Troubled Times, Transcendent Writing
‘May you live in interesting times’ goes the sneaky Chinese curse masquerading as a blessing. And interesting, indeed, are the times we live in; where dictatorship plays peek-a-boo with democracy, assassinations go unexplained, mischief makers disappear faster than a magician can say abracadabra, and conspiracy mongers spin elaborate plots, farfetched enough to put soap opera writers to shame. The possibilities for a writer in Pakistan are endless; inspiration is everywhere. It is only fair then, that our literature is every bit as fantastic as reality itself.
The so-called “boom” that Pakistani writing in English has seen in recent years is at least partially because after 9/11, there was a greater need for people to understand the nation that was making dangerous headlines outside its borders. For the outsider, however, Pakistani literature is not at all what you would expect going in with your knowledge of the country being a terrorism-riddled state. What you find instead is the scandalous decadence of the feudal system, voyeuristic dictators, ‘metrostanis’ breaking out into verse at the drop of a hat, and the hilarious malapropisms and faux pas of a socialite as she flits across the world of Lahore’s glitterati.
That’s not to say that our writers have not been responsive to the imperatives of the new War on Terror world. Despite Kamila Shamsie’s claim that, “In fiction, 9/11 is an event as ahistorical as an earthquake,” there is an abundance of Pakistani fiction about the incident or written as a result of it, some of it overtly and some of it more subtly. Like the canonical literature of the World Wars, much of this post-9/11 writing is centered on themes of disillusionment, existentialism and a quest for identity. What is of interest to us in this article is that, in dealing with these themes, the writers display a predilection for the grand narrative – a trait that is, ironically, very much a part of the national discourse where they come from. They present a totalizing account that uniquely encompasses an entire culture, focusing on the idiosyncrasies of our political system, our proclivity for conspiracy theories and the sense of disarray and confusion in national identity as a result of global events.
We will revisit some of the most popular books to come out of Pakistan in the last decade that incorporate these grand narratives: Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Kamila Shamsie’s Broken Verses (2005), Hussain Naqvi’s Home Boy (2009) and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist(2007), where an expatriate’s search for identity in the wake of 9/11 becomes a metaphor for the entire nation’s condition.
Ambitious Storytelling: Far-fetched yet close to home.
Hanif’s and Naqvi’s debut novels, along with Shamsie’s Broken Verses, reach deeply into what is now perceived as a national tendency to build elaborate and farfetched conspiracy theories. Hanif’s book focuses on the death of Zia-ul-Haq, and in a clever, tongue in cheek style lays out an impressive panoply of assassination plots. He mirrors the real life approach of Pakistani people when it comes to speculating about the suspicious murders of important personalities and presents the readers with a plot where it seems the entire universe is conspiring to kill the Leader of the Faithful. He makes complicit in the assassination parasites, birds, gas-infested mangoes, a blind convict, the Marxist-Maoist sweeper, General Beg and Under Officer Ali Shigri, showing the conjectures that abound when an event of such magnitude occurs. This motif of exaggerated, outlandish conspiracy theories that Hanif draws attention to is reiterated by Shamsie in her gripping novel, Broken Verses:
The art of storytelling, so ingrained in this nation, had turned – in all the years of misrule and oppression – into the art of spinning conspiracy theories, each one more elaborate than the one before.
Broken Verses exudes the sense of being larger than life, right from the protagonist’s imaginative name, Asmani Inqalab (literally translated means “Celestial Revolution”) to the cryptic language shared by The Poet and Samina. The story of the Poet, with his metonymic appellation; a man of “national popularity” and “international reputation”, abducted and killed, presumably, by a government agency sixteen years ago, seems to be an all too familiar story in our country’s history. Here again, the writer draws attention to the country’s tainted past, where things remain unexplained and the only way people try to make sense of the convoluted and mystifying occurrences is by making up their own accounts of what happened and repeating them enough times for it to become true. The end of Shamsie’s novel, however, acts as a foil to the sophisticated premise of conspiracy and intrigue. In fact, it falls a bit flat, but perhaps it was the writer’s intention to make the reader wonder at the hopelessness when it comes to reaching any definite conclusions. Just like in A Case of Exploding Mangoes, the mystery is intact ‘till the end and the reader, much like the nation, remains evermore in the dark about the ‘reality’ of what happened.
In constructing a grand narrative, another thread that runs through the books is the presence of larger than life characters. These characters are not the archetypal figures of a Pakistani society, rather they are specimens of an altogether different class of Pakistanis. They contribute to the loftiness of the plot. For instance the status of the older characters in the novel Broken Verses is that of legends, giants in their own respective fields each possessing a certain “sprezzatura” and “grazia”, as the Italians would say. These characters, their ambitions and their lifestyle all convey a grand persona. This aspect of Pakistani English writing can be better observed by contrasting the characterization of Hamid’s and Naqvi’s novels. While the subliminal theme in both is similar, the way the characters have been dealt with puts these two novels at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of execution. Naqvi’s characters and their extraordinary lifestyle help to extend a feel to the novel where the characters overshadow the events. The characters of Home Boy, Chuck, AC and Jimbo, have the potential to become heroes in the true sense of the word. They are “boulevardiers, raconteurs, renaissance men”, self invented and self made; they are men well versed with the Times, the Post, and the Voice Weekly, as well as with Tight and Big Butt; they listen to Nusrat and to old school gangsta rap, leading epic lives in the city that they have claimed and that has claimed them.
