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Pakistani English novel's ceaseless quest for identity

Updated Apr 25, 2018 02:59pm
Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

There is a scene early in Bapsi Sidhwa’s harrowing Partition novel, Ice-Candy Man (recently renamed Cracking India), where a character narrates the story of the arrival of his Zoroastrian ancestors in India after they were “kicked out of Persia”. They were, according to the narrator, initially turned away by an Indian prince who told them there was no room for outsiders in India. He sent them a glass full of milk to illustrate his point. In response, Zoroastrians mixed a teaspoon of sugar into the milk, successfully demonstrating that “the refugees would get absorbed into his country ... and with their decency and industry sweeten the lives of his subjects”. This “smart and civilised” move impressed the Indian prince and he gave Zoroastrians permission to live in India.

It is interesting that this story of a minority community’s experience with immigration and assimilation is recounted in one of the first truly Pakistani novels. Pakistan, indeed, emerged as an independent state primarily as a safe haven for the Muslim minority of India. Since the country’s inception in 1947, however, it has not only been faced with the task of defining its distinct postcolonial identity that is different from a postcolonial Indian identity, it also has had to separate its new identity from its Indian past. Sugar has to be taken out of milk in order for it to become distinctly visible.

Pakistan’s emergence as a new state, thus, severed Pakistani English fiction from its Indian antecedents. Born at a moment of intense trauma, caused by Partition, and amid a heightened sense of nationalism subsequently, Pakistani English fiction began its life with no lineage — or so it seems. It is, therefore, important to note that the anglophone Pakistani novel – defined here as any novel written by writers who self-identified as Pakistani at the time of writing – is not simply an extension of the Indian novel, even though the two are closely related.

Scholars such as Claire Chambers (writing in her 2015 book, Imagining Muslims in South Asia and the Diaspora: Secularism, Religion, Representations, and her 2017 book, Rivers of Ink), Muneeza Shamsie (in her 2017 book, Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English, and her 1997 collection, A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English) and Tariq Rahman (in his 1991 book, A History of Pakistani Literature in English 1947-1988) have traced Pakistani novels back to Indian novels written by Muslim authors, most notably Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi.

Attendees at the ninth annual Karachi Literature Festival browse through books | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Attendees at the ninth annual Karachi Literature Festival browse through books | Tahir Jamal, White Star

Ali was born in Delhi in 1910 and his work first featured in Angarey, a 1932 avant-garde Urdu volume that carried short stories by leading progressive writers of the time. He later migrated to Pakistan and became a diplomat. Published in 1940, his novel offers a nostalgic portrait of Indian Muslims in Old Delhi and their decline following their encounter with British colonisers. It, however, can hardly be termed as the progenitor of Pakistani fiction writing in English.

Where Ali wrote Twilight in Delhi as an Indian Muslim, the first generation of Pakistani writers wrote with the awareness that they were no longer Indian and sought to emphasise their new national identity. For a time, therefore, the anglophone Pakistani novel continued to focus on how the identity of the new country and its citizens was taking shape. Zulfikar Ghose’s 1967 work, The Murder of Aziz Khan, attempts to map this cultural transition as Pakistan grew into its adolescence. To do so, the writer employs a dark tale of the unscrupulous Shah brothers plotting to exploit the older, eponymous Aziz Khan — a stand in for traditional values.

Attempts to attach a history to the Pakistani novel based solely on a tenuous religious link, and the temptation to define the Pakistani novel as an Indian-Muslim novel, therefore, must be resisted. It is more rewarding, instead, to examine the unique historical forces that led to the creation of Pakistan and, thus, shaped the concerns of its English literature.

Themes of cultural hybridity and assimilation are expected in postcolonial novels but what is specifically worth examining with reference to Pakistani fiction in English is the anxiety around the identity of the Pakistani state. Should this identity be predicated on a history of Islam and Muslims in the Subcontinent simply because religion predominantly figured in the movement to create Pakistan?

Ayesha Jalal (writing in a chapter titled ‘The Past as Present’ in Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’, published in 2011) identifies the struggle for Pakistan as the one to “define an identity that is both national and Islamic”. This particular problem of negotiating between the national and the religious was inevitable for a nation state whose creation was justified on the basis of religious differences. The Two-Nation Theory that formed the basis of the All-India Muslim League’s movement for Pakistan defined nation on the basis of religion but, initially, only used this definition as a bargaining chip. That Partition’s violence was carried out along religious lines no doubt cemented the connection between Pakistani and Muslim nationalism.

