dripping bodies of their enemies. He told me he was finding it hard to work on his second novel in the midst of the general alarm. But Hanif is hardly alone in this regard. More than most postcolonial peoples, the lives of Pakistanis remain subject to external events: the cold war, and now the war on terror.

One evening in Lahore’s Lawrence Gardens I came across a gaggle of shoeshine boys. Dangling heavy wooden boxes from thin arms, which imprinted red welts on their fair skin, the young boys jostled after the garden’s few middle-class strollers, beseeching them with abject faces and Pashto-accented Urdu. It turned out that they were from Bajaur, one of the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, among the estimated two million people who had fled from Pakistan’s northwest to its interior following American drone attacks and the fierce and mostly inconclusive fighting between militants and the Pakistani army.

Remarking on this latest blowback from the war on terror, Nadeem Aslam told me of a recent—and his first—trip to Washington, D.C., which made him freshly marvel at how his biography and work had been affected by vast historical forces ranging across several continents. Like many Pakistanis educated in modern institutions, Aslam’s father and uncles were left-wing secularists with aspirations to dismantle Pakistan’s feudal hierarchies and build a welfare state. But their position, besieged at the best of times, quickly became untenable after Zia-ul-Haq, emboldened by American and Saudi support in the global jihad against Soviet communism, imposed a harsh regime of “Islamization.” In 1981, after an uncle was tortured in prison, Aslam’s father migrated with his family to Britain, part of the general exodus of Pakistan’s small, progressive middle class.

Aslam, who belongs, unusually for a South Asia writer in English, to his country’s less affluent class, now lives in North England, an unexpected new epicenter of radical Islamism: young British Muslims of Pakistani parentage from the Yorkshire town of Dewsbury set off the bombs that killed more than fifty people in London in July 2005. Aslam was visiting Pakistan to research a trilogy of novels set against the country’s recent traumas. One morning I traveled with him from Lahore to the neighborhood in the Punjab town of Gujranwala where he spent his first fourteen years.

On the way, Aslam told me about his old neighborhood mosque, whose rabble-rousing mullahs have sent scores of young men to jihad—and martyrdom—in Indian-held Kashmir and Afghanistan. He remembered how the local mullah during his childhood, whom he later put in his first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, used to confiscate and destroy children’s toys, deeming them un-Islamic.

After some apprehensions provoked by Aslam’s memories, Gujranwala turned out to be like any small commercial city in South Asia, its hectic streets and bazaars absorbed with their own chaos. Pakistan may seem from afar a “failed” or “failing” state, with the Taliban’s instant sharia as the legal system of the future, but the crowd of litigants was thick at the old District Courts where we met Aslam’s uncle. A dapper old man in tie and jacket, Kamran Chacha, as Aslam called him, appeared to have survived many of Pakistan’s political disasters in his small back office with its predigital stacks of dusty files and a view, through the open door, of professional scribes hunched over massive antique typewriters.

As a labor union organizer, Kamran Chacha had been imprisoned twice during the regime of Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988. A few minutes after we met him he began to reminisce about the failures of the once-strong political left in Pakistan—he particularly lamented its decision to scorn Islam in a devout country—when two of his colleagues joined him. Proudly, Kamran introduced Aslam, the success story of his family, to the visitors.

Tea appeared; and, as always in South Asia, the conversation did not stray far from the state of the country. The Taliban had advanced in Punjab, but the lawyers did not seem too gloomy. Their black-coated peers had led the civilian campaigns that drove General Pervez Musharraf out of power in August 2008; a couple of weeks before our visit, lawyers had helped force the erratic President Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate the supreme court’s chief justice, who had been dismissed by Musharraf. These democratic upsurges, too, they seemed to say, are part of contemporary Pakistan, along with the violent extremism that dominates perceptions of Pakistan in the West.

