Whose Pakistan? Whose picture?
At a literature festival in Jaipur last year, writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif very aptly remarked that Pakistani English fiction is hardly ever taken seriously by anyone outside the very limited English readership in Pakistan. What I would say is that even within this group of English readers, there are many people who read a lot of English fiction but do not necessarily follow the work of Pakistani writers, even writers who have won tremendous international acclaim in recent times. For many readers, the fact that the acclaimed work is English fiction coming from Pakistan, or that it is about Pakistanis, is not always sufficient incentive to read, much less appreciate, it.
One simple reason for this could be that much of it is not really literature from Pakistan. The writers of many of the books shortlisted for various international awards over the past decade can often be found to have lived in Europe or America for protracted spells of time, and it is interesting that quite a number of them have attended creative writing programmes in the US. Many of these writers actually moved back to Pakistan around the time their work started gathering attention. The fact that they are based here now helps identify them as being more Pakistani than many other novelists who have been away for so long that they have more of a diasporic identity, remaining relatively unknown to the public here, though events such as the Karachi Literature Festival are helping to change that.
As far as the writers who live here now are concerned, even though their work may be set in Pakistan to varying degrees, much of it has been written – or at least conceived – abroad, often for a primarily foreign readership. What is more, it can tend to represent a certain class – or the world view or experience of that class – which can only be of limited interest or relevance for many local readers. Such local readers might find it interesting once or twice to read about, or enter into the feelings of, a crowd that frequents certain schools within Pakistan and has spent time at certain universities outside Pakistan, facing legitimate East-West identity issues in the process of shuttling between continents. But this can start to pall very quickly, and beyond a point it can be a struggle for local readers from radically different lifestyles and backgrounds (and sometimes even for those from the same background, come to think of it) to engage with the major issues in such characters’ lives, and to relate to their sources of joy or anguish, as well as the kind of relationships they may or may not have with people around them.
Narratives of solitary individuals, relatively free of a host of interfering relations, reflecting on declining family fortunes, disintegrating family ties, perhaps even on the decadence and relative insensitivity of the new, rising elite as opposed to the old one, and the perspective of characters indulging in nostalgia about how much more comfortable, ‘open’, and accommodating Karachi used to be before that villain Zia threw a spanner in the works can only be of limited relevance to many local readers for whom – or for their parents – attending the cabaret never formed such a significant part of their experience of city life.
Of course, when this English fiction steps beyond the personal to focus heavily on national or even international politics, readers’ interest levels immediately increase since politics tends to be a more universal preoccupation. This can happen only to find all too often that political events like the secession of East Pakistan or violence in Karachi during the 1990s merely served the purpose of providing an exotic background to a plot that could really have been set just about anywhere else in the world. Then, a book like The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes your way and you find yourself inexplicably repelled by the rather gimmicky cover featuring a Pakistani-looking face split between the identity of a young, clean-shaven, corporate professional and a bearded and turbaned creature.
Yet, there is no doubt that you are still very attracted to the topic itself and excited to read a book that promises to explore something you see all around you at a time when a fair number of ‘educated’, ‘modern’ youth seem to be heading down a particular path. There is a feeling of deflation, however, as you discover that the book is not an introspective exploration of your own – or rather our own – ideological anxieties, but, in fact, an explanation, directed towards Western readers, of how Pakistanis, or Muslims, come to feel uncomfortable in Western societies. Mohsin Hamid’s novel still remains an important book in global political terms, but it really cannot be considered the great Pakistani novel on the subject.
Even where writers engage with the concerns of a somewhat different class, the issue of authenticity arises. Isn’t it interesting that for writers of a relatively elite background, poorer or lower middle-class people often seem to form a more attractive subject than does the comparatively more affluent middle class? The issue is that in these sympathetic portrayals of the problems of village folk or domestic servants, characters not infrequently come off looking rather ingenuous which may not quite agree with the real picture. And this is not just a problem in English writing for it can be seen in plenty of Urdu writing as well. In English, however, the problem is compounded because of the language barrier. It is not easy to present in English the words of people who do not speak English. And even portraying people who can speak English, and do so, not as a rule, but in certain formal or informal contexts, can be quite difficult to manage for even the most talented of writers. For the style and idiom of English as spoken by such characters, while being perfectly correct, can have a very different feel from the language as it is spoken in the US or in Britain.
