Abby WONG ... Pakistani Literature in English
IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
After bingeing on a diet of Pakistani literature for months on end, former bookseller ABBY WONG is intrigued, amazed and seduced by the worlds they offer
I LIKE TO THINK OF FICTION as akin to fashion. Popularity of style and custom is dictated by trends.
Amidst the conflicts and unrest confronting mankind, thorny issues such as politics, religious extremism, violence, terrorism and wars have become themes highly sought after by readers of fiction and nonfiction at the bookshop where I used to work as a merchandising manager. While coalescence of these issues into fiction is the new custom, the style highly admired these days is the prose of Pakistani writers, which is sophisticated, witty, fluid and dark, but by no means polemical.
Whereas great fashion comes from designers who have undergone years of arduous training, great fiction arises from taut tension. Pakistani writers who grew up in an oppressive military regime have finally emerged, each with a great story to tell. Some of these stories quench our curiosity about religious fundamentalism, while others quell our intolerance of political absurdity. And if love is the story, then Pakistani love is dark from the outside but tender at the core.
Like what Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children did when it introduced me to the flamboyant world of Indian literary fiction, Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes got me hooked on Pakistan.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is an impressive début that cleverly capitalises on the unresolved death of Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq. Theories abound as to the cause of the plane crash that killed him in 1988, but Hanif fictitiously reenacts a series of outrageous vignettes that presumably took place months before and days after the accident, complicating the conspiracy theory surrounding the general’s demise. In response to his disdain of the military ruler, Hanif ridicules the despot by depicting him as a paranoid and superstitious man who has a strange habit of wailing during prayers and a severe rectal itch problem, and who also entertains the impossible dream of winning the Nobel Prize. Humour aside, Hanif strikes our political veins, rousing our indignation against the brutality commonly seen in military-ruled countries (such as Iran) and the absurdity of politicians who put self-interests over that of their people.
Political satire, after all, asks for readers’ reassessment of truths that have been contrived for political censorship. Though we don’t necessarily have to see everything through Hanif’s eyes, his novel nevertheless reminds us of the 1980s when the US government, under the context of the Cold War, provided funds and weapons through Pakistan to support and train Islamic mujahedin in their fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Interestingly, as we learnt after September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden was in charge of organising these training camps.
If history is forgetful and unable to articulate the trauma of war, then let fiction tell it. Better yet, let the truth be narrated in a monologue as in Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In this novel, the narrator is a janissary. Historically, janissaries were Christian boys captured by Ottoman Turks to be trained as warriors to fight against their fellow Christians. Changez, the Pakistani Muslim narrator, learns of this concept while working as a high-flying consultant in New York and begins to think of himself as one in a biting moment of self-revelation after September 11: “I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war.”
Using janissaries as metaphor to imply Changez’s, or even Pakistan’s, paralysis is Hamid’s most enviable craftiness. Refusing to serve America, Changez heads home to Lahore, while Pakistan, in reality, remains a janissary caught in an anti-terrorist war it helps America to fight.
As there is grace in the most outrageous of fashions, there is beauty amidst the worst of atrocities. In The Wasted Vigil, that beauty comes from Nadeem Aslam’s story about Afghanistan, about the people and events on the edge of wars, about lives ravaged by religious fanaticism, about those who contribute to martyrdom, putting someone to death for their disbeliefs, and about those souls, breathing too much of the air of terror, disappeared and eventually presumed dead. Amidst the peril, Aslam plants seeds of love, the love between Marcus Caldwell, an Englishman who has spent his whole life in Afghanistan, and Qatrina, an Afghan woman torn apart by the Taliban, and the love of David Town, an American CIA, in searching for his beloved Zameen, daughter of Marcus and Qatrina, who disappeared amidst the terror of war.
Aslam is lyrical in this book as in his previous novel, Maps for Lost Lovers. So heartbreaking is his image of Afghanistan that one may constantly have to pause for a moment to allow the heart to catch up on the one beat it has just skipped. “Afghanistani women, in the songs they sing, do not desire Allah’s Paradise after death, wishing instead to become streams and grasses, the breeze and the dust. The soil placed upon them in the grave, they sing, they’ll take as their lover.”
Despite the chaos enveloping their country, not all Pakistani writers succumb to the tendency of unveiling only the hazards. Daniyal Mueenuddin, for instance, takes our attention away from the landmines in Afghanistan or violence in Pakistan, and lands us in harsh mud villages dwelled by a rich landlord and cadres of servants, farmers, friends and relatives living off his wealth. By telling stories of simple-minded villagers eking out a living and finding love, Mueenuddin, in his accomplished début, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, exposes us to the issues of class, status and values in Pakistani society in the late 20th century.
If a novel is too heavy reading, then a novella like Aamer Hussein’s Another Gulmohar Tree will do just as well. Short yet marvellously written, it embodies the charm of unconventional storytelling and the beauty of an unlikely marriage between a Pakistani man and a British expatriate artist. The story begins with three Urdu fables: a poor boy sitting beneath a gulmohar tree is rewarded with a gold coin each time he shares his food with a hungry little green frog; a lonely girl finds a most unlikely friendship in a wild deer; and a girl is sacrificed to the crocodiles and becomes the bride of the Crocodile King. Delighted by the fables and intrigued by the connection between them and the main story that lies ahead, you will be driven to devour the entire book in one gulp, leaving a sweet aftertaste in the end after reading much about the life of the man who wrote it.
Like many, I am curious about Pakistan. Its geographical location deems it an entry point for the US into Afghanistan as well as an exit point for the Taliban out of the watchful eyes of US soldiers. Kamila Shamsie asks the crucial question at the beginning of Burnt Shadows: how did it come to this? As she slowly unravels her response to this question, we are brought back in time to Nagasaki in 1945 when it became a victim of American nuclear superpower after Hiroshima, to Pakistan and India when Britain’s sloppy management of the 1947 Partition of India created not only Kashmir but also personal conflicts between Pakistanis and Indians, and concludes in the present day when Pakistan, being the US terrorist arm, helps America eradicate Islamic fundamentalism while it is itself an Islamic republic.
In the end, I acquiesced with Shamsie’s subtle argument that our troubled world today has a lot to do with the British and American empires, and the blunders they made in their quest to dominate the world.
Now that I am no longer working in the book industry, I am missing a front-row seat to watch Pakistani writers strut their stuff on the literary runway, but I am convinced of their ability to advance further in the already crowded literary world for many years to come. The fluidity of their writing, the subtlety of their expressions, their brilliant use of metaphors, and the sheer mastery of international politics make them writers in a league of their own. May they cruise, not stall.
ABBY WONG was a high-flying financial consultant before becoming a book merchandising manager with Kinokuniya Bookstores in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She moved to Sydney, Australia, in 2008. Much as she would like to read books full time, she’s at the moment studying for a postgraduate degree in Economics.
Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine