In tribute to Pakistani fiction

Published in The Express Tribune

Depending on the Pakistani press is a risky business. At times, it seems the media can’t get enough of fluffy human interest stories even as the world explodes around them. And in a country where election season is marked by religious extremists killing the leaders of secular parties, and secular terrorists bombing the convoys of conservative ones, we are subject to rivers of ink attacking Articles 62 and 63.

Sure it’s an issue; poor Musarrat Shaheen has had her character questioned enough. The criteria for candidates are pointless, but have succeeded in giving returning officers the biggest power trip of their lives. It needs to be fixed, but that’s really all there is to it. The thousand and one op-eds dedicated to the issue say otherwise.

Which is why it’s always more exciting when Pakistanis put pen to paper in ways more rewarding. In times when banalities make the headlines (with our real problems too scary to think about), the Pakistani novel is the safest place to take refuge. The rise of Pakistani fiction in English is one of the most exciting things happening in the country, besides beginning to command the wider world’s attention as well.

That doesn’t mean departing from reality; in fact, just the opposite. Hard truths are our storytellers’ unique selling point. Being grittier than their Indian counterparts has both created a brand and hasn’t hurt sales either. Daniyal Mueenuddin put it best when he said, ‘We’re not lying in a bath of warm water and reflecting upon our sort of quirky, funny families. There’s an edginess to our writing, I believe, which is distinctive’. His collection of short stories stands as testament. In Other RoomsOther Wonders is a thing of beauty, set though it is in a southern Punjab practically sweltering with cruelty.

This recent hunger for local literature, which the media too should be commended for promoting, comes at a good time. Successive governments have treated the promotion of the arts at best with indifference, and at worst, as too dangerous to adopt. Our citizenry shares the blame; speaking in glowing terms of the richness of Ottoman and Persian history, but pretending as if the thousands of years of civilisation that walked the Indus Valley never quite happened. Promoting Pakistani writings, in turn, promotes our cultural heritage far better than harping on about the Mughals, the buildings they built, and the courtesans they lusted after. It projects a Pakistan that is vital, dynamic and too heterogeneous for Fox News to have the last say on.

But the journey to this point has been a long one and today’s aspiring authors have a few people to thank. Though she wasn’t the first, Bapsi Sidhwa blazed the trail at a time when the literary scene had little of today’s gloss. Her third novel on the tragedy of Partition, Ice Candy Man, won her great praise, but it’s her first book The Crow Eaters, tinged with the virtues of Parsi life in the subcontinent, that should be required reading for anyone interested in South Asian fiction at its best.

Finding it ‘an intensely romantic city’, Lahore formed the setting of most of her writings, and it was a fictional Lahore again, painted in garish hues by Mohsin Hamid in Moth Smoke, that helped usher in a second renaissance of storytelling onwards from 2000. Whereas The Crow Eaters gave us Faredoon Junglewalla, upstanding émigré-turned-arsonist, Moth Smoke’s hero Daru Shehzad was equal parts boxer, banker, drug-dealer, and all-around mess. That might say a little about Pakistan changing too fast for comfort: Faredoon was a hero from a gentler time (homicidal tendencies aside), a time before Partition, before terms like ‘loadshedding’ and ‘nuclear tests’ entered the lexicon as they did with Moth Smoke, set in the dry heat of 1998.

Is great art born from great upheaval? Indicators would point to yes.

Because there’s no dearth of great art. Going beyond the prizes and grants showered on Pakistani authors, the literary merit of their work itself is something to behold.

With the advent of Pakistani fiction in English though, there have been some common criticisms. There’s the complaint that our writers help stereotype the country by writing mostly along western preoccupations like Islam, war, bombs, and plenty youngish guys angry at the world. These critics just don’t read enough. They have yet to notice just how broad the spectrum of Pakistani fiction has become, or how deft it’s been even when handling such topics, like 9/11 in H.M. Naqvi’s Homeboy.

Accessibility is the biggest problem. Efforts must be made regardless in producing books that are cheaper than the ones selling today, but the question remains: is this writing by the elite for the elite? Besides the obvious caveat, that those complaining are English-readers who refuse to write in Urdu themselves, the setback is still obvious. These books are in a language the majority of people don’t understand. Translating these works into Urdu for local audiences, and translating our very own excellent Urdu works for foreign ones has to be focused upon. And our Urdu works deserve as much of the media glare as do our English ones.

Finally, the clearest issue is that people just won’t read. The teams behind the literary festivals in Karachi and Lahore have done us all a major service. Reading, rather than lawn fashion lines, should be made the priority as a national pastime. It’s tragic that, in a country wracked with illiteracy, those privileged with the ability to read should choose not to.