On The Side Talking Points

Which is the Great Pakistani Novel?

Updated 22 Aug, 2015 08:08pm
Creative Commons
Creative Commons

By the time Abdullah Hussain (who died early last month) published his novel Udas Naslain in the 1960s, a number of novelists had already made their mark on Pakistan’s literary scene — Qurratulain Hyder being the most prominent among them. Since then, a large number of novels have come out in the country, not just in Urdu but in many other languages such as Punjabi and now, increasingly, English. An equally large number of novelists – Intizar Hussain, Mohammed Hanif and Mohsin Hamid amongst others – have won critical acclaim and popular applause for their works. So do we have one piece of fiction-writing that we can call the Great Pakistani Novel?

Murder, he wrote

Zulfikar Ghose | Image courtesy Dawn.com
Zulfikar Ghose | Image courtesy Dawn.com

A few years have passed since the Partition. The chaos has settled; Pakistan is a land of promise and plenty — a place for new beginnings, a place where chancers and hucksters are looking to exploit this bounty. The corrupt Shah brothers – a family who moved across from India, where they’d never amounted to much – want to cash in on this new land of opportunity and set in place the foundations of their business empire. The only thing standing between them and the land they intend to occupy is the landowner Aziz Khan — a man so decent, impartial and kind that Zulfikar Ghose writes in one desperately tender line that if horses could speak, they too would speak of his gentleness. The novel follows the Shahs’ growing determination to seize Khan’s land, through wheedling, bribing, intimidation and eventually by sheer force. A masterpiece of realism, which is clearly heavily influenced by Thomas Hardy, The Murder of Aziz Khan takes on themes including the confrontation between ancient traditions and contemporary brutality. Khan is all that is good in the world so, naturally, he doesn’t stand a chance.

Even after nearly 50 years since the novel was published, the heart-rending elegance and accuracy with which Ghose describes the corruption and ugliness blighting the very heart of Pakistan has not failed to lose its hammer-blow impact. If there is a quintessential Pakistani novel in English, this is most certainly it. Along with being Hardy’s stylistic heir – which is no minor feat – Ghose has created in Khan the ultimate tragic hero on whom we pin our hopes, time and again, even though we know the outcome from the book’s title. Time cannot rob Ghose’s novel of its devastating impact. If anything, it grows more relevant, as we seek to ask what went wrong in the beginnings of this country to lead it to this stage.

By Faiza S Khan, an editor, columnist and critic

The angst of our age

Aag Ka Darya by Qurratulain Hyder
Aag Ka Darya by Qurratulain Hyder

It is an absurd exercise to set the hierarchical order of “the great” in any literary genre, but obviously there are certain measures and parameters by which any piece of art would be called a classic of its time.

In Urdu literature, Aag Ka Darya by Qurratulain Hyder and Udas Naslain by Abdullah Hussain are considered great novels, which have enthralled readers for more than five decades. The milieu of both was the 20th century; a time of two great wars, political upheavals, mayhem of ideologies, the wrecking of freedoms on an objective level and the sense of alienation, boredom and other existential feelings at the subjective level. Other than reliance on historicity, determination and the free will of an individual were the themes artistically dealt by both these great writers.

On the contrary, in Ghulam Bagh, his first novel, Mirza Athar Baig introduced a new fashion of thought and postmodern technique. It is not easy to read this novel and grasp its whole idea in a single reading. It, however, created its own readership on a large scale, which generally comprised of the youth. Populated by the spontaneous and delicate philosophical utterance of characters, especially by the protagonist Kabir Mehdi, Ghulam Bagh introduced ordinary readers to contemporary discourses on culture, history and identity. Set in a postcolonial background, the novel offers a fragmented reality of a postcolonial society; one in which there is a constant war between borrowed knowledge and beliefs and superstitious practices in local culture. Like a broken mirror, it reflects split images of the chaotic social order of our era.

By Amar Sindhu, a writer, professor and chairperson of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro

A shared past

The notion of the “Great Pakistani Novel” is a strange one because it presumes that all novels written within a state’s boundary are alike in their purpose, set out to accomplish the same goals and have preoccupations that are indistinguishable; that the one which acquits itself most efficiently in the exercise deserves the title. One understands the desire to name one defining book that is a landmark in the literary tradition of the language, treats its subject in a definitive, exhaustive manner and makes a character represent all humanity. But any book that accomplishes these feats necessarily breaks all restrictions, becoming universal. The Great Pakistani Novel’s relationship to Pakistan, if any exists, must therefore be only incidental. Similarly, it would be difficult to define the exact nomenclature of the Pakistani novelist and how the physical space in which a novel is written defines it as a Pakistani novel.

Having clarified my considerations, I suggest that the Great Pakistani Novel is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s magisterial Kai Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman — a work which in its storytelling, characterisation and ability to define the poetry of a people’s existence, by far, surpasses all works written in Urdu and English languages in these parts. The novel traces the life of the remarkable character Wazir Khanum, a poetess and intellectual whose relationships with men play out in the background of the Mughal Empire’s last years. She was the mother of Urdu poet Daagh Dehlvi and her last husband was the Mughal Crown Prince Mirza Muhammad Fakhroo, son of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. It is merely incidental that Faruqi calls India his home. This book, the greatest novel written in the Urdu language, is about our shared past. I will be the first to cheer if someone wishes to claim it as the Great Indian Novel as well.

By Musharraf A Farooqi, the author of the critically acclaimed novel Between Clay and Dust

Is there such a thing?

File photo
File photo

There is no such thing as a “Great Pakistani Novel”. There are a lot of good novels, on various subjects and themes, call them “great,” if you will (which again is as vague a subjective evaluation as it gets) at your own risk, but a ‘quintessential Pakistani novel’ is a fantastical fiction, or a Procrustean one, if one were to push it, since there is no such thing as a ‘quintessential Pakistan’.

Is there an exemplary English, French, Chinese, Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian novel? There are novels, there are countries and there are languages. To expect any one to be ‘representative’ of the other would be to ignore the nature of the identity of each. Millions of people, with cultures and habits strange and diverse, make up a country. Scores, sometimes hundreds, of tongues may be spoken in any one of them. A novel is written by only one person at a time. It can do only so much. By what stretch of the imagination can we generalise it to an entire people who just happen to be living under a politically defined territory?

There are plenty of accomplished Pakistani novelists engaged in telling stories in the novel form that attest to the abundant variety of its peoples and cultures, but it would be rather audacious to suggest that any one of them has written that novel that captures the ‘quintessential Pakistan’. It would be rich irony if that novel, if it ever existed, perhaps were written in English, Urdu or any one of the several languages spoken in the country. How do you capture that copious array in any one text? In any one language? How do you pretend that a novel actually exists that has it all, particularly the lavish historical, religious and social currents that come together to comprise a people as colourful in their customs, habits and aspirations as assorted and heterogeneous as those that inhabit Pakistan?

By Waqas Khwaja, a Professor of English and Postcolonial Studies at Agnes Scott College, where he also teaches courses in creative writing

Share your pick for the Great Pakistani Novel in the comments section below.

This was originally published in Herald's August 2015 issue. To read more from Herald in print subscribe.