Contrary to this is Hamid’s staid characterization in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, something that does not lend a grand feel to his story but helps in making it an affective allegory, symbolizing the Pakistan-America equation through the major characters of the novel. The greater purpose that the writer probably undertakes is to make some sort of sense of history rather than just narrating a simple tale of a failed inter-racial relationship and the return of an expatriate. The characters are obvious endorsements of bigger things, in an effort that’s almost too on the nose: Erica imbibes the qualities of the USA, as “Am-Erica” and Changez embodies the changes that engulf the United States after the attacks on the towers. Erica’s late fiancé Chris is also a representative of America and is symbolic in terms of how Changez sometimes tries to don his identity in order to gain Erica’s acceptance. Furthermore, he represents certain nostalgia for the past; for simpler, better times that are, like the memories, haunting yet gone. This vacillation between the past and the present is a very common aspect in Pakistani politics, where with every new crisis, the yearning for comparatively better times of the past swells up: exactly what Hamid shows through the conversations of the protagonist with his family back in Lahore, the insidious deterioration of hope and constant referrals to past happiness.
The Political becomes Personal
To fully comprehend the culture and manner of a nation, history often needs to be revisited. Both, Hanif and Shamsie go back to the period of dictatorship in their books. As Bapsi Sidhwa writes in An American Brat, “In Pakistan, politics, with its special brew of martial law and religion, influenced every aspect of day to day living”. This is something that one comes across in much of the literature that comes out of the country. And perhaps, because the dark days of Zia’s regime left such an indelible stain on the country that the authors are forced to look back upon that period in their works. In Broken Verses, the horrors of this unforgettable period are mentioned and constitute a great part of the narrative. Although the name and time remain unspoken, the reader can easily guess what she is referring to.
Hanif’s distaste for the theocratic figure surfaces in his writing, as he transforms the dark days of Zia-ul-Haq’s theocratic dictatorship into a farcical, cloak and dagger style whodunit. He unabashedly reduces the leader of the largest army of the Muslim world, Commander of a nation of millions, into a sniveling, paranoid fuddy-duddy, “fattened and chubby cheeked”, smitten at the hands of the voluptuous, faired skinned Joanne Herring.
In a lot of Pakistani English literature written post-9/11, there appears to be a shift in perspectives; moving from localized, national issues to broader, global ones. Through the lives of characters like Chuck, Ed and Changez we are told of the isolation and feeling of alienation that envelops these Pakistani men. The use of bildungsromans and introspective dramatic monologues highlights their existential crisis and search for identity as the city that accepted them as one of its own does not anymore. The authors might have drawn from their own experiences about how life changed for a Pakistani Muslim living in New York after that day, yet these books can be said to define the whole nation’s sentiments in this “with us or against us” period. Fear, indignation, confused loyalties and the instinct for self-preservation become the common streak between the characters and the citizens. While A Case of Exploding Mangoes takes a jab at authoritative despots, ever so familiar to the country’s political fabric, The Reluctant Fundamentalist takes on a meta-narrative, telling a greater story through the protagonist Changez’s microcosm. His disappointment with the apparent shabbiness and rundown state of his house and the country in general that he witnesses on his visit, followed by guilt and acknowledgement of his highbrow attitude is representative of the evolution of his character from being an outsider looking in to finally accepting and defiantly owning his identity.
The Pakistani socio-political scene becomes the canvas for the writers’ stories, since in it can be found some of the most unique and exceptional ideas to construct narratives around. The under handed political games, the inexplicable disappearances, the shady presence of foreigners are all elements that have, over the course of years, become part of the national make-up. Through the inclusion of these factors into the plots, writers are able to construct grand narratives that seem to be spun around outlandish and bizarre occurrences. For instance, Hanif summoning the most notorious figure of the post 9/11 world, Osama Bin Laden, might appear a bit out of the ordinary to the reader but someone who is aware of the country’s history during the time of the Afghan-Soviet war will know that such a thing is not very farfetched to imagine. OBL arrives wearing a “nice suit” at an American Embassy function in the capital where he receives accolades from the Americans on his indispensible assistance to the Americans, who are happily dressed in flowing Afghan tribal outfits, oblivious to the irony that this suggests to the modern reader. While the Poet’s disappearance in Broken Verses is dealt with from the perspective of a person on the outside, the harsh reality of these disappearances is shown in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. This is where the reader is given a tour of the inside of interrogation cells set up in Lahore Fort, the torture chambers and the prisoners that have been imprisoned without any trial, showing the same time period about which is Shamsie is apparently writing. What is interesting is that Naqvi’s protagonists, although separated by oceans and decades, experience much the same predicament as they look into the odd disappearance of their friend Shaman and end up being threatened and held indefinitely in a detention facility. Their picaresque journey ultimately reveals America’s inclination to overreach and make premature assumptions in her curiosity and paranoia, with the revelation that Shaman or Mohammed Shah who was being branded a terrorist was actually a victim of the attack on the Twin Towers.
All of this purports how many Pakistani authors writing in English show a strong inclination to question how we fit into the grand scheme of things. Whether consciously or unconsciously, writing about Pakistan along these lines helps garner a lot of international acclaim for the authors. In the post 9/11 world, where a lot of negative media attention has been focused on Pakistan, the works of these writers present an alternate view of the country and its people. The interest shown towards what is notoriously marked as a “failed state” has, if nothing else, helped the cause of art in the country. Perhaps this is the silver lining in all of this: much deserved and much prolonged acclaim and acknowledgment for a literature as rich and multifarious as its people.