December issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

As 2010 comes to a close, Newsline highlights one publication that managed to examine the themes that have run through our headlines at home, and made Pakistan headline news abroad. And these themes will not disappear. They were some of the core elements that led to the birth of this nation and form the lens through which many people see Partition. They also still course through our streets and our lives, and have been etched into our psyche as a nation. They have a role in how we see each other and how we respond to one another.

Migration, religion and violence don’t define Pakistan, but they have been undeniably powerful forces that continue to shape us and our future. In 2010, from militancy, the blasphemy law and sectarianism to the floods, Facebook and by-election chaos, the main stories of the year have these themes as a foundation.

The review below looks at a foreign magazine that caught a lot of attention this year with its late summer issue on Pakistan. While the cover may be a cliché and the themes sadly too common, the whole product is an honest reflection of a hurting nation.

– Online Editor

Three themes run throughout Granta’s recent issue on Pakistan: violence, migration and religion. Some authors have chosen to tackle these through extended allegory. Others have chosen autobiography. But, regardless of the approach, the convergence of themes is both startling and troubling.

Of course, even the most perfunctory observer of Pakistan would have to admit that violence, migration and religion are an indelible part of the contemporary political landscape. Rather, what is striking is the extent to which almost all the writers in this collection have internalised these themes.

Pakistan appears as a country that is locked in an increasingly bloody battle over the fate of ‘its’ religion, the intensity of which is reflected and refracted by vast, worldwide migratory webs. It is a battle that is slowly beginning to occupy the minds of an ever greater number of people — and it has become the unavoidable horizon of 21st century Pakistan.

Even if many deplore the simplistic image of Pakistan as a ‘failed state’ teeming with Islamic fundamentalists and moral reactionaries, one can hardly criticise the contributors to this volume for turning their gaze on the country’s moral, religious and socio-economic decline. Just as their counterparts in, say, apartheid-era South Africa did, so they too are bearing witness to inequalities on a vast scale: the question is not what to write about but how to write about it.

Inevitably, the Granta volume is inconsistent. The best writing pushes the boundaries and looks for new ways of describing the pathologies of Pakistani society, while the least satisfactory writing reduces these potent themes to biographical anecdotes or journalistic platitudes. Nevertheless, the volume as a whole serves its function admirably by (re)introducing to foreign readers a rich variety of writing on Pakistan.

This variety is reflected in the range of texts. Surprisingly, of the 18 contributions, only five can be described as fiction — those of Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif, Uzma Aslam Khan, Mohsin Hamid and Jamil Ahmad. Fortunately, it is a case of quality over quantity. In fact, the fiction is mostly better than the non-fiction and one is left wondering if this is because allegory and allusion are the best ways to represent Pakistan’s tragedy? Or perhaps it is simply the old trope that the freedom afforded to fiction writers gives them a sharper insight into social realities?

Either way, it is the fiction that provides the most stirring moments. This is largely thanks to Nadeem Aslam’s outstanding retelling of the story of star-crossed lovers Leila and Qes, entitled ‘Leila in the Wilderness.’ Resolutely unsentimental and yet deeply moving, Aslam lays bare each of Pakistan’s pathologies through a series of thrilling vignettes, all tied together in a powerful fable.

With a touch of magical realism that belies the vivid depictions of violence and chaos, he takes apart the deleterious consequences of religious fanaticism and the suffocating chains of social repression. The result is devastating. Although Leila is a symbol of redemption, she is handicapped, maimed and violated. And, as for the blood that spills over the floor at the end of the story, it seems to be the blood of a nation and a people, entirely lost in a madness of their own making.

Aslam’s prose leaves us gasping for air — and, ultimately, full of admiration. His contribution — which took the author more than a decade to write and is one of Granta’s lengthiest commissions — is a veritable tour de force that pulls us to the very heart of contemporary Pakistan without succumbing to clichés or banalities. It embodies the best of Pakistani writing today and it is a fitting way to open the volume.

