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The South Asia Channel

Granta goes to Pakistan

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Dawn’s literary supplement, Books & Authors. It can be found here. Last month, at the launch of Granta’s Pakistan-themed issue at Asia House in London, short story writer Daniyal Mueenuddin wasn’t reading from a piece about religion or violence or politics. Instead, he read out unpublished poems ...

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Dawn’s literary supplement, Books & Authors. It can be found here.

Last month, at the launch of Granta’s Pakistan-themed issue at Asia House in London, short story writer Daniyal Mueenuddin wasn’t reading from a piece about religion or violence or politics. Instead, he read out unpublished poems about a girlfriend’s visit, his childhood fascination with a mysterious black box, and the dynamics of his extended family. After a slideshow of largely political Pakistani art and a discussion about a story on female infanticide in the country, it felt, suddenly, as if one had more room to breathe.

"In Pakistan, as all around the world," Kamila Shamsie ends her essay in the issue, "what we most crave from our musicians is music." She is questioning the political and religious mantles adopted by some Pakistani pop stars, and her comment is more about their lives than their work, but the thought is not dissimilar to one raised by Granta 112: Pakistan itself. When one of the world’s most prestigious literary magazines devotes an issue to the country, people will go to it for more than good writing; they’ll be looking for clues about what Pakistani writers are offering to a conflicted, struggling domestic readership and, separately, the country’s significant international audience. When it comes to literature about Pakistan, do we crave political analysis, bombs, and fundamentalists?

Of the fourteen prose works in Granta 112 — a roughly even mix of short stories, reportage, and memoir — all but two pieces (both by expatriate Pakistanis and set outside the country) contain Islamist militancy, religious fundamentalism or extreme violence, and almost all of them have one or more of these as a central theme. Reading the issue can feel like sitting through a particularly well-produced but violent BBC special on the history and politics of Pakistan, a point that came up often in conversations with authors and Granta staff at the readings and panel discussions that launched the issue in London.

Yet in presenting these stories as a collection, Granta has done Pakistanis a valuable service: it challenges our comfortable complaint that the country’s international image is a skewed, partial slice of reality for which the western media is responsible. While a handful of foreign writers contributed, the majority of voices here are Pakistani. When asked to submit material, editor John Freeman explains, this is what they sent in. Barring the cynical explanation that they were all pandering to the interests of western markets, this collection throws up a conclusion it would be foolish to ignore: we are a nation exhausted of our tortuous history and politics, terrified of the intolerant forms Islam has morphed into on our soil, and physically defeated by the extreme violence that haunts us every day. Our creative output cannot — and, perhaps, should not — ignore this state of mind.

In fact the collection as a whole leaves a stronger impression than do many of the individual pieces, whose uneven quality suggests that Pakistan’s condition is perhaps more suited to literal truth-telling than creative writing. Reportage here outshines fiction, and the best example of it is Guardian correspondent Declan Walsh’s piece on a Pashtun tribal leader from Lakki Marwat and his struggle with the Taliban. It has all the narrative force of a gripping novel and the skill of a beautifully written one, but is based on Walsh’s own visits to the area and the relationship he has developed with this complex individual. New York Times correspondent Jane Perlez offers an essay on what one’s favourite Jinnah portrait says about how religious or secular one wants to interpret the country’s founder to be. While she could have offered more depth and nuance, the descriptive power of her writing makes the idea worth revisiting. Kashmiri author and journalist Basharat Peer weaves deep humanity into reporting about young boys fighting for independence in Indian-administered Kashmir, but while pieces on the Sheedis of Mangho Pir and the Faisal Shahzad trial also highlight injustice, they fall short of the same literary standard.

The finest piece in the issue, the one that overcomes you most powerfully, lingers the longest and makes you wonder how language so simple can convey grief so restrained and yet so profound, is also the only prose in translation. Veteran Pakistani writer Intizar Hussain’s "The House by the Gallows," originally written in Urdu and translated by Peer, is a memoir that captures in four pages and painfully bare, direct prose a writer’s deep mourning for a Pakistan he is losing as he watches it slip into Zia-ul Haq’s military dictatorship.

Hussain’s narrative accomplishes more than much of the fiction, which also tries to grieve for Pakistan but doesn’t quite achieve the sense of authenticity he does. Perhaps the country’s very real violence is simply too strange even for the imagination, not as convincingly conveyed when told in tales. Nadeem Aslam again offers the impressive descriptive powers we have come to expect of him, his poetic prose transporting you to a time and place that seem the stuff of legend despite being rooted in the present. But the line between magical realism and social commentary is dangerously blurred by the extreme violence inflicted on his central character, a woman who cannot bear sons. Mohsin Hamid’s piece about a writer’s kidnapping forgoes restraint for an almost sensationalist fear and brutality that flatten his character and only cloud the reader’s ability to feel the man’s pain. But Mohammed Hanif’s "Butt and Bhatti," about a hospital romance gone terribly wrong, captures the absurdity of Karachi’s neverending, unpredictable violence. And Jamil Ahmed, a civil servant almost in his 80s who has never been published before, suspends time with compassionate prose that describes a timid yet brave couple celebrating their love on a windswept no-man’s-land while on the run from her tribal family and its thirst for heartless honor.    

Celebration in the face of violence is also the spirit behind the exuberant truck art specially commissioned for the cover, which contrasts sharply with the more serious (and largely political) Pakistani contemporary art that Granta showcases inside the issue; artistic director Michael Salu worked closely with gallery Green Cardamom to curate works that capture this uncertain moment in Pakistan’s national narrative. Green Cardamom’s bias is clearly contemporary, and Granta 112, which includes major names such as Rashid Rana, Bani Abidi, Naiza Khan, Muhammad Zeeshan and Hamra Abbas, turns out to be a platform for some of the most thought provoking installations, performed art, digital media work and neo-miniatures being produced in the country today.

But at the end of this rich, absorbing journey, the issue leaves behind a desire for more writing that risks talking about the less-publicized but equally real experiences of life in Pakistan. Aside from Hussain’s jewel of a memoir and Walsh’s report, it is Mueenuddin’s poem about a Pakistani farmer living off his crops in Europe ("along these fields, maturing silver trees / become lunch one afternoon in Rome"), remembering home, younger days and lost loves, that stays with you long after it is read. It reinforces that while the loss of those who die and the mistreatment of those who have managed to survive are issues we have a moral and creative imperative to write of, there is also room, now more than ever, to talk about what makes us more human than Pakistani.  

Madiha Sattar is a senior assistant editor at the Karachi-based monthly The Herald.

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