Another Side of the Story
Why is it that, while the world fell in love with Indian novelists, Pakistani novelists failed to achieve the same high profile? KAMILA SHAMSIE looks at the history of the English-language novel in Pakistan.
The story of the Pakistani novel in English starts with tragedy and unrealised potential. In 1948, within a year of partition, 36-year-old Mumtaz Shahnawaz was killed in a plane crash, leaving behind the first draft of her partition novel, A Heart Divided. Her family published it in the 1950s, but the question of what the novel might have been had she worked on it further remains unanswered.
As with any nation, but particularly a new one, Pakistani literature's story cannot be told without the backdrop of history. In 1947 the English language itself was a vexed and contradictory space: on one hand the language of colonialism; on the other hand the language in which undivided India's politicians (Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi, Liaquat et al) presented their demands for independence to the British. In the newly created state of Pakistan it was also the official language, while Urdu was the national language. However you look at it, English represented power and privilege. The corollary of this was to create a division, still in place, between English language writers and those who work in Pakistan's other languages. The combination of English's close links to officialdom and the 'nation-building' mindset of a newly independent people for whom patriotism was all-important did the English language novel few favours. While Urdu writers such as Saadat Manto, Intezar Hussein and Abdullah Hussain were producing dynamic, challenging work, the English-language novel was, in the 1950s, all but moribund.
One man who must have watched this with a particular sense of despair was Ahmed Ali who, in 1940, wrote the gem Twilight in Delhi. In 1947, Ali, who was born in Delhi, was forced over the border to Pakistan, where he lived out his life. It is impossible to exclude Ahmed Ali from the history of the Pakistani novel in English: he was its father. Twilight in Delhi is set in 1911, in a Muslim neighbourhood in Delhi, where despair over the downfall of the Mughals and the rise of the British is strong. It was published in England by the Hogarth Press and Virginia Woolf and EM Forster were admirers. Ali was bilingual but chose to write the novel in English to provide both anglicised Indians and the English themselves with an alternative to the 'official narrative' of the Raj. And so, alongside tragedy, the Pakistani novel started with the use of English to illustrate 'another side of the story'.
For decades thereafter, however, nothing much happened with the novel in English with the notable exception of Zulfikar Ghose's 1967 work, The Murder of Aziz Khan. It wasn't until 1979 that the first internationally successful, widely read (among the admittedly tiny Anglophone sections of Pakistani society) Pakistani-English novel appeared: Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters, a boisterous, engaging novel set among Pakistan's Parsi community. These were the early days of the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship and, in that atmosphere of censorship, with political Islam in its early phase, Sidhwa's rambunctious, sometimes bawdy novel offered a rare spark of light.
As with Ghose and Ali before, however, it was an isolated spark. Zia's military rule ignited Urdu feminist writers but had little impact on their Anglophone counterparts. And Sidhwa's success - not only with The Crow Eaters but also with her other novels, particularly the poignant Ice-Candy Man - was regarded as the exception that proves the rule; the rule being that the world had no interest in novels from Pakistan, and Pakistan's own publishing industry couldn't support writers who only reached a tiny section of the population. Until the 1980s, the idea that books in English were written almost entirely by people from England and America had such a strong hold on people's minds that there was very little consideration even given to the absence of a canon of Pakistani-English writing. But then came the Indian Novel.
There is no denying the significance of years of military rule and censorship - and vastly different population sizes - in the different trajectories of the Pakistani and Indian novel but, as with all things subcontinental, there is also a cricket metaphor lurking: 'the fast bowler effect' as Mohsin Hamid puts it. From the 1980s until now, Pakistan has produced a steady stream of deadly fast bowlers - not because of anything genetic or temperamental particular to it, but because great success leads to emulation, just as every cricket-playing boy grew up wanting to be Sarfaraz or Imran, Wasim or Waqar. The importance of pairs is key - a single bowler or writer is exceptional; double the number and people start spotting a trend of which they can be a part. But while India's writers were attracting the attention of readers and marketing departments, and being an Indian novelist became a viable way of earning a living, Pakistan continued to think gloomily that, in novels as in tourism, the world was far more interested in India. One Pakistani writer might slip through the cracks here and there, but received wisdom had it that our 'Midnight's Children moment' would never come.
