Pre-Partition Pakistan had a tradition of writing in English, but only in recent years have Pakistani English fiction, poetry, and some drama started to come into their own. The distinguished Zulfikar Ghose has a considerable body of work behind him, including several books of poetry, ten novels and a collection of stories. Hanif Kureishi made his name as playwright, received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette and went on to write three successful novels, including The Buddha of Suburbia, which won the 1990 Whitbread Award for best first novel. Bapsi Sidhwa, who remains an enormously popular author in Pakistan, is the recipient of Germany’s 1991 Liberature Prize and the 1993 Reader’s Digest’s Lila Wallace Award. Her novel Ice-Candy-Man about Partition, has now been made into the film, Earth, by Deepa Mehta. Other award-winning novelists of Pakistani origin include Adam Zameenzad, whose novels are set in different continents and explore man’s search for dignity and salvation.
Tariq Ali has moved away from politics, to become a successful playwright and novelist, which has enabled him to express different facets of himself: his interest in South Asian and Islamic history and in the universal ideas of communism and enlightenment. The short story writer Aamer Hussein is exploring quite a new dimension for Pakistani English fiction by trying to bring his English narrative closer to the literary traditions of Urdu. Then there is Sara Suleri, who forged new dimensions for Pakistani English prose, with her remarkably poetic and creative memoir Meatless Days.
There is also a promising younger generation: including two novelists who published their first novels at 25. One, The Season of the Rainbirds by Nadeem Aslam, received the Author’s Club award and was shortlisted for two more. The other, In The City By The Sea by Kamila Shamsie, was shortlisted for the Mail-on-SundayJohn Llewellyn Rhys award.
The years of oppression under successive regimes in Pakistan both hampered and heightened the commitment to freedom of expression. An example can be seen in fierce feminist consciousness that permeates the English writing of poet Hina Faisal Imam and the fiction of Talat Abbasi, Rukhsana Ahmad, Tahira Naqvi and Bapsi Sidhwa, which came as a reaction to the draconian anti-women laws of the 1980s.
In Bapsi Sidhwa, Pakistan had its first resident English writer —other than Ahmed Ali (1908-1994) who wrote the famous Twilight in Delhi (1940) —to receive international recognition. Sidhwa’s first novel The Crow Eaters (1980), revealed her wonderful eye for comedy, a facet that is also evident in her other novels, Ice-Candy-Man (1988) and The American Brat (1983), and to a lesser extent, The Bride (1983).
Ice-Candy-Man, about the Partition riots, remains Sidhwa’s most powerful and polished work. She shows very clearly how Sikh/Hindu/ Muslim tensions arose and religious differences crept into people’s lives. Linguistically, the novel is important because it successfully employs a Pakistani English narrative. Furthermore, it is the only Pakistani English novel in this genre to focus on the bloodbath that irrevocably changed and brutalised South Asia.
Partition also features in Zulfikar Ghose’s The Triple Mirror of the Self (1992), a complex, magic-realist tale about migration, exile and prejudice, which goes back in time through three continents and revolves around the chameleon-like migrant’s need to reclaim a part of his core, his essential self. Ghose has consistently produced poetry and prose of high quality. He is very conscious of language, style and structure and is probably the only Pakistani English author to have written experimental fiction.
The Incredible Brazilian
Ghose has based only one novel in Pakistan, The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967), in which he makes a lively exploration of dialogue to capture the Pakistani sound as he weaves the story about a traditional farmer who is destroyed by a ruthless industrialist. Later, the author received particular acclaim for his trilogy, The Incredible Brazilian (1972/75/79), a historical romance with a mystical element, set in South America, a region Ghose knows well and which, he says, has a definite resonance with the Subcontinent.
Adam Zameenzad is another expatriate writer to have written only one novel set in Pakistan, The Thirteenth House. Otherwise, he wrote of war and famine in Africa, where he grew up. His Afro-Pakistan experience of social inequity provided him with insights for Love, Bones and Water (1989) set in South America. He then garnered together elements from all these for his major work, Cyrus, Cyrus (1990), a bawdy, ambitious, wordy work, revolving around a man’s search for dignity and salvation across four continents. Zameenzad too has a great eye for comedy, although all his books are about the dispossessed, central to which is the concept of redemption through suffering.