As soon as we left the District Courts and the main bazaars the roads deteriorated, until we were hurtling across vast craters in what Aslam’s uncle claimed had been a “posh” neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s—the enclave of what was then the town’s budding middle class. Decay now hung heavy over this superseded enclave of potential nation-builders whom Pakistan’s political and economic shocks had forced into expatriation to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Britain, and North America.

In the living rooms we visited, where the dirt and dust of unpaved lanes had been expunged with a lower-middle-class rage for domestic order, Aslam’s older relatives appeared barely saved from indigence by remittances from children abroad. The art deco cinema once managed by his father stood abandoned in an overgrown compound. Aslam’s childhood mosque—at which scores of young men had joined in jihad and had suffered early death—was being ambitiously renovated.

Bushy-bearded “fundos,” as Islamic extremists are called by many Pakistanis, had no use for Aslam’s former hair salon, where his old barber sat amid antique razors and shaving brushes, staring out of kohl-rimmed eyes; but here, too, was a middle-aged acquaintance whose nephew had been martyred in Kashmir, and whose son, an employee of one of the country’s new TV channels, had been kidnapped by the Taliban near Peshawar.

None of Pakistan’s many traumas in the past—military coups, ethnic unrest, genocide by Pakistani forces in East Pakistan followed by the secession of Bengali-speaking Muslims in 1971—left its writers unaffected. Aslam understandably resists the notion that the delicate art form of the novel cannot withstand and so should not even attempt to evoke the pressures of politics and ideology in contemporary life. This prejudice, he suggests, can only exist in powerful imperial societies that have been shielded from the harshest consequences of their political decisions. The cold war, he writes in The Wasted Vigil,5 a novel set in war-torn Afghanistan, “was cold for only the rich and privileged places of the planet.”

After 9/11 happened,” Aslam told me, “many writers in Britain and America said that they felt their work was meaningless because it was so disconnected from the event. I felt that I had been writing about 9/11 all my life.” Other Pakistani writers, too, seem aware that private lives in their quasi-artificial nation cannot be contemplated in isolation from many overlapping regional and global histories. The dramatic monologue of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist describes the fraught relationship between an eagerly pro-American Pakistani and his Western patrons. Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes takes a caustic view of the American officials complicit in turning Pakistan into a base of global jihadism during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

These accounts of US foreign policy are no more, and often less, stringent than those expressed by liberal Americans. (Indeed, many Pakistani writers were educated in such East Coast nurseries of the American liberal elite as Groton, Dartmouth, Yale Law School, and Princeton, and have worked for long periods in the United States.) Nevertheless, examining the tangled history of the United States in their country, Pakistani writers are not only far from being the “lovable” performer that, as Irving Howe once said, “Westerners have often looked for in colonial writers.” Their fiction also runs the risk of being read, at least by its primary audience in the planet’s rich and privileged places, as reproachful polemic or mere propaganda (it is not widely read in Pakistan itself). During his book tour of the United States, Mohsin Hamid found himself routinely accosted by readers demanding to know why he had written an “anti-American” novel.

Actually, like their peers writing in Urdu, Pakistani writers in English take a much harsher view of corrupt Pakistani elites than of their cynical Western enablers. Set in Lahore’s upper-middle-class milieu, Mohsin Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke, probed what Jhumpa Lahiri has described as “the vulgarity and violence that lurk beneath a surface of affluence and ease.” And like writers in many other “failed” states, Pakistani novelists in English know, too, that human life goes on with its small joys and sorrows amid the severest political crises. Almost all of Kamila Shamsie’s novels describe a Karachi that can be loved locally for its passion for cricket and conversation even if foreigners know the city mainly for its sectarian and religious violence.

Novels such as Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes continue a long literary tradition in South Asia of interrogating and mocking pious and sanctimonious figures. But writers in English today have bewilderingly mixed and often fiercely partisan global audiences. This exposes them, in these volatile times, to more than just some tendentious lit-crit in Pakistan.

