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Pakistan's new script

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By WRITERS IN ENGLISH ACROSS THE BORDER ARE MAKING THE WORLD TAKE NOTE, SAYS SAMITA BHATIA Rupinder Sharma
  • Published 12.04.09
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The worst of times can become the best of times for the writer and the poet. So even as Pakistan skids into violence and anarchy, the world’s eyes are trained not just on it but on the tales emerging from the country.

A new wave of Pakistani writers in English is now winning literary acclaim as they seamlessly flit between London, Karachi, New York and Lahore. Dealing with a heady mix of social and political themes, the writers are flirting with stories of war, loss, love and, of course, conflict.

Says London-based author Nadeem Aslam: “Pakistan seems to be at the centre of some of the world’s problems right now and Pakistani writers and artists are actually trying to explain this mess. And the world is interested also because some of the problems of nations like India and America are rooted in this mess.''

If conflict becomes an overriding theme, Aslam’s new novel, The Wasted Vigil, explores the complexities/fallout of war. Set in modern Afghanistan, Aslam says he wanted to create a portrait of the conflicts that shape our world.

Turn the page to Mohsin Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), which was set against the backdrop of the Indian-Pakistani arms race. And his second and highly acclaimed The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) explored the aftermath of 9/11 and the international unease it unleashed. Hamid chose the monologue to narrate his story and his Pakistani protagonist tells his tale to a nameless American who sits across from him in a Lahore cafe.

And last year came the first real English language political satire in Pakistan. Mohammad Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, is a brutal satire that spoke of Islamic fundamentalism and the plots and counter-plots taking place during General Zia ul Haq’s rule in the 1980s.

(From top) Moni Mohsin’s Diary of a Social Butterfly satirises the frivolity of a privileged stratum of Pakistani society; Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year (); Mohammad Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was an audacious political satire

But the authors have many more subjects up their sleeves besides politics. Hanif points out that Pakistani writing is very diverse now. “There’s a lot of ambition in the writing and no subject is taboo.’’

“Pakistani fiction is changing as writers are experimenting with new genres and new subjects,’’ says satirical writer Moni Mohsin.

Moni reckons that since Pakistan has witnessed a fair amount of political and social upheaval, this is bound to find expression in Pakistani fiction. “But that is not to say that Pakistani writers are stuck in that groove,” she says.

Her own book, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, is a light-hearted comedy and one that satirises a privileged strata of Pakistani society. The Diary of a Social Butterfly began as a column in Pakistan’s Friday Times and its central character is Butterfly, a silly socialite. The columns — now compiled into a book — speak a brand of Lahori English.

But Pakistani literature is not all about war and political double-dealing. That’s clear from two eagerly awaited works that have just reached the bookstores: Kamila Shamsie’s fifth (and reportedly finest) novel, Burnt Shadows, and a collection of short stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin.

Kamila Shamsie’s story is a saga that goes beyond politics and interconnects the lives of two families over almost half a century. Her narrative touches the devastation of Nagasaki in WW II through the conflict-ridden formation of Pakistan in the late 1940s to post-9/11 Manhattan and war-torn Afghanistan. The book has been long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

At another level, in his debut novel In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Mueenuddin revives the neglected short story genre. His subjects are familiar Pakistani figures — farm managers, servants, big landlords, political fixers.

Mohsin Hamid, whose The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year (he’s the first Pakistani writer to make a debut on this list), says: “There’s something very powerful and fresh happening in Pakistani letters at the moment.’’

In his debut novel In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin revived the neglected short story genre; (top) Kamila Shamsie feels that compared to Indian fiction in English, Pakistani fiction is in a nascent stage

He believes that the most exciting recent development in Pakistani fiction in English have been the debuts of Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin — in the space of less than a year. Says Hamid: “Neither Pakistan nor India has produced anything like them before.’’

Hamid adds that though most Pakistani writers enjoying acclaim are mostly from the Diaspora, these two authors have chosen to move back to Pakistan.

Aslam says that compared to Indian writing, Pakistani writing is still in its infancy. And that while Indian writers have been around for some 20 or 25 years, Pakistani authors are only just beginning to create a buzz.

Today if eyes have turned towards Pakistani authors, Hanif says, it’s because they have had a few really interesting books out during the last couple of years and are expecting another few this year. “We are being read — and published — and that’s definitely a good thing,’’ he says.

