All eyes on them

Society & Literature

Daniyal Mueenuddin

Pakistani English Writing is the culture critic’s new favourite feature, literary West’s new India; India’s new bridge to the estranged neighbour.

It is not as if this is the first batch out. The likes of Bapsi Sidhwa have been around since the 70s but there is something electric in the new climate, even after you cut through the hype. Young fiction writers are churning out world-class prose that will command attention at will.

It is difficult, even reductive to speak of them as a cohesive group. There is a vastly diverse range of styles and genres on offer. Usually literary categorizations aid nothing but seminars, awards, trends and sales; but this group does have atleast one strong strand in common. Pakistan is the soil bed of all the stories the ushers of this new era are telling.

While some try and make sense of Pakistan’s relationship with the West and India, others turn the gaze inwards to draw out socio-political flaws, re-examine history or simply speak about the daily lives of ordinary people who live behind the veil of an imposing state.

Novelists often fall in a write-what-you-know-about category or research their fiction intensively. A lot of first time writers today are writing about things closest to their experiences — perhaps as a rite of passage, a debt or simply a writing school dictate. But nowhere is this more prominent than in Pakistan. The country is at the centre of world conflict, making headlines for the worst possible reasons. It is hard in fact to remember a tumult-free time in its short history. Clearly the Pakistani writer in English is being read to understand the state of affairs that inform our understanding of the strange wars we find ourselves in the midst of.

Moni MohsinThe scenario is so complex, you need the authority of an insider to decode it. But much as this may have helped fuel the sudden interest in writing from the region, it is capable of mounting undue pressure. The Pakistani novelist might find himself limited in scope by expectations. Fiction is not always suited for elaborating on news bulletins. Besides, as Moni Mohsin points out, “Since most readers like to have their views confirmed rather than challenged, they will mistrust the writer who attempts to make them do so and label her an apologist for her country.”

As things stand, hardly any writer is starting out wanting to confront the circumstances squarely, but the fabric of the state’s issues finds its way into the weave nonetheless. It isn’t easy for the younger generation to look away perhaps. Issues they won’t confront will confront them. As a state Pakistan has been more potently involved in the personal lives of its people than usual. Besides, the topicality is such that the tiniest written detail tends to be interpreted and mined for its larger political significance. So there is no easy escape.

Not that they are looking for one either. Writers like Mohsin Hamid, Moni Mohsin, Nadeem Aslam and Mohammad Hanif are happy to engage in debate and conversation about Pakistan’s political concerns even over interviews. They are incorporating their contribution as critics and journalists of a very crucial era with their roles as novelists. Literature is supplementing political speeches, headlines and general polemic in the most significant way, bringing forth human voice and nuanced reality.

Who qualifies as a ‘Pakistani’ writer is another debate altogether, (born in pre/post partition Pakistan, lived there, one parent Pakistani and endless other grey areas) but Shamsie, Hamid, Mohsin, Hanif, Aslam, Mueenuddin and the latest entrant to the toasted circle, Ali Sethi, have all lived abroad at some point. Presumably living abroad creates a palpable need for the Pakistani to define things that are elemental to his identity, especially post 9/11. Living outside also offers a better vantage point for word sketches. Though a lot of the emphasis on diaspora writers might just be an extension of our perpetual colonial hangover. It is not as if writers who have always lived in or are only published in the subcontinent, (like Bina Shah or Uzma Aslam Khan) are diminished in their potential.

The extensive-diaspora-contribution-phenomenon Pakistan has in common with India but there are noticeable departures in the writing itself. Mueenuddin was quoted in an earlier interview as saying that Pakistani writing is grittier and tougher emotionally than its Indian counterpart — “We’re not lying in sort of a bath of warm water and reflecting upon, you know, our sort of quirky, funny families. There’s an edginess to our writing, I believe, which is distinctive.”

Indian English Writing (particularly diaspora writing) has come a long way since when it was mostly expected to speak of an exotic India of myths and spices or the immigrant’s struggle in the harshness of foreign hinterlands, but is perhaps not as compelled to address its socio-political problems just yet. One reason might be the insular intellectual elite’s easy access to the India-shining soap bubble kit. Or that India does not seem to have singular concerns that unite its impossibly diverse billions. Moni sees it differently, “While it is true that so far Pakistani writers have concentrated on more political writing, it is also a function of their limited number that they are defined by it.”

Either way, for now, India is happy to let the grittier stuff come from across the border. Most novels find their first publishers and larger readership here. Pakistani fiction is fast becoming an integral part of the Indian literary circuit. While Pakistan has always had a glimpse of the Indian life through its films and books, this is the first time the Indian middle class has such an unhindered view of its neighbour.

This might just help in creating new understanding. After all its not easy to make sense out of the enemy state rhetoric when you find more in common with a character from their books than you do with one from a remote corner of your own country. It’s never paid to be overly optimistic about bilateral relations. Treasure troves of shared literary history have been left unearthed on both sides due to political discomfort. This new literary exchange can shape a shared future — one that will not be easily denied — by starting a conversation that will not be easily clamped.

Mueenuddin said at the Jaipur Literary fest that while there maybe brilliant writers in a country like Latvia, the spotlight’s on Pakistan because of its strife. True as that might be, not all states create a wealth of iconic writing under pressure. Not all people have it in them to carve such words out of monumental tragedy, simply refusing to be held back. One more reason they just don’t feel very different from us.     

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