Musings of a Reader: New Trends in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English

Published in the 15th issue of Zau magazine in May 2016

Before I came to the US to study Comparative Literature, I was sure that I would not be focusing on Pakistani literature in English as my academic area of research. Sure, I liked most of the novels I read, but I didn’t feel like they compared to the other great works of World Literature that I read and enjoyed and that blew my mind so much more than the Pakistani novels. Since I came here, however, I’ve been rethinking this. Because, regardless of literary merit, it is still important to study the literature being produced in English in Pakistan and to figure out how we can think of them in a broader world literary system, how they might fit into our conceptions of postcolonial or even transnational literature, and what it can tell us about Pakistan as a society in all its complexity.

In my view, Pakistani literature in English has always been distinct from what we traditionally think of as postcolonial literature, in the way that it has addressed the colonial legacy and the decolonization process of the subcontinent. A lot of this has to do with the conception of the Pakistani state as an ideology. The Muslim nationalism in British India in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century that eventually led to the formation of Pakistan was predicated on Pakistan being a “new” homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. In order for this to occur on an ideological level, there was a conscious effort by the state to divorce Pakistan from the subcontinent’s history – including its colonial past. Pakistan was framed as a “new beginning” or a “clean slate” by nationalist leaders, and this anti-historical stance necessarily informed Pakistani writers’ works in complicated ways. Ahmed Ali, one of the earliest Pakistani authors writing in English (he left Dehli and came to Pakistan after Partition), when asked about this transition and its impact on his literary production, said, “[When the] splitting up of India into two in 1947 [occurred], the new part was empty of the past, the old replete with more History as the new disowned what naturally belonged to it. When I returned to my writing, I realized that the social order I was chronicling was not the same. The shifting of the geographical scene, and its character from an empire to a state brought with it a new set of problems.”

So while India as a postcolonial nation viewed its colonial past as something that cut Indians off from their pre-colonial heritage that could now be reclaimed, Pakistan’s relationship with the colonial past was more ambivalent. Even though they, too, went through the same experiences as their Indian counterparts during the British Raj, it was also during and in large part because of this colonial period that Pakistan came into being as a distinct nation.  This ambivalence is reflected in the Pakistani literature produced in English in the 20th century, a lot of which focuses on the decolonization process only insofar as it informs Partition, its violence and how this large-scale violence immediately complicated the idea of Pakistan as a fresh beginning full of hope and promise. The differences between how the idea of Pakistan was mythologized and sold to its people and the actual contentious historical events that led to its creation provided much material for Pakistani writers, both those writing in Urdu and in English, so much so that the colonial period was overshadowed in the collective imagination of these writers by the immediate, complex issue of articulating what it mean to be Pakistani in the wake of mass migration, displacement and communal violence.

But while the Anglophone Pakistani writers of the 20th century were exploring issues of internal conflict and identity formation, there was at the same time an awareness of Pakistan as being part of a complex network of international connections, and an exploration of how this transnational position shaped Pakistan’s cultural, political and social environments. This was helped in large part due to the diasporic identity of many of these Pakistani writers – many of them dividing their time between Pakistan and the West. This made them more aware of the problems of placing Pakistani literature in a transnational context. As Pakistan’s position in the geopolitical world grew in the ‘70s and ‘80s during the Afghan-Soviet War, some Anglophone Pakistani writers, particularly those living in the West, took up, to varying degrees, the role of interpreters, a sort of postcolonial or neocolonial version of Homi Bhaba’s “mimic man” – well-versed in Western discourses and forms of knowledge and attempting to explain Pakistan to a Western audience. This became more pronounced at the turn of the century, especially after 9/11, with writers such as Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam exploring issues of the rise of religious extremism and Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan in ways that were comprehensible to a Western audience.

