The dearth of good Pakistani fiction in English can be viewed as an effect of publishers being based elsewhere. Pakistani English-language authors trying to get published by our corporate literary overlords – in India, the United Kingdom and North America – will inevitably write works that cater to the tastes these foreign publishers serve. In turn, privileging accessibility makes writing bland.
As the globalised publishing industry becomes increasingly homogenous, the beacon of light – of fresh, innovative, unheard voices – as always will come from local, independent publishers. Mongrel Books, a Karachi-based independent press, is on its third publication, Saints and Charlatans. A collection of short stories by first-time author Sarim Baig, it maps out the constellation of lives that populates the Punjabi locale of Rampura.
The book begins with the voice of a young unnamed narrator of a story titled Bougainvillea. He is a resident of a local orphanage and idolises arm-wrestling champion Rustam. When his hero falls ill, he conjectures that salvation lies in saving the fallen Rustam by retrieving a lost orange cricket ball. To do this, he must brave the monstrous sprawling purple bougainvillea vine that guards an abandoned house in the neighbourhood. In reaching for the glowing gold orb, he uncovers sins yet unbeknown to him. We read the story through his voice and, at the end, as his perceptions of Rustam and all he holds true are shattered, so are ours. Baig’s particular brand of magic realism strikes a balance between style and substance that compels one to read on.
The characters Baig portrays become increasingly complex as the narratives progress. He does this through experimental narrative forms: offering varied perspectives, jumping back and forth in time, telling different versions of the same tales through different characters. In his writing, there is an element of oral storytelling that imitates the society it originates from, thus offering a distinctive local flavour. There is always innocence to be lost, tragedy to be uncovered and cracks to be formed that let the light in as you turn a story around over and over again.
And what of those who fall off these beaten paths, who never have the birthright to be on them to begin with?
Much like the usual depictions of Pakistani life that we are used to consuming through art, anecdotes and the news, Baig’s narrators concern themselves with depicting the male experience but the author is mindful of this flaw and complicates their narratives in order to overcome it. Consider the harmonium player, who earns his livelihood by doing what he must, peddling grief and selling songs, the unnamed narrator of Bougainvillea and the coterie of souls in The Third One from the Left: they all exhibit a male-centric world view. One might be left to wonder how we have raised a generation of men by pounding bravado into them, believing the stifling, linear routes to success that we dictate will produce honourable lions and not anxious children desperate for meaning outside of ticked checkboxes. And what of those who fall off these beaten paths, who never have the birthright to be on them to begin with? We vilify them for taking respite at shrines, we tell them happiness lies elsewhere, not here but in some ambiguous ‘there’.
The Third One from the Left is almost a treatise on this subject. It is loosely structured around a central character, Bubloo Bismil Hijazi, and a cohort of lost souls ranging from Bubbly the long haired school boy, Jami the Salman Khan-idolising tailor’s apprentice and the bristly Cheeka. They all congregate at Jojo’s snooker club and regularly discuss ‘getting out’ of the country. As time slips by, modernity surges through Rampura unchecked and KFCs replace corner stores. The story slows down now and then to offer an insight into the characters. Some promise their lovers they will run away with them and end up murdering them instead, inexplicably so; some resign from structured life and become dervishes at a local shrine; some work steady jobs quietly through the years and some attempt to leave the country with varying degrees of success. The epilogue follows one such man, Jira, who is being trafficked to Malaysia through Karachi with the promise of a future “bright like the sun”. He enters a container along with other young men like him and they share stories of how they got there. We stay with his perspective as time becomes indistinguishable in the dark container. The occupants of the container soon yell to tell others to piss elsewhere or that their ears are being eaten. Bodies stumble, the floor becomes gooey and we move into Jira’s memories of snooker clubs and the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore until we later learn of their fate.
Baig tells the story of such young men whose stories were highlighted in news headlines earlier this year after a spate of human smuggling episodes ended in death. In January of this year, Pakistan’s ambassador to Greece wrote to the foreign office in Islamabad about the huge number of cases of human smuggling occurring from areas like Mandi Bahauddin and Gujranwala. The letter was written right after the bodies of 20 Pakistanis had come back home from the Mediterranean Sea where their boat, destined for Europe, had drowned.
The dreamy, ungraspable trajectories of Baig’s stories are fictional but remain concerned with the real issues plaguing our country. They are attempts to imagine what those stories would look like outside sterile news reports. This is why a nation like ours needs local English fiction — to use it to tell our stories to each other instead of selling them as headlines or poverty porn to a Western audience. For there are so many stories to be told.
While this collection suggests how much untapped potential there is in local writing, it also contains many silences. It merely echoes whispers of the lives of all the women who are supporting characters in these male-centric narratives. Women are only relevant because they happen to have powerful fathers or because they are murdered by their unhinged lovers or are somehow unhinged themselves. Their stories remain hidden in the realm of wild purple bougainvillea vines — who will draw them out?
This was originally published in Herald's June 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a former staffer of the Herald