This year too will see a host of new names join the Pakistani smart new literary circle. Penguin is excited about 24-year old, Harvard-educated Ali Sethi’s debut novel The Wish Maker, which is a family saga and Fatima Bhutto’s book on the history of the Bhutto family. Also coming up from the Penguin stables is Khaled Ahmed’s book on Pakistan’s contemporary politics. Mohsin Hamid’s next novel, however, is likely to be a couple of years in the making.

HarperCollins too publishing three Pakistani writers this year: two novels – one by Husain Naqvi and another by Murtaza Razvi. There’ll also be a non-fiction work (a book on Delhi) by Raza Rumi.

(From top) Shahbano Bilgrami, author of Without Dreams, says Indian publishers are looking towards Pakistan for new work; Uzma Aslam Khan’s third novel, The Geometry of God, will be published in the US, Italy, and France, and it has just been released in Spain; Rakshanda Jalil, who has edited Neither Night nor Day, believes that political unrest usually spawns good literature

And Rupa author, Uzma Aslam Khan’s third novel, The Geometry of God, will be published in the US, Italy, and France this year. It has just been released in Spain. She has also written an essay-style piece called Flagging Multiculturalism: How American Insularity Morally Justifies Itself, which will be published by Atlas Books USA in their anthology How They See Us later this year. What’s more, this year her first novel, The Story of Noble Rot, will be reissued by Rupa & Co., eight years after it was first released.

Aslam too is not taking a breather after The Last Vigil. He’s already into his next book — an account of contemporary Pakistan taking in the happenings in the Taliban-infested Swat and FATA regions.

Moni Mohsin meanwhile is working on another novel — a social satire — based on the character of Butterfly, the key character in her columns.

The authors feel that many factors have come together to create the right conditions for the emergence of Pakistani literary fiction. Says Moni Mohsin: “When one writer emerges and finds success, others follow.’’

Also, today, Western publishers’ are constantly seeking the next ‘new’ thing and they’ve suddenly turned their attention to Pakistan. In addition, a growing number of young Pakistanis are receiving degrees in creative writing from well regarded Western universities and there’s an explosion in home grown newspapers, magazines and periodicals creating a new generation of writers and readers.

What’s more, debut writers are getting more attention than they did before. Says Hanif: “They are in newspapers, on TV shows and on websites.”

This is a far cry from the days when Hanif went in search of a Pakistani publisher for A Case of Exploding Mangoes — and couldn’t find one. “Publishers thought it was a bit risky and I understood that. Most publishers have very small businesses in Pakistan and why should they risk their livelihood for a first-time author?’’ Most thought the book wouldn’t have any readership and one publisher even told Hanif that they could probably sell three copies.

“So Chiki Sarkar of Random House India helped me out at the last moment and distributed the book in Pakistan,’’ he says. And the book has earned huge praise. “I’m hoping it’ll be easier to find a publisher in Pakistan for my next book,’’ says Hanif.

Shahbano Bilgrami, author of Without Dreams adds that for a long time, India has dominated the literary scene in this part of the world. “Now, Indian publishers themselves are looking towards Pakistan for new work,’’ says Bilgrami. Chiki Sarkar, chief editor, Random House India, points out that since Pakistani writers are telling stories that Indian writers aren’t, publishers are watching them keenly.

But Mueenuddin prefers to be more guarded and says that it’s more that the West has opened one eye and cocked half an ear in their direction. “Our part of the world seems to be emitting a lot of smoke and noise, which can be seen and heard even from a great distance,’’ he says.

Ask Uzma Aslam Khan if the country’s current crisis is spawning a vibrancy in the works of Pakistani writers she says that it’s very dangerous to expect writers from anywhere, including Pakistan, to speak in the same voice as news anchors. “I think that this expectation is being put on us, at times very overtly,’’ she says.

Her own experience has been dispiriting. She recalls a UK publisher who turned down her third novel, The Geometry of God, saying there was nothing in the book about sacked chief justices. “He said it was a shame that at a time when so much violence was erupting in Pakistan, I was writing about a woman who wanted to be a scientist (and succeeded)!’’

Pakistan may always be in the headlines for all the wrong reasons but authors like Rakshanda Jalil say firmly that Pakistani writers are not playing to the gallery. “Though political unrest usually spawns good literature, Pakistani authors are not performing with one eye trained on the pantheon of Western critics and the other on agents who will get them lucrative deals,” she says. Rather, they are finding their own individual voice.