Even if we leave the matter of dialogue aside, how do you reproduce in English people’s inner life — their thoughts, their reflections? For instance, let us take a hospital and a nurse from a particular educational background and class of society. When she is feeling inadequate, does she feel that she is “not on top of her game,” or does that sound incongruous? As a reader I at least, feel quite disoriented when I find characters representing people whom I have experienced as talking in a certain style all around me depicted as speaking in an entirely different manner on the pages of a book where their dialogue or their thoughts are presented in an extremely contemporary idiom that is certainly not representative of that particular class in this particular region.
Furthermore, how do you describe certain culturally specific things in English? For example, is it a gaao takya, or is it — a “cylindrical cushion”? Such a jarring choice of words for something as familiar as a gaao takya can be disorienting for the local reader. And I realise that this is a difficult decision for the writer to make, especially when you also have foreign readers to consider.
However, the problem of portraying in English a world where an altogether different language is spoken is clearly not an insurmountable one. It has been done. We do have English fiction from our part of the world which is not disorienting at all but, in fact, makes you feel right at home. You may even forget that you are reading English. I am actually thinking of Professor Ahmed Ali’s work, specifically Twilight in Delhi, which was written as far back as 1940 and which is set in a Delhi before World War I. Ali writes about a context where almost no English is spoken and his manner of writing is such that one can actually touch and feel the texture of the Urdu behind the English words. This aspect of his writing style, in fact, has been criticised, with his use of language described as not incorrect – since his English is too good for that – but decidedly odd. When his wife Bilqeece Jehan translated the novel into Urdu under the title Dilli Ki Shaam in 1963, some described the move as transferring the novel into its natural language. I do not really see how this is a criticism against the original novel. An English novel whose natural language is Urdu — well, that should be perfectly fine. In fact, depending on the context, it may even be described as simply perfect.
To some people, the language may appear strange or quaint upon first reading, but as an Urdu speaker, I was able to get into the dialogue fairly quickly, and there was little sense of disorientation. And you do not even have to translate as you read; you can just feel the meaning. In lines like “She looks like a good-as-dead Farangan,” it is not difficult to see that the last part of the sentence must stand for “moo’i farangan”. And then: “You have made my life a misery, Bi Anjum. I get neither rest nor peace”; if I actually think about it, I realise that I have registered these words as “Tum ne mera jeena haraam kar diya hai, bi anjum. Nah sukh hai nah chain.” And when I check the line in Bilqeece Jehan’s translation, it reads thus: “Bi anjum, tum ne meri zindagi ajeeran kardi. Mujh bad-naseeb ko nah din chain hai nah raat.” It is clear how close the two are, and so the writer has successfully been able to communicate to us what is in his mind or, rather, on the character’s lips in the story’s natural setting. And this is an admirable achievement.
I would like to emphasise that I am not just saying this because Ali is a local writer and, in fact, an Urdu writer (as well as a translator) that he can make English work in this way. There are a number of Urdu writers today who also sometimes write in English and not everyone is successful in the manner of Ali. Critic and writer Muhammad Hasan Askari wrote in 1949 that what Ali had done here was to create a style “which, being English, was not English and at the same time adequate to transfer the atmosphere and harmony of life in Delhi into a foreign language, even though he had to twist and turn it to suit his purpose.” In fact, he has “made a foreign language subservient to his artistic will” (as Carlo Coppola translates from Askari’s Urdu article). Twilight in Delhi was an English novel that created a storm in the Urdu literary world. That is not something you can say for many of the most celebrated Pakistani novels in English today. And it is also not as if this style of English prevented foreign readers from appreciating the novel. Not at all, in fact. The novel was widely acclaimed in England and translated into several European languages.