A Mirror to the Sun
There has been increasing interchange between writers living in Pakistan with those in the diaspora and both have been influenced by trends in world English literature. Many Pakistani English writers have also identified with writings other than Anglo-Saxon. Aamer Hussein has been influenced by European and Afro-American writing, as well as contemporary Urdu literature, a subject he teaches. His accomplished first collection, A Mirror to the Sun (1996), brought together a myriad of cultures, timeless tales and modern conflicts. His second, This Other Salt (1999), which includes fiction that he, as an expatriate, living in Britain, perceives as an imaginary discussion with contemporary Urdu writers about issues of history, migration, exile, etc.
He has said, “I haven’t discarded notions of commitment and belonging. But a modest lack of ideological dogma is crucial to the engaged writer. I claim with fiction as my only instrument, the native’s right to argue and discuss my history with my compatriots. I guess that makes me a Pakistani writer.”
A distinctive aspect of Pakistani English writing is that several writers are English translators of Urdu or other indigenous literature, including Taufiq Rafat, Athar Tahir, Shuja Nawaz and Daud Kamal. But in Britain and America, both the translation and the writing of English fiction has been a process of reclamation and the search for an identity. This is true of Tahira Naqvi, Rukshana Ahmad, Aamer Hussain and his screenwriter sister, Shahrukh Hussain. The extent to which this will have an impact on Pakistani English writing, remains to be seen. The diminishing of linguistic boundaries is already apparent in Aamer Hussein’s work and in Tahira Naqvi’s first collection of short stories, Attar of Roses, filled with reflections and vignettes of Pakistani life.
All Pakistani English writers live between the East and the West, literally or intellectually, and express it through their work. Those living in foreign lands have also been irrefutably shaped by their Pakistani heritage. This is evident in the works of the Britishborn Hanif Kureishi. He had already won the George Devine Award for his play about Asians in Southall before he made his first trip to Pakistan. Shortly afterwards, he wrote his famous screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette, which deals with racism and unemployment in Britian, while linking up and contrasting the lives of British Asians with relatives from Pakistan. His subsequent novels, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Black Album (1995), Intimacy (1998) and his short stories in Love in A Blue Time (1997) all provide an alternative narrative to mainstream British writing about Asians.
Tariq Ali’s political activities over decades made it impossible for him to live in Pakistan but he kept in close touch with events there and wrote three analytical books about it. In the 1980s, he became a filmmaker and a playwright. His first novel, Redemption (1990), is a spoof on Trotskyism, his second a historical novel, The Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992), is about Andulusian Islam. He has followed this up with another, The Book of Saladin (1996), focusing on the Crusades. Both are part of a planned quartet based on the encounter between Christianity and Islam, and are particularly strong on historical information. Tariq Ali’s political writings have influenced the fiction of the Pakistani-born Nadeem Aslam. His subtle, clever and poetic novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), revolves around strong-arm politics, religious bigotry and terror in a small Punjabi town in the 1980s. Kamila Shamsie’s first novel, In the City by the Sea (1998), set in a fictitious town, similar to Karachi, is also remarkable for its use of language and its insight into a child’s fantasy world as well as political tyranny. Pakistan’s politics and its history are quietly interwoven into the narrative of Sara Suleri’s remarkable and original memoir, Meatless Days (1989), a collage about love, memory and loss conveyed through metaphor and written in dense but beautiful prose, surely another milestone for Pakistani English writing.
The Hope Chest
Pakistani English fiction has shown a much greater response to political events in Pakistan than its poetry. The fiction of Moniza Naqvi’s first novel has a political content as do some short stories by Javed Qazi, Sorayya Khan and Moazzam Sheikh. A political commitment as a feminist and an Asian in Britain, runs throught the work of Rukhsana Ahmad. Her many plays include, Song for a Sanctuary, about battered women. Her novel The Hope Chest links up the lives of three women: an English girl, a well-travelled Pakistani girl and her maidservant in Lahore. While Zeeba Sadiq’s 38 Bahadurabad (1996) is a rich and clever tapestry of interlocking stories and sketches about her family and its independent women.