Unfortunately, it also sets a very high standard, and the other contributions struggle to attain the same emotional heights. Mohammed Hanif’s lovely ‘Butt and Bhatti’ gets closest despite adopting an entirely different literary register. It tells a skewed love story that makes excellent use of the author’s inimitable sense of humour to portray some very serious issues. Mohsin Hamid’s appropriately titled ‘A Beheading’ tackles chilling violence with gusto but, unlike Aslam, his set piece has an almost cinematographic, Tarantino-esque sensibility that renders the violence somewhat surreal. It is a compelling demonstration of literary prowess but it is not as insightful.

Closer to the spirit of ‘Leila in the Wilderness’ is Jamil Ahmad’s ‘The Sins of the Mother,’ a story of ‘honour’ killing on the border. Ahmad is a 79-year old former civil servant who has never published any fiction but this sensitive portrayal of tribal life bodes well for his first book, which should appear in the next year.

The borderlands feature prominently in the best of the non-fiction as well — a reminder that the fate of Pakistan is being decided at its margins. Declan Walsh’s ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’ offers us an insightful picture of electoral politics in a land of tribal allegiances, guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency. In his limpid journalist’s prose, he reminds us that democracy can take many forms, and that there is a glimmer of hope for participatory politics in even the most unpromising locations.

Basharat Peer’s ‘Kashmir’s Forever War’ is more pessimistic. His lucid account of the Kashmir war through the eyes of a group of young “stone-throwers,” who see themselves as the South Asian counterparts to the Palestinian intifada, makes for depressing reading. Once again, Pakistan’s borders become the site of contestation and deep resentment, in this case directed towards the Indian army but which could just as easily turn against Pakistan.

The non-fiction selection also takes us beyond the borders of Pakistan into the experiences of the migrant diaspora. Aamer Hussain’s disappointing, slightly aimless account of his own arrival in Britain is offset by Sarfraz Manzoor’s touching story of his unsuccessful attempts to woo British ‘white girls,’ either in his mind or in reality. Similarly, Lorraine Adams’ superficial and rather sketchy report about the ‘Times Square bomber’ Faisal Shahzad, is balanced by Kamila Shamsie’s interesting account of the last three decades of Pakistani pop music.

From the hit song “Dil Dil Pakistan” to today’s Coke Studio, Shamsie explores the difficult journey of pop music in a time of simultaneous Islamisation and westernisation. Not that this is simply a tale of censorship at the hands of Muslim ‘fundos.’ Instead, what emerges is a picture of Pakistani pop music grappling with its relation to Islam. Singers drop in and out of religion, invoking Sufism and the Tablighi Jamaat one day, and Led Zeppelin and Lay’s potato chips the next.

We need look no further for what Olivier Roy has called “globalised Islam.” Sandwiched between Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s searing voice and Zia-ul Haq’s censors, Pakistani pop music holds up a mirror to the country’s artistic fate, torn between different places and identities.

Indeed, if there is anything that ties all the writing in this collection together, it is these interweaving and unresolved identities. With the exception of the beautiful cover design, even the artwork in the volume expresses the uncertainty that faces contemporary Pakistan. A lonely woman ironing in an empty street; clothes hanging from the mouth of a fighter jet: these symbols of daily life have been distorted and reshaped by the weight of historical realities.

It is certainly true that there are moments of great light in this collection. Love, hope and redemption all make fleeting appearances. But their transience is precisely their weakness: like Leila’s girl children, they are born and immediately ripped away from their mother. What is left is a lingering sadness, punctuated by flashes of great pain.

In the poem ‘PK754’, Yasmeen Hameed asks: “What kind of dream?/Tell me, what is this cry of pain in the air?/What is this restlessness?” Her desperate desire for answers resonates through the entire volume. Her fellow contributors can only offer partial answers. But their voices must be heard. They have become the chroniclers of a nation’s hurt — and it is only through their fiction, non-fiction, art and poetry that we can begin to understand the agony that has become a daily ritual for far too many Pakistanis.