While waxing lyrical about an older novel, I do not want to paint too black a picture of the contemporary scene either. One of the most exciting things to come out of this present celebration of Pakistani English fiction is that in the past decade or so a firm market seems to have emerged to encourage more English-language fiction to come out of Pakistan, and for more diverse types of local writers to be published, noticed, and also promoted by the current guard of celebrity writers, many of whom had risen to fame in more cosmopolitan settings. With literary competitions hunting for emerging talent, a scene has, in fact, been set for the appearance of writers of rather different profiles. I cannot think of a better and – for me – more exhilarating example than Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon, an interlinked collection of short stories set in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and the tribal areas. The book was born from the writer’s experience of living in areas ranging from Chitral in the east and Balochistan in the West from the 1950s to the early 1980s. I recognise that its positive reception cannot be taken as a reflection upon the quality or achievements of present-day English writing in Pakistan because Ahmad’s stories were, in fact, written between 1971 and 1973. At the time, he had struggled to find an appropriate publisher for various reasons, one being that he was unwilling to update the dialogue of the tribesmen to ‘contemporary’ idiom. And, because the scene has now been set for English writing to emerge in Pakistan, we have before us a gift that may otherwise have remained hidden in some ancient trunk forever if Ahmad’s stories had not come to the attention of local literary agents during a short story competition in 2009. The Wandering Falcon is a masterpiece written with great sensitivity and feeling, with the writer, in the guise of the narrator, never venturing to assume the persona of an ‘insider’ despite the fact that he has spent several decades living as a civil servant in the areas he writes about and is proficient in Pashto besides having a working knowledge of some of the other languages spoken in the region.
The other very interesting thing that is happening at the same time as the growth of a market for Pakistani English fiction is that, increasingly visibly, a class is now emerging in Pakistan for whom speaking English is not necessarily a function of a profound Westernisation of culture and lifestyle; a class for whom English is not a foreign, but almost a native language – the emphasis being on ‘almost’ – and it is in fact the easiest and more natural language for them to write in, though they may be fluent in one or more local languages. The parents or grandparents of many of these potential writers may also have been fluent in English, but they may not have had this almost native relationship with it, the primary difference being that this younger generation speaks and even thinks in English for the major part of the time, even in relatively informal contexts. As writings emerge from the younger generation of this class, we may get more differentiation in terms of themes, and also see the representation of more local, middle-class experiences when the urge to imitate existing examples of award-winning fiction can be effectively resisted.
We can already see some signs of this trend. The novel How it Happened, which has recently come out, is a delightfully light-hearted read about a popular, even quite commonplace, theme. A satire, and yet a sensitive family drama, the novel has been executed with considerable authenticity with regards to its exploration of both the comic as well as the more angst-ridden aspects of the entire process of arranging marriages in a middle-class setting, a topic that had immense potential to go horribly wrong if treated as a human rights issue, or as a dirge on the state of ‘The Woman’ in a ‘conservative, Muslim society’. The writer of the novel, Shazaf Fatima Haider, makes free use of exclamations such as haa’e, are, bhaa’i, and compounds like ‘love shav’ to create a feel of the language of women and that of old women in particular. But just like Ali, she does not rely on this alone to make the speech of the characters appear nuanced and realistic.
The most powerful aspect of this novel is that although it is built around numerous ritualistic details that are particular to the Shia Syed community, as well as to the Bihari community, of Karachi, the writer does not go to great lengths to describe, explain, or translate this culture for people who may not be familiar with it. Although it is easy enough to follow the general action, it may perhaps not be possible to appreciate the full, formidable effect on a chattering assembly of a call for “a resounding SALAWAT” unless you have had at some stage in life had occasion to hear a “ba aawaaz-i buland salawaat”. And this is what makes the novel an exciting development: perhaps it can be seen as a sign that we may – once again? – see more writing in English aimed specifically at the local audience and the local context; a context where things do not always need explanation, and where explanations, in fact, spoil things.
Would foreigners feel disoriented when they read such writing? No. Because Pakistan is a foreign culture for them, and there is really no reason why you should be able to follow the book fully if you are unfamiliar with the country’s culture(s). The point to celebrate is when local readers do not feel disoriented. If writers from England, writing in English, do not have to explain their culture, or their local food, or dress, or music, or even their cushions, why should Pakistani writers, writing in English, do this?
— The title of this essay is taken from a panel organised by Madeline Clements at the Karachi Literature Festival 2013, for the purposes of which the essay was conceived.