After the 1971 war, which ended with Bangladesh separating from Pakistan, author Tariq Ali posed a question, which became the title of his book: Can Pakistan Survive? Last year, Ahmed Rashid, the veteran reporter who has been warning about the Taliban’s dangers for more than a decade, wrote Descent into Chaos, accurately predicting the trajectory Pakistani politics would take along the Durand Line.
Fresh blood: (clockwise from top) Mueenuddin at Lodhi Garden, Delhi (Mayank Austen Soofi / Hindustan Times); Sethi’s debut novel was released in India this month (Photograph Courtesy Penguin India); Aslam’s last novel was set in Afghanistan (Photograph: Jeff Bauer).
Since then, Pakistan’s elected government has effectively ceded control over the large territory of Swat to the Taliban. In recent weeks, it has regained some control over the territory, but, as the cricket aphorism goes, the last ball hasn’t been bowled yet.
Ali calls such leaders “bearded lunatics” in his latest book, The Duel (2009), which examines US-Pakistan relations.
We can admire the prescience of these writers; we can also despair over what lies ahead for Pakistan, and what shape the country might take.
This tragic phase has coincided with an incredible flowering of literary talent. With the state withdrawing from exercising even a semblance of authority, several authors of Pakistani origin or heritage have seized the space, writing seminal works that provide clarity in our absurd times. Maybe exceptional strife spurs imagination—think of Samizdat writers during the Cold War—although responding to the crisis is not the overt intention of any of Pakistan’s fine novelists.
It is not fair to any of these fine novels to pretend that they speak with one voice—it would be just as absurd to claim that Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Kiran Desai speak with the same voice—but there is one discernible pattern. And that is Pakistan’s relationship with the West and, in particular, the US.
The lastest most acclaimed book by a Pakistani author is In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (2009) by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Mueenuddin’s focus in these stories is Pakistan’s rural hinterland. They capture at one level the lives of Pakistan’s urban elite, often more at home in London, New York, Dubai or Singapore, and contrast them with their rural cousins living in the feudal plains. At various times, foreign journalists who have parachuted into Pakistan have repeated the cliché that 22 families control Pakistan’s wealth and, together with the military, the power. Mueenuddin’s focus, the Harounis, represent one such family. But the Harounis are, in a sense, peripheral to the real drama. Their encounter with the West—and the US—recurs, in the form of American wives or girlfriends, prone to recite poetry or express compassion for the servants. The internal politics of those relationships is richer than the conflicting visions of governments. Ali Sethi, in his impressive debut novel The Wish Maker, which released in India this month, also deals with that terrain. With Lahore in the 1990s—Benazir Bhutto’s heyday—as its backdrop, it’s a story about two children and the family they grow up in.
That many of the Pakistani authors have spent a large part of their writing life in the West adds a stronger dimension to that argument. Kamila Shamsie divides her time between Karachi and London; Mohammed Hanif lived many years in London and is now back in Pakistan; Mohsin Hamid has lived in the US and Pakistan and is now in London; Aamer Hussein has lived in London for several decades now; Nadeem Aslam is a British national; Mueenuddin moved back to Pakistan recently. Sethi lives in Pakistan, but has studied abroad.
Shamsie’s brilliant novel Burnt Shadows (2009), which was short-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction, is easily the most ambitious: It links major historical tragedies of the past half-century in an intricately-woven plot. The stoic Japanese protagonist Hiroko Tanaka is a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing. She escapes the carnage on the India-Pakistan border in 1947, and discovers that her son is embroiled in the cynical power play on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border from the time Americans respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, and beyond. Hiroko should have every reason to despise the US—she lost her German lover in the nuclear blast of 1945, and her son is led astray in the Afghan war—and yet she ends up making her home in New York.
Shamsie has squeezed our universe into a ball and rolled towards the reader an overwhelming question concerning violence—why—while making Hiroko part of a global story, placing her at the bottom of the heap of history each time, as history attempts to crush her, though she emerges unvanquished, even if battered, bruised, scarred and burned. Hiroko’s relationship with the idea of America—as indeed Pakistan’s own relationship with it—forms a strong backdrop to the novel.
Aslam, who was surprisingly overlooked during the Man Booker announcements last year for his lyrical novel The Wasted Vigil (2008), has walked the same path. Aslam brings the world to a village in Afghanistan, uniting disparate and alternative histories through characters from different civilizations leaving their footprints. There is a curious American agent with an exaggerated notion of his abilities, disregarding nuances by embracing certainties.
Neither novelist specifically sets out to address the “West” and “Islam”, however tempting such a characterization might seem. But the impulse is to make some sense of our disintegrating universe, pointing out the flawed interface between two world views—one impatient for change, the other resisting it; one disdainful of the other as well as of the past, the other clinging to traditions which today imprison its people, particularly women. And yet, each is certain and secure about the inevitable victory of its morality and ways.
In 2007, Hamid questioned those mathematical certainties in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)—short-listed that year for the Man Booker Prize—a novel about a Pakistani financial deal-maker who is unsure about how Muslim he is and gets repelled by the decisions capitalism forces upon him, making him a janissary. Hamid leaves those ambiguities tantalizingly open till the last page, underlining the modern Pakistani’s dilemma: He likes the modernity, liberalism and equality of opportunity that the West talks about, and often lives up to those claims; but he is equally proud of his identity, which gets questioned after a cataclysmic event such as 9/11. Not entirely coincidentally, the American woman this reluctant fundamentalist loves is emotionally disturbed.
Romantic love does not have much space in the macho yet mirthful novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008). Hanif’s uproariously funny work—long-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year—brutally satirized Pakistan’s army, caricaturing the late Gen. Zia-ul Haq’s—and the Pakistani army’s— love for American toys of mass destruction. Hanif writes of Zia with the sort of gleeful abandon last seen in Salman Rushdie’s Shame, where the general was cast as Reza Haider. Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan is the strong undercurrent here, as is its generals’ semi-erotic subservience to the Pentagon.
Raza in Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, Changez in Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Ali Shigri in Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Sohail in the story Our Lady of Paris from Mueenuddin’s collection, and Zameen in Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil don’t fit snugly into any box. Nor does Usman, from another generation, in Aamer Hussein’s delightful novella, Another Gulmohur Tree (2009), which delicately sets out the shyness and gentility of the half-forgotten 1950s, when fundamentalism had not yet gripped Pakistan. There, Lydia, a British woman, chooses to become Rokeya to marry Usman, the writer, and moves to Pakistan.
The spectre of 9/11 complicates those choices, and these novelists refuse to choose. Instead, they sing, satirize, or sublimely describe the doubts central to our time. Pakistan’s political strife has made the country take centre stage. Pakistan is fortunate in its talented writers who can see beyond the political rhetoric. They raise questions through their writing about their nation’s relationship with modernity, on the one hand, and westernization on the other. Even as the nation bleeds, their words sparkle, making sense of our dysfunctional, dystopic and violent world.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint and the travel column Detours for Lounge. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org