Post-Partition, this meant a conflation of Muslim and Pakistani identities. The muhajir (Muslim migrants to Pakistan from India), thus, based their sense of belonging to the new country on religion and embarked upon a quest to dissolve themselves into the national framework like the sugar in milk in Sidhwa’s story. Cara Cilano of Michigan State University (in her 2013 book, Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English: Idea, Nation, State) refers to this process as “representations of unity through a shared Muslim identity carried over from Muslim to Pakistani nationalism”. The question remains, however, whether equating the Pakistani nation with the Muslim nation fully encompasses the Pakistani identity. If so, why does the Pakistani novel continue to fixate on identity?

Interestingly, the originators of Muslim nationalism in India belonged to the class of English-educated ‘mimic men’ whom the colonial state once imagined as its gatekeepers. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, a British loyalist who called the First War of Independence in 1857 a mutiny, encouraged Muslims to study English, seeing it as a tool necessary for their advancement within British-ruled India. He also spoke in the late 19th century about Hindus and Muslims being “two nations” after the Indian National Congress failed to address Muslim concerns. Later, another highly educated man, the poet Allama Iqbal, would take up the cause of Muslim nationalism and crystallise the idea of a separate nation for Indian Muslims in a 1930 speech.

The consequent movement for Pakistan was one that simultaneously opposed British rule and emerged out of colonialism. Such a history would inevitably raise questions about identity. The same applies to the anglophone novel written in South Asia.

Priyamvada Gopal of the University of Cambridge notes that the emergence of the Subcontinent’s anglophone novel out of colonialism has meant that it has “returned repeatedly to a self-reflexive question: What is India(n)?” The anglophone Pakistani novel, in turn, has fixated on the question: ‘What is Pakistan(i)?’. This latter question, however, is more complicated than its predecessor for it bears not only the burden of a foreign language but also a confusion over religious nationalism and an anxiety about a severed past that involves “‘othering’ the national self from the rival neighbor India” — as Amina Yaqin of SOAS, University of London has described it in the book Shared Idioms, Sacred Symbols, and the Articulation of Identities in South Asia.

Bapsi Sidhwa, author of Ice-Candy Man | Azhar Jafri, White Star
Bapsi Sidhwa, author of Ice-Candy Man | Azhar Jafri, White Star

Muneeza Shamsie has written about what she calls “Duality and Diversity in Pakistani English Literature” in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing in 2011. “Pakistani English literature shares with other South Asian English literatures a regional dynamic as well as a long colonial history, but the Pakistani imagination is also linked to the wider Islamic world.” The Islamic connection, thus, only partially encompasses the idea of Pakistan.

To understand this, it is important to examine the minority rights discourse that preceded the creation of Pakistan. Leaders of the All-India Muslim League did not take an exclusivist approach to the protection of minorities. This explains why, after Pakistan was created, Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

A little less than a decade from the moment Jinnah made this famous declaration, the 1956 constitution renamed Pakistan as an “Islamic Republic”, bringing religion right back into the business of the state. This confusion over the separation of religion and the state certainly complicates the possibility of equating Muslim nationalism with Pakistani nationalism as has been argued by some theorists.

Pakistani novelists, therefore, had to negotiate what Jalal terms the “twilight [zone] between myth and history”. It was inevitable that the literature that emerged from such a history would be focused on identity.

The anglophone novel in South Asia emerged out of the colonial encounter. Postcolonial criticism, therefore, has dedicated a lot of time and ink to the question of whether anglophone postcolonial writing is truly postcolonial, written as it is in the language of the colonisers. Feroza Jussawalla, professor of literature at the University of New Mexico, claims in her 1985 book, Family Quarrels: Towards a Criticism of Indian Writing in English: “Indians write in English to impress the British … they write at the inspiration of Western writers.”

Other critics, too, have documented this discomfort with English language in the postcolonial context. Tariq Rahman, in his excellent history of anglophone Pakistani literature, recounts these debates but offers no resolution to this particular issue. Looming in the background of all this, of course, is the spectre of Thomas Macaulay’s oft-quoted 1835 Minute on Indian Education that became the basis for the English Education Act in India. He sought to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. While it is tempting to see the very existence of English writing in the postcolonial state as evidence of the success of Macaulay’s mission, such a move would be something of an oversimplification.

Indeed, an examination of postcolonial anglophone South Asian literature reveals that it is not simply a product of the kind of Indians Macaulay sought to create. Many postcolonial anglophone writers are not engaged in mimicking their colonial masters. The rich South Indian tapestry in Arundhati Roy’s 1996 novel, The God of Small Things, and Vikram Seth’s charming desi matchmaking saga, A Suitable Boy (published in 1993), are just two of the many books that prove this contention.

