A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English
Selected and edited by Muneeza Shomsie
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1997
hardback xxxi + 599 pages
If you didn’t know about Pakistani writing in English, read this anthology.
When Himal asked me whether I would like to review an anthology of Pakistani writing in English (PWE), I agreed immediately. There was a comfortable feel to the term as it seemed to suffer from familiar baptismal problems; Indian writing in English is equally jaw-cracking. And the possibility of discovering new writers was more than exciting. After all, except for the high-profile Bapsi Sidhwa, Hanif Kureishi, Zulfikar Ghose and Sara Suleri, in India we hardly hear of other PWE.
For one thing, Pakistani books are impossible to get in India. Judging by the way the Pakistani Oxford University Press stall at the World Book Fair in Delhi earlier this year remained empty because customs would not release its books, the non-availability of Pakistani books is clearly more than a marketing oversight. It is hardly surprising, then, that we do not know much about the development profile of PWE.
This is why Muneeza Shamsies “Introduction” is so interesting. PWE, she points out, has been around for a long time but it has not been greatly encouraged. Rising costs and book piracy are among the reasons Pakistani publishers will not risk taking up PWE, which, in any case, has a limited readership. Meanwhile, American and British publishers cannot seem to find a slot for it in their own print programmes.
The 1970s spurt in pwe poetry was eclipsed at the end of the decade with the martial law regime trying to get rid of English. There were a few literary journals like The Ravi, The Pakistan Quarterly and Vision, that published some creative writing, but now,except for She, Pakistani newspapers and magazines hardly publish any PWE. Until very recently, PWE was not even on the academic syllabi. Clearly, Indians are not the only Subcontinentals who are ignorant about PWE. Fortunately, precisely because PWE is relatively unknown, one can break the cardinal rule against reviewing anthologies and comment on the contents of A Dragonfly in the Sun.
My initial disappointment at seeing the NRP (non-resident Pakistanis) biggies in the collection quickly evaporated as I renewed my acquaintance with Bapsi Sidhwas Ice Candy Man whose chapters on the Partition riots are included in this volume. As always, any account of these riots reduces one to helplessness: Why did they happen? What motivates communities to such inhuman orgies of cruelty?
Shamsie says that Sidhwas novel is the only account of the riots in PWE so far. Which is amazing, and reminds one of the view of some that India still has to produce the definitive novel on Partition. Let those who want to believe this continue to wait, but meanwhile they could have a shot at Khushwant Singhs Train to Pakistan and the recent translations of Krishna Baldev Vaids Steps in Darkness and The Broken Mirror. Sidhwas book is in the same category. In any case, the definitive book about Partition would probably be a collection of fiction and non-fiction from both countries, and not any single volume on the subject by just one side.
This anthology has several pieces on confrontations: between West and East Pakistan, between Pakistan and emigrants to the west, between married partners, and so on. The most powerful are those about huge issues. For instance, Tariq Alis The Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, is a novel about the 16th-century confrontation between the Moors and the Christians in Granada which he wrote after seeing the worlds abysmal ignorance about the Arabs during the Gulf War.
Though I am uncompromisingly committed to the necessity and power of history, the extract from this novel left me with mixed feelings. The cross-versus-crescent rhetoric broadcast by the West over the media, beginning around the time that Ayatol-lah Khomeini initiated the revolution in Iran and becoming almost hysterical during the Gulf War, had made several of us very angry. It all sounded as if we were back in the medieval Crusades. We wished that someone would educate the Christian West about their visceral and ignorant reactions. Still, what is it about our present which makes even a Marxist like Tariq Ali revert to a form of “roots” and assert an aspect of Islamic history? Why are the most rational amongst us allowing ourselves to think in terms of hostile confrontations of religions? Isnt that exactly what religious fundamentalists would like to show – that all of us are motivated by religious identities?
Prose, lovely prose
Other prose works which I liked immensely include extracts from Ahmad Alis Twilight in Delhi, Zaib-un-Nissas The Bull and the She Devil, Tariq Rahmans short story, Bingo (apparently Pakistani slang for Bengali), and Shamsies own Shahrazads Golden Leopard. These range in time from pre-Partition days to the present, and in content from politics to the complex and eventually murderous confusion of physical desire, to the always terrifying business of unequal treatment of siblings by a parent which is evident to the victim but not to anyone else who might be able to prevent the child from going mad. The prose is varied, inventive, moving, as is the language throughout the anthology. The editors word limit prevents me from raving in like style about the poetry in Dragonfly.
Like Indian writing in English (IWE), PWE is low on drama. Shamsie has taken the trouble to include extracts by two dramatists who live overseas – Hanif Kureishis My Beautiful Laundrette and Rukhsana Ahmads feminist Song for a Sanctuary.
In contrast to a tight form like the sonnets, an anthology has an awesome range of possibilities and is likely to displease many because it has necessarily to leave out someones favourites. However, the relative unfamiliarity with PWE has made Shamsies task less likely to raise readers hackles than, say, an anthology of Romantic poetry. This “essentially retrospective” selection covers, as Shamsie says, a wide range of “good, representative poetry, fiction and drama which has appeared or been accepted for publication”. It is, then, intended to give a chaska (taste) of PWE. And it succeeds.
A Dragonfly in the Sun is part of “The Jubilee Series” which, (email zindabad!) Shamsie explained, is a commissioned set of OUP Pakistan books on 50 years of Pakistans history, sociology, literature and so on. Shamsie, understandably, concentrates on writers of the last 50 years but she has also included writers born before Partition. The history of India and Pakistan is inevitably linked. So how does she define Pakistani? Quite simply, as those who chose Pakistan after 1947 and those who are “Pakistani by marriage”!
Bangladesh is represented by several Bengali writers from pre-Partition, post-Partition and pre- and post-Bangladesh periods, and the trauma of 1971 is recorded in stories like “Bingo”. Among other good things in the book are headnotes about the authors (though Shamsie has omitted many birth dates), a glossary, no italics for non-English words, no standardisation of spellings for these (as a result the Hindi Paatth Shala or school becomes Part Shala, and Hriday or heart becomes Riday which is as it would sound to a non-Hindi speaker), a bibliography, and an index.
A nice addition to my vocabulary has been “literary journalist”, the professional description of Shamsie on the dust jacket. She told me that this is how the British Council introduced her about a year ago and she has decided to stick with it. The book is priced rather high by Indian standards. Nevertheless, once the scheduled paperback version is out, I hope it will be widely available. In India as well.