Three publishers in Pakistan turned down Hanif’s novel, fearing retribution from Islamist supporters of Zia-ul-Haq; the edition now available in Pakistan was printed in India. When I asked Daniyal Mueenuddin if he planned to have the stories collected in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders translated into Urdu, he replied, “I live here, man! I don’t want any trouble.”

Pakistani writers who live in the West, or have European or American nationality, may be seen there as Pakistani and Muslim (even when they follow no religion), with all the complex emotions of fear, rage, bewilderment, curiosity, and sympathy that their country and religion provoke today. In Pakistan, however, they are likely to be identified with their country’s Westernized upper-middle classes: an apparently atheistic and dissolute transnational minority that regards itself as above the faith and beliefs of ordinary people. Such was one disturbingly widespread Pakistani perception of Salman Taseer, the liberal-minded governor of Punjab, who was assassinated in January this year for championing the case of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Shortly after I left Lahore, Nadeem Aslam wrote to say that while appearing before a literary-minded audience at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) he had been accused by a young woman, a doctoral student of literature, of vilifying Islam. According to her, Aslam had grossly misrepresented the Koran in The Wasted Vigil by quoting some of its verses about jihad out of context.

Her intervention caused a brief commotion. Aslam tried to explain that his book was a novel, and that the distorted view of Islam existed in the mind of one of his characters, a jihadi Afghan boy. His critic insisted on distributing a pamphlet that insinuated, among other things, that Aslam could not be trusted because he had accepted money from Britain’s Royal Literary Fund.

A few days later Aslam’s detractor published an article in The News, one of Pakistan’s leading English-language dailies, describing the scene from her own perspective. “Discomfort,” she claimed, “was writ large on the faces of much of the uber-liberal audience” as she sought to question Aslam about his depiction of the Koran. “Given,” she added, “the way Muslims are perceived all over the world and how some Muslims perceive themselves, it is not fair of someone to perpetuate the stereotype in such an irresponsible manner.”

Cultural defensiveness of this kind is not without basis as popular anti-Muslim sentiment grows in Europe and America. Some American and European readers of Aslam’s novel may indeed take the pejorative view of Islam that his critic in Lahore feared. Aslam’s depictions of honor killings and the Taliban’s brutality can make him appear an ideological kin to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali critic of Islam.6 In fact, Aslam’s novels carefully choreograph a tense dialectic between people of different backgrounds and worldviews, CIA torturers as well as Muslim suicide bombers; he may well insist that he is not in the business of denouncing entire religions and societies. But at a time when the intellectual conceit known as the “clash of civilizations” is taken as fact, Pakistani writers are likely to find themselves courted and denounced by culture warriors in both the West and Pakistan.

Their subtle fictions offer an attractive alternative to the reflexive habit of looking at Pakistan from the narrow perspective of Western security and strategic interests. At the same time they are much less able than other writers to avoid ideologically charged readings of their work. What makes their fictions internationally prominent—Western fear of nuclear-armed Pakistan, for example—also influentially shapes their interpretation at present.

Meanwhile, they are likely to remain vulnerable within Pakistan, working in a language and artistic form few of their compatriots understand, their social and political liberalism liable to be seen as yet another sign of decadence and corruption on the part of the country’s pro-Western elites. But then, as the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and many other writers from African and Asian countries testifies, life in a political minefield can also be a stimulant for artists.

Living in a fragile nation-state, Pakistani writers cannot avoid a fact that still only occasionally troubles practitioners of the novel in more secure and self-contained societies: that many private lives today are increasingly shaped by such global forces as religious extremism and political and economic upheavals. Under such stresses, the self becomes ever more ambiguous and unknowable—an insight that renders the best of Pakistani writing in English more than just topical, and may help it last long after the geopolitical dramas of our time have been forgotten.

Letters

No Truck With Pakistan’ November 24, 2011

  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. 

  5. 5

    See my ” From a Mansion Near Tora Bora,” The New York Review, October 23, 2008. 

  6. 6

    See, for instance, Christopher Hitchens, “Fundamentals,” Tabletmag.com, May 24, 2010. 

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