I argue that the work of a younger generation of English-language Pakistani writers (those writing in and beyond the 1990s) signals a shift away from both an older generation of writing that was preoccupied by post-Partition internal conflicts as well as from these diaspora writers that seem to write more exclusively for a Western audience.  In my view, these writers, like Mohammed Hanif or Saba Imtiaz, are part of a turn in contemporary Pakistani fiction in English, both in the themes that are explored and in the way they utilize English to speak to a local readership as opposed to a Western one.  A lot of these younger writers betray an impatience with postcolonial discourse’s focus on British Raj and Partition and rather focus on the more contemporary issues that have plagued Pakistan (its vexed relationship with democracy, the place of the military, the place of religious organizations in politics), and they are not interested in making Pakistan comprehensible to a Western audience. When asked in an interview whether all writing emerging from postcolonial nations necessarily had to be addressing the West, Hanif was quite unequivocal when he said, “I don’t think I am addressing the empire or writing back to it at all.” Another young author Kamila Shamsie said, “Postcolonial studies seems like a hankering back to 1947, when you feel that the problems of your nation are far past that already…it might have been relevant to my parents’ lives but we’re a completely different generation now. Our vexed relationship with subaltern positions or with the English is just not an issue.”

By divesting themselves of the burden of representing or explaining Pakistan to a foreign, Western readership or justifying their use of the English as their medium of expression, or talking about problems of decolonization, these authors have carved a discursive space in which issues of identity and belonging can be played out in all their local and transnational complexity. It is this space which allows books as diverse in genre and style as these two books – not to mention as divergent in the specific milieus they are talking about – to exist side by side. While Hanif explores the maligned working class Christian community, Imtiaz is more interested in an elite, upper-middle class circle, and the fact that both these books can exist together – along with myriad of others – signals, to me, a turn in Anglophone Pakistani fiction that is becoming less and less concerned about presenting a unified, coherent Pakistani identity to a Western audience, and is, instead, embracing the volatile contradictions that inform Pakistanis lives, affected as they are in significant ways by class, religion, caste and other social identity markers.

One way in which these writers are consciously not writing to a Western readership is the different ways in which they use not only the English language but also forms of Western fiction-writing. In Hanif’s novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, for instance, the use of English, especially in dialogue, is heavily influenced by the rich Punjabi culture that Hanif is drawing from. Alongside capturing the vernacular of the Punjabi Christian community, Hanif also utilizes the English language to convey the Bollywood influenced, oath-laden talk of Karachi’s police forces, and the flowery language of the Anglo-Indian Christian clergy. He fashions a kind of transliteration which mangles the English language, rather than a direct, grammatically correct or proper translation. For example, referring to a senior doctor as “Ortho Sir”, for instance – adding “sir” after a name as a sign of respect is a way of addressing people that is common in Pakistan. Hanif also employs what in postcolonial theory is known as the metonymic gap – a subtle form of abrogation that produces a cultural gap by inserting unglossed words, phrases or passages from a first language, or concepts, allusions or references that may be unknown to a non-local reader. On the other hand, Saba Imtiaz is definitely drawing from a Western genre of fiction – she begins her novel by a quote from the famous British chick lit novel Bridget Jones’s Diary. By using a Western genre to portray the life of a journalist in Karachi, she is able to appropriate this Western genre to convey local realities.

The work of this younger generation of Pakistani writers in English expands inward – to inter-provincial tensions, conflicts between various ethnicities, the complexities of defining Islam in Pakistani political, social and cultural contexts – and also expands outwards – to the US, the Middle East, to India. Therefore, we need to identity the variables that can link Pakistani English-language literary production within Pakistan’s diverse array of multi-language literatures, within the subcontinent’s English-language traditions and also within the broader Anglophone literary world. We might describe this growing body of English-language Pakistani fiction as transnational in the sense that Inderpal Grewal describes the term. For Grewal, one of the benefits of a transnational analysis is that it emphasises the “linkages between and specificities of cultures rather than similarities” or with isolating inherent oppositions. Instead of focusing on isolating divisions, this way of placing Anglophone Pakistani literature can acknowledge linkages between cultures, histories and literary traditions and we can in this way more productively and critically understand this literature.

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