It is apparent that these writers understand the fact that “to be Anglicized is emphatically not to be English”, as postcolonial theorist Homi K Bhabha observes in his book, The Location of Culture, which came out in 1994.

Anglophone writers do act as interpreters, albeit in the other direction. They are not the “vehicles for conveying [Western] knowledge to the great mass of the population”, as Macaulay had imagined but they are certainly vehicles for communicating South Asia to the West and the rest of the English-speaking world.

This is why it is common to see words and phrases from indigenous Indian languages in anglophone South Asian literature, always accompanied by their translations. Here is one example. Sidhwa writes, “She calls him Jan: life.” Implicit in her translation of “Jan” is the fact that the writer is not writing for an audience of Urdu-Hindi speakers alone.


The first generation of Pakistani writers wrote with the awareness that they were no longer Indian and sought to emphasise their new national identity.


Nearly a decade after Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man, Mohsin Hamid frames The Reluctant Fundamentalist literally as the speech of a Pakistani man addressed to a Westerner (an American, to be exact). That this dialogue with, and for, the West that has become an integral part of the postcolonial anglophone novel is evidence that postcolonial writers continue to act as interpreters for outsiders and, thus, participate in the Macaulay project, though in a very different way from what he had originally intended.

It is, therefore, not surprising then that Ice-Candy Man remembers Partition from an insider-outsider perspective: children within a minority community. Many anglophone Pakistani novels that precede and follow this novel offer a similar perspective through the eyes of migrants to and from Pakistan.

The diasporic concepts of “‘home’, ‘nationality’ and ‘exile’” that Paromita Deb identifies in her 2011 paper, Religion, partition, identity and diaspora: a study of Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man, have recurred as major themes in many anglophone Pakistani novels. Their framing, however, has changed according to a changing sociopolitical landscape.

Hanif Kureishi (in his 1990 book, The Buddha of Suburbia, and 1998 book, Intimacy), for instance, explores the familiar form of cultural disconnect felt by those straddling two cultures as the first wave of Pakistani diaspora lived out their lives in the United Kingdom. Bina Shah’s 2001 novel, Where They Dream in Blue, chronicles an attempt to know a possibly unknowable Pakistan as her young Pakistani-American protagonist, Karim Asfar, follows his identity crisis to Karachi. Plagued with concerns about having a hybrid identity, he wonders about his fellow hyphenated Americans: “Were they Americans, or Pakistanis? Where did they belong? Who owned their loyalties? When the Gulf War erupted, should they have supported the Iraqis, because they were Muslim, or Americans, because they were born in America?”

The same themes continue in contemporary Pakistani English fiction but here, questions of identity and assimilation have been complicated by changes in global politics in the years immediately following 9/11.

H M Naqvi, author of *Home Boy* | Tahir Jamal, White Star
H M Naqvi, author of Home Boy | Tahir Jamal, White Star

Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing (published in 2003) offers a window into the consequences of the Gulf War through a family drama, but it contains a moment where its young Pakistani protagonist Daanish returns home after years at an American university (and is consequently othered by his countrymen). He envies his love interest and co-protagonist, Dia, who, by virtue of having lived in Pakistan her entire life, remains “fully Pakistani”.

Mohammed Hanif’s darkly humorous A Case of Exploding Mangoes (which came out in 2008), a satire on militarism and American influence in the Cold War era told through General Ziaul Haq’s assassination, is also aware of the contemporary ‘Af-Pak’ facet of Pakistan’s identity. It features episodes where American diplomats rub shoulders with Pakistani officials and Afghan freedom fighters in Islamabad.

After 9/11, there has also been a shift from questions around immigration and assimilation to ones around migrants returning ‘home’. This is evident in Hamid’s 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and H M Naqvi’s 2009 novel, Home Boy. Both these books ask whether assimilation is even desirable.

For The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s Changez, the question comes to a head when he experiences a loss of self during a visit home from New York, where he has been living for years. He finds himself mistaking, at first, the “enduring grandeur” of his family home for shabbiness — just as an American would. For him, to think about his home in this way is shameful for it suggests that he is becoming a foreigner in his own land. As he dreams “not of Erica”– his girlfriend and a stand in for America in the novel – “but of home”, it becomes apparent that sooner or later he will have to choose between the two.

For Naqvi’s Chuck, a similar choice appears in a darker manner after a night of casual misadventures lands him in hot water with the authorities in the post-9/11 panic. He is transformed into an object of suspicion, is dehumanised and told he has no rights because, “You aren’t American!” When he chooses to return home at the novel’s close, he is in a state of psychological anguish, crippled by “fear and terror”.

