"Writing Pakistan" | Through the lens of fiction
A lesser-known Pakistan and it’s English novelists as portrayed in Writing Pakistan.
What might characterise the break-away nation state of the Indian subcontinent? Pakistan – its geopolitics, and everything beneath it. Mushtaq Bilal, very relevantly gathers perspectives of some celebrated contemporary English language writers of Pakistan.
Not all of them reside there but the Pakistan they show is very distinct – though not detached – from the Pakistan portrayed by popular sources. In a first of its kind, the distinguished novelists in this collection of interviews include Bapsi Sidhwa, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Uzma Aslam Khan, Aamer Hussein Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Bina Shah, Bilal Tanweer, and Shehryar Fazli.
Although there is no publishing house in Pakistan that specialises in publishing English fiction, English is one of the most politically engaged bodies of contemporary literature. Their English writers do what is absolutely in keeping with contemporary writing: addressing the political change and all that is happening in the world today. The crucial thing is how fictions are informed by the authors’ cultural identities, and how those are defined by political undertakings.
As admitted, Mushtaq Bilal’s own position (as a student of contemporary literature) is informed by a postmodernist way of viewing things, ie, seeing everything in terms of political undertakings. Since Pakistan has come to acquire a very volatile position in contemporary international politics and has an extremely unstable domestic political climate, it is virtually impossible to talk or write about Pakistan without taking sides. Hence, it is very interesting how Pakistani English fiction writers articulate their stance.
The fact that most Pakistani English fiction writers reside in the UK, Canada, and America, and shuttle between their native country and their adopted home, enables them for a world view, equipping this batch of Pakistani writers to look at how Pakistan is stereotyped in the West and also how the West is stereotyped in Pakistan – and why it is important to undo such misrepresentations. The interviews of these authors serve as valuable research tool as they supplement the understanding of contemporary literature.
Bapsi Sidhwa is a writer whose works (among other adaptations) are translated into critically acclaimed Bollywood films Earth and Water, both directed by Deepa Mehta. Water is her latest novel (2006) and the film Earth is an adaption of ‘Ice-Candy Man’ also known as ‘Cracking India’ (1988). Being a Parsee, her fiction frequently explores the concerns of this community. ‘Ice-Candy Man’ presents an unprecedented view of the Partition from the unique perspective of a young Parsee girl suffering from polio. Interestingly, Sidhwa suffered from polio too, so was home-schooled in her early years.
Besides literary merit, Sidhwa’s works also bear importance from sociological and anthropological perspectives as they deal with a community on the brink of extinction – and also displeasing the community that is known to be tolerant; one of the reasons being that she wrote uninhibitedly about sex. In the course of the interview, she also expresses her view on how the possible extinction of the Parsee community might be slowed down. She has a very frank and simple take on this: allowing non-Parsee scholars (most of whom happen to be Muslims) to be integrated into their community. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions and has spread itself into other faiths. But like she says, it does virtually no good when a Muslim scholar (there’s one known to her) who considers himself to be Zoroastrian, goes and converts people in Mexico into Zoroastrianism. But all said and done, Sidhwa consciously never felt any obligation to serve her community through her work. It was, in fact, being a woman that coloured her writings more.
Another versatile contemporary Pakistani writer is Musharraf Ali Farooqi, whose fiction is marked by the nature of human relationships against the backdrop of an apparently ordinary urban life. As expected, here too, Partition is a theme. But what distinguishes Farooqi’s deployment of the Partition in ‘Between Clay and Dust’ is not its intensity but the conditions created by it. When Mushtaq Bilal asks if the colonisers forced English literature on the locals, Farooqi puts it aptly that “if you are not willing to forget your language...it will stay alive. The British had
nothing to do with it.”