We were so busy, in fact, considering the moments that weren't in evidence that we didn't pay sufficient attention to what was actually happening - the quieter successes, the gradual emergence of a national literature in English. In 1997, Oxford University Press, Pakistan, commissioned the literary critic (and my mother) Muneeza Shamsie to compile an anthology of '50 years of Pakistani writing in English.' No one involved with the project in its early days imagined that the anthology, A Dragonfly in the Sun, would gather together 44 writers. Not all were novelists, nor even prose writers, but, as the writer Aamer Hussein says when speaking of its significance to him, "When I read A Dragonfly in the Sun I felt I had been given a home. For the first time I could look at a collection of writing and say, yes, that's where I belong."
At the time of its publication A Dragonfly in the Sun was a revelation. But today the revelation lies in going back to it and taking note of all that has happened in the world of Pakistani Anglophone fiction over the intervening decade: Uzma Aslam Khan's Trespassing (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' prize, Eurasia region); Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers (shortlisted for the IMPAC award), Mohsin Hamid's Mothsmoke (winner of a Betty Trask award). Last year, the inaugural list of Penguin's new imprint Fig Tree included Moni Mohsin's The End of Innocence - and already one of the most keenly anticipated literary debuts of 2008 is Mohommed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The short story form is well served, meanwhile, by Aamer Hussain, whose fifth collection Insomnia was published earlier this year, and Imad Rehman whose I Dream of Microwaves has yet to find a home in the UK but was published to critical acclaim in the US.
Of course, one of the features of this list is that it includes writers based in Pakistan, writers who grew up in Pakistan but now live elsewhere, and writers who left Pakistan during their childhood. Within Pakistan there remains much bickering about who exactly should qualify as a Pakistani writer. Do you need to live in Pakistan, have lived in Pakistan, be the child of Pakistanis? It is possible to encounter conversations like this: "You're Pakistani because you grew up here and still spend part of the year here, and maybe Nadeem Aslam is because he was here as a child and his first book is set in Pakistan, but Hanif Kureshi never lived here so he isn't ... and Tariq Ali did live here but he's been in England so long and his novels aren't set here, but if he does write something based in Lahore then maybe and, oh, Zulfiqar Ghose, isn't he writing about Brazil now?" My take on all this is simple: if someone is willing to claim Pakistan for themselves and for the development of their creativity then it seems ridiculous to deny them - and the nation - that right.
The other feature of the list is that it includes only writers published in the UK and US. Though there are now publishing houses in Pakistan that publish English-language fiction, their print runs are small, and distribution limited. But that doesn't take away from the importance of a (slowly) emerging 'home-grown' publishing base, which has already launched the careers of several writers. There is also a burgeoning publishing industry over the border in India. "We are to Indian publishing what Gael Garcia Bernal is to Hollywood," Mohsin Hamid jokes in regard to the Indian interest in writers-from-across-the-border.
But by far the most heartening thing about Pakistani fiction now is the number of young people who want to swell its ranks. When I was growing up I didn't know of anyone else who wanted to be a novelist, and it was made clear to me by well-meaning people that I was headed for disappointment. But, in recent years, more and more Pakistanis are seeing that it is possible to write about Pakistan and be of interest to the world - though there are various landmines that exist around the particular stories from Pakistan that most interest the world (bombs and mullahs are more interesting than not-bombs and not-mullahs). As writers we all have to choose our own ways of dealing with those landmines, though given the strongly political nature of Pakistani fiction through the years it's a fair bet that while tiptoeing away from landmines is a legitimate course of action, it won't be the most popular choice.
Just days before Pakistan turned 60, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist was named as one of the 13 books on the 2007 Man Booker prize longlist. Already a New York Times bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist with its pared down style could not be more different in tone from the ornate language of Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi. But as Hamid's narrator Changez talks to a silent American about events around 9/11 it's hard not to draw a link back to Ahmed Ali's project of using the novel in English from the subcontinent to illustrate 'another side of the story.’
(R) thedailystar.net 2010