Attendees at the ninth annual Karachi Literature Festival | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Attendees at the ninth annual Karachi Literature Festival | Tahir Jamal, White Star

The early English novels of India and Pakistan shared many similarities — take the shared thematic concerns over Partition in Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man, Khushwant Singh’s 1956 novel, Train to Pakistan, and Attia Hosain’s 1961 novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column. The trauma of 9/11 brought a major shift for Pakistan – and its literature – away from its South Asian links as its Islamic identity and strategic location have embroiled it in what has become a prolonged campaign against Islamic militants in Afghanistan as well as in its own Pakhtun regions.

The country’s public perception in the wake of this fight has very much shaped its literary and cultural discourse. Cultural theorist Claire Chambers notes this change while talking about Granta magazine’s 2010 Pakistan issue. “[It] adds to a sense of publishers and academics moving away from the fashionable Indo-chic of the 1980s and 1990s towards grittier, post-9/11 ‘renditions’ of Pakistan as the eye of the storm in the war on terror,” she writes. That this grittier post-9/11 rendition should come from writers who, as Chambers says, citing Muneeza Shamsie, “neither have hyphenated identities nor can be considered Pakistani exiles, but write in liminal positions between West and East”, is not simply coincidental.

The anglophone Pakistani novel has always been on a quest for identity, belonging and immigration. It follows, then, that these concerns are adapted to the contemporary moment by the contemporary Pakistani novel in English to the extent that Cara Cilano reads an end of nationalism in Kamila Shamsie’s ambitious novel Burnt Shadows that travels from Japan to India to Pakistan to Afghanistan and to the United States.

It appears, however, that the Pakistani English novel advocates something beyond nationalism, not because it is opposed to nationalism but because it finds itself outside of nationalism. It amplifies the notions of othering so that sugar no longer dissolves in milk. The question is no longer about “getting absorbed into [a new] country”. Attempts to dissolve outside of Pakistan, too, have ended in failure, as is clear in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Home Boy. It is debatable whether attempts to re-enter Pakistan and get reabsorbed into its fabric can be successful but these ‘return home’ novels certainly attempt it. This moment of returning home with an insider-outsider perspective, however, may be short-lived — as is clear from some recent works of fiction.


True to its form, the Pakistani novel in English continues to pursue selfhood and home.


The contemporary wave of anglophone Pakistani fiction, bolstered by a thriving publishing industry in India, is marked by what Bilal Tanweer calls a local reference point. Take, for instance, the crime thrillers written by Omar Shahid Hamid, a Karachi-based cop who started writing novels during a sabbatical. He has drawn on his personal and professional experiences to paint, among other things, an up-close picture of the war against terrorism played out on the streets of Karachi.

With The Diary of A Social Butterfly (published in 2008) and its sequel (published in 2014), Moni Mohsin has deftly penned irreverent satires of high society life in Lahore. Tanweer’s own tumultuous love affair with Karachi in The Scatter Here is Too Great (that came out in 2013) attempts a Calvino-esque immortalisation of a city. Legal academic Osama Siddique’s foray into fiction, Snuffing Out the Moon, is an ambitious tour through the history of the land we call Pakistan — starting from 2084 BCE Mohenjodaro, moving through present-day Lahore and ending in an era about 70 years from now.

These novels – fragments of various identities in the country, snapshots of different moments in time – signal an era in which Pakistani writing is happy to investigate the country itself, and its competing narratives, on its own turf rather than from the outside in. With Partition over 70 years in the past and the pull westward dulled in the polarised, anti-immigrant climate of a Trump-led United States and an increasingly xenophobic United Kingdom, interest in questions of immigration and assimilation has diminished in the Pakistani novel in English.

As the space for hybrid identities shrinks, so does the proclivity among writers towards being citizens of nowhere and everywhere — water lilies, rooted but able to float, as Hamid puts it in his 2014 collection of essays, Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London.

Literary theorist and philosopher György Lukács noted in his 1920 book, The Theory of the Novel, that selfhood is home for the soul. He described the novel as an attempt to regain home in order to recover selfhood. True to its form, the Pakistani novel in English continues to pursue selfhood and home. This pursuit, however, is moving away from an exploration of identity in terms of immigration and assimilation and towards an exploration of identity – in all its multitudes – in the indigenous context.


The writer is an alumna of the University of Cambridge and Barnard College, Columbia University.


This article was published in the Herald's March 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.