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Bombs, Bullets & Burqas

Though the publishing world, especially in the United States, has recently been entranced by Pakistan, the work is narrowed to depictions of terrorism and Islamic militarisation. Few publications portray the beauty and mundanity of private life in Pakistan.

DAISY ROCKWELL  10th Apr 2011

Portrait of Faisal Shahzad, “The Times Square Bomber”

ast summer, at the local farmers' market, I was surprised and pleased to see a stand advertising "Pakistani Food." Who would expect such an offering in a small New England town? But when I approached the stand I found that none of the food, a series of fried, stuffed turnover-like snacks called 'mantus,' seemed all that Pakistani. I struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter. His English was poor. I tried Urdu. His Urdu seemed poorer. I was confused. He was confused. Finally, I asked, in English, very slowly, "You're not Pakistani, are you?" He acknowledged that he was not. He indicated he was Persian, but said he was not from Iran. Finally I ventured that he might be from Afghanistan, and he agreed, but hedged his response by mentioning that he had lived for some time in Pakistan. He seemed convinced that advertising his food as Pakistani was a smarter business move than associating it with Afghanistan. This summer the booth has been a fixture in the market again, but now the banner reads "Afghan-Pak Foods."

Thanks to such characters in the ever-expanding cast of the Global War on Terror as through Faisal Shahzad, the loftily nicknamed 'Times Square Bomber' (can you really be called a 'bomber' when your bomb didn't go off?), an awareness of Pakistan has suddenly burst into the American popular imagination. Our previous total lack of awareness of Pakistan in the United States has now been replaced with a perhaps more unfortunate awareness of militancy in Pakistan. Even the disastrous flooding of vast swaths of the country, characterised by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a 'slow-motion tsunami', has failed to make much of a dent in perceptions of the country. The chance that an increasingly xenophobic American populace will agree to buy stuffed savory snacks from Afghanistan over those from Pakistan have diminished greatly over the past year.Image 2nd

Into this void of information about a country and a people comes a spate of new publications of Pakistani literature in English, some of it now widely available in the United States. With the publication of a special issue on Pakistan by the UK-based literary journal Granta, it is safe to say that Pakistani literature has become a hot commodity. Granta's Pakistan issue presents an array of essays, stories, poems and artwork that bring together in a single volume a portrait of the country that is much more complex and enriching than the images readily available in the United States. Militancy is an important topic, but so are pop music, folklore, religious minorities and even glaciers. Even for readers who have some knowledge of the region, Granta 112 is bound to broaden conceptions of life in a region grown cartoonishly over-simplified by a media market obsessed with underscoring Pakistan's role as 'The Most Dangerous Place in the World.' While some pieces in Granta 112 discuss militancy head-on, such as Declan Walsh's "Arithmetic on the Frontier", others merely allude to it.

Nonetheless, violence, if not all-out militancy, is a touchstone for nearly all the pieces included in the issue. The longest of these is the story "Leila in the Wilderness" by Nadeem Aslam. A modern retelling of Laila-Majnun, "Leila in the Wilderness" takes up the issue of female infanticide. The narration's quiet magical realism gives it a timeless, folkloric feel, brought to earth periodically by leaden reminders of, yes, militancy, as in this passage, describing the clandestine construction of a beautiful mosque on an island in the middle of a river.

The masons and labourers had to work with minimum light, overcoming fear of snakes, djinns and scorpions. Only once did they think they were about to be discovered – when a truck broke down close to the riverbank and its driver and passengers got out to repair it, their voices reaching the island, the truck's headlights visible. But they were members of a jihadi organization returning from Faisalabad, the city full of textile factories from whose markets chemicals used in explosives could be bought in bulk without raising suspicion.

OnAt first I was turned off by the use of magical realism and the author's attempt to cover so many bases at once. It seemed like another piece of fiction that owed a little too much to Salman Rushdie, and perhaps it does. But ultimately, the blending of the fabulist's style with modern themes and concerns started to remind me of the amazing paintings of Pakistani artist Shazia Sikander, whose work takes Mughal miniature painting as a starting point and then moves way beyond.

Is violence simply a literary preoccupation in Pakistan? Or does this have something to do with Western expectations of the concerns of Pakistani fiction writers?

A major failing of Granta 112 is the lack of linguistic diversity it presents, even as the issue seeks to represent a wide swath of Pakistani writing. This is not an insignificant detail. The press release for the issue boasts the latest writing from "the corona of talent writing in Sindhi, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto and English which has burst onto the English-language publishing world." But, disappointingly, most of these languages are only represented by translations of extremely short poems. The renowned Urdu author Intizar Hussain's reminiscence (translated by Basharat Peer, whose excellent essay on Kashmir is also included in the issue) about life as a journalist under the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq is all too brief. Beautiful, exciting writing is not a new thing in Pakistan and many important authors of languages other than English are living and breathing in the country as we speak. How much more worthwhile it would have been to have read a translation of a short story or a journalistic piece from Balochi, Siraiki or Sindhi, than to be subjected to Mohsin Hamid's ghastly, though mercifully short, Danny Pearl redux tale "A Beheading."

round the time of the release of Granta 112, I came across an interview with the magazine's new editor, John Freeman, about the Pakistan issue. I hoped I would find some plausible rationale for the linguistic chauvinism of the issue, but I was disappointed. When asked why so few translations were included, Freeman responded, "...we got loads of submissions, a lot of them translations from Urdu, which we especially asked for, but it was very hard to find something contemporary that made sense." This idea of what 'makes sense' troubled me. Was the writing bad, were the translations poor? What does it mean for a piece of writing to 'make sense' in this context? Did they not talk about Islamism or militarisation? Were they not keyed into global conversations? I was fortunate to have the chance to query Freeman on this point, but he demurred, saying, "We did have a few close calls with short stories from Urdu, but in the end we had to pick what had the intensity and beauty which was most arresting."Image 3rd

Subjective assessments based on 'intensity and beauty' are a matter of editorial choice, of course. But with so many of the pieces of writing in Granta 112 touching on themes of violence, I was beginning to wonder if this was the default position of Pakistani writing in English (a notable exception is Daniyal Mueenuddin's collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which was very well received in the US). Is violence simply a literary preoccupation in Pakistan? Or does this have something to do with Western expectations of the concerns of Pakistani fiction writers? This quickly becomes a chicken and egg argument. The demands of the publishing market can be hard to separate from reality, so I didn't expect to get much of an answer to this question. But two recent publications have persuaded me otherwise, neither of which has found a publisher in the United States, as of yet (both are available in India).

The first is a marvelous novel by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, The Story of a Widow. The novel, blurbed promisingly by Mohammed Hanif as the novel Jane Austen would have written had she grown up in a Karachi suburb, tells the story of a woman whose husband, a rigid, ungenerous man, has recently died. The Jane Austen-ness (Farooqi has said that he has yet to read this writer known as Jane Austen, and drew inspiration from the Japanese novelist Tanizaki) of the story lies in its detailed, sensitive portrayal of the heroine, Mona's feelings as she explores the possibilities of love and independence. The novel is full of delicate descriptions of social and familial interactions and is not in any way meant to provide the far distant reader with a couch-side view of Life in Pakistan. It is in fact because of the narrative's resolute commitment to painting an intimate portrait of a private life that one gets a much more immediate sense of everyday life in Pakistan than is possible from many pieces of writing that overtly seek to introduce the reader to that country.

I loved for example this passage, leading up to the denouement of the novel, when Mona and her new husband, the reckless and drunken Salamat Ali, are driving home in the rain:

As their car approached their street, Moa saw some overhead electrical wires shorting up ahead. She asked Salamat Ali to slow down. Then she saw the electric company's truck parked near the electrical pole. Technicians stood on the street. One of them was trying to set up the ladder. Salamat Ali saw them too, when the technicians signalled with a flashlight for their car to stop. They were dangerously close to where a jangle of shorting electric wires hung overhead.

In a classic 'show, don't tell' move, Farooqi gives us a vivid description of the infrastructural snarls around every corner in a city like Karachi, without shining a sociologist's spotlight on the worrisome electrical work that is being done in the storm. Why is it that this novel, a witty and absorbing portrayal of urban middle class life, has not found a publisher in the United States? Is it because the easily relatable content does not fit preconceptions about life in Pakistan?Image 4th

Newly released in India is the literary review Life's Too Short, a collection of Pakistani short fiction written in English (and one translation), another publication that has yet to find a distributor in the United States. In these stories as well we find a wide array of narratives that are deeply involved in all different aspects of Pakistani life. Only one story engages with violence caused by a bombing, Bilal Tanweer's "To Live." The beauty of this particular story is that, until the ending, when the car the narrator is driving is hit with shrapnel and body parts from an explosion, the story has been about a seduction. What sets apart a story like "To Live" from the crowd of violence in Pakistan fiction is how it reveals the texture and details of the everyday lives coursing around the peripheries of an act of violence. As we hear the news in far off countries, we will learn that an explosion killed a certain number of people in a certain place and was caused by a particular militant group. These descriptions come to comprise the entirety of what is known about a place halfway round the globe. It is difficult to write a story about a bombing that brings to life the ways in which such violence is not a part of people's lived experience. Faiza Sultan Khan, the editor of Life's Too Short, told me that the inclusion of only one story about a bombing was a conscious editorial decision. Writes Khan, ''While we received numerous submissions featuring bomb blasts and other increasingly commonplace forms of violence, we only selected Bilal Tanweer's as we were looking for literary merit - not representations of Pakistan, be they positive or negative.''

Wholly engrossing, Life's Too Short includes many well-written stories that deal with a host of different themes, social strata and geographical locations. Included in the collection are a tale of a woman who grows to feel envious of her tenants ("Lucky People"), a depressing story about an unfit mother ruining her daughter's doll's wedding ("The Wedding"), and a witty account of a middle-aged man's unsuccessful attempt at coloring his hair ("Mir Sahib's Hairdo"). Special mention must be made of the one translated piece in Life's Too Short. This piece, an excerpt from the serialized lesbian erotica Challawa, by pulp author Humayun Iqbal, was translated by Mohammed Hanif. Challawa was widely read and extremely popular in Pakistan throughout the 1970s. Its inclusion in the collection achieves some powerful stereotype-busting about Pakistani culture. Amusingly, when Khan began to read a portion of the translation aloud during the Pulp Fiction panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the panel's moderator, festival co-chair Namita Gokhale, asked her to stop because there were teenagers present. Khan was "excited that literature from Pakistan is too racy to discuss."

Preconceptions about what themes Pakistani literature should deal with are not likely to go away soon in the US. Fresh news from the 'AfPak' frontlines, such as the Raymond Davis affair, only further this. While Indian writing in English occupies its own stereotypical 'saris and spices' niche in the US, Pakistani writing thus far seems destined for the bombs and violence market.

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