Friday, February 20, 2009


With Pakistan in the spotlight, the timing is just right for the deluge of writings from Pakistan that are making their mark on the international literary scene. Pakistani writing in English (PWE), often called PAW (Pakistani Anglophone writing) is making it possible for readers worldwide to gorge on fiction from this part of the subcontinent. The Bapsi Sidhwas and Kamila Shamsies have now been joined by a formidable array of writers like Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Shahbano Bilgrami, Moni Mohsin, Azhar Abidi and most recently Daniyal Mueenuddin.

And the world changed is a wonderful addition to the gems that are flooding the PAW bookshelves. Edited by Muneeza Shamsie, this collection of twenty five short stories showcases contemporary writings by Pakistan women. So that while the narratives abound with the obvious themes of violence, class conflict and hierarchy, the experience is exclusively through the eyes of women. Women writing in English are without exception the anglicized, upper class ones who by virtue of their education and social standing are anything but deprived and may not be the best spokespersons for the real Pakistan. And yet these are also the very people that inhabit a special world, one that allows a Pakistani experience within a global and often an immigrant and multicultural context. As Muneeza Shamsie says in her introduction to the volume:

Pakistani women who employ English as a creative language live between the East and West, literally and figuratively, have had to struggle to be heard. They write from the edge of both English and Pakistani literatures.
Although many of the writers included here are well known, the goal of this pioneering anthology is to reveal how Pakistani women writing in a global-albeit imperial-language, challenge stereotypes that patriarchal cultures in Pakistan and diaspora have imposed on them, both as women and as writers.

Diaspora and patriarchy also brush shoulders with war, displacement, immigrant woes and social hierarchy. Interestingly, marriage (and relations with men), the context within which women negotiate their own destiny plays second fiddle to violence and conflict. Interesting, too, is the fact that the violence that forms the leitmotif of the volume, is mostly in the context of partition and the wars with India. Indeed, the first story of this collection by Bapsi Sidhwa is about the horrors of partition. It is decades after partition in Houston, yet the wounds are still raw, as we can infer from Ammijee’s heart wrenching screams "I will never forgive your fathers! Or your grandfathers! Get out, shaitans! Sons and grandsons of shaitans! Never, never never!”

Roshni Rustomji’s Existing at the Center brings together incidents of violence across the continents where she has lived. Once again, there is the pain of partition,

“my friend Asha told me about how her favorite aunt had wept as the red tilak on her forehead and the red sindhur in the parting of her hair were rubbed off when she was widowed. All that red of marriage and of families joining together turned to blood across the land.”

which Rustomji weaves in with violence across other countries where she has lived, such as the blood and gore of Lebanon’s civil war. Lebanon, the land of heartbreaking beauty.

“where I saw a boy his face masked with blood, leap from a balcony moments after men in uniform had entered the building. The mother had screamed at the corpse of her son, not only for dying but also for having killed other mothers’ sons. Later I heard the same story during the Nicaragua war between the Sandinistas and the Contras, and during the Zapatista uprising for justice.”

The same violent motif goes through Vietnam and Afghanistan and she rants

“Mad? As I see bombs falling from the sky and listen to the young men and women ready to unleash their terrifying technology onto those they dare not think of as being human, I am reminded of history of this particular war” I remember the words of Euripides “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Although class, hierarchy and multiculturalism often form the basis of the story, the backdrop is mostly violence and war. The title story by Sabyn Javeri-Jilliani is the multicultural world of Karachi just before the 1965 war with India. In a typical mohalla where people yearn for news outside of what is provided by the state radio, arrives the Voice of America broadcast provided by Uncle Bobby’s car radio. But these broadcasts also bring news of the Indo-Pak war and gradually tense relations between the Hindu and Muslim that had lived side by side for ages in these communities. Where violence is not a result of strife or war, it is rooted in the social order. Feryal Ali Gauhar’s Kucha Miran Shah is a horrific story of honor killing that occurred in the protagonist’s childhood. And yet amidst the violence that percolates through generations are also these islands of gentleness and decency as seen in the gentle romance of this young man with a mute woman.

That there were fewer stories on women’s negotiation of power within marriage and patriarchal structures came as an initial surprise to me. After all this is something that most of us have come to expect from women’s narratives. It escaped me that in the aftermath of violence, the havoc that is wreaked on women, their bodies, their families, their livelihood and their communities; all these have far greater ramifications on their survival than social negotiations within a marriage. Marital relations do feature in some stories. Bina Shah’s The Optimist is the portrait of an arranged marriage between a Pakistani man and an expatriate girl. Another view of the expatriate world is shown in A Pair of Jeans where jeans symbolize decadence in a young girl in the eyes of her future Pakistani parents-in-law in Britain. Tahira Naqvi’s A Fair Exchange, is a world where a woman’s devotion to her husband can come through sacrifices offered to God in return for favors granted in life. It is also a commentary on how the intersection of religion and hierarchy can often take on bizarre forms.

Patriarchy is South Asia has a wonderful legacy in the form of solidarity amongst women. This is poignantly depicted in Fehmida Riaz’s Daughters of Aai where rural women spearhead, in their own silent way, a revolution where solidarity intermixes with superstition in a tale of sexual exploitation. In Excellent things in Women, Sara Suleri Goodyear writes about her growing up in Pakistan in a household where her Welsh mother’s quiet nature acts as a foil to her Dadi or paternal grandmother’s strong personality. Together with her sisters Tillat and Iffat, this is a world of women and their affection, gentleness and understanding across the cacophony of generations and cultures.

The stories are chronologically arranged according to the authors’ ages, so that younger authors are toward the end of the volume. It is appropriate then that the last story of the volume, is on multiculturalism. Nayyara Rehman’s Clay Fissures deals with identity in an increasingly convergent world. Here we see through the eyes of a young Hindu Pakistani albino boy, who has never been at home in his country or elsewhere. Years later, he finds himself in Balochistan conducting research on a erupting volcano. Around him are foreigners, investors in Pakistan’s refineries.

But the discrimination also taught me that the only place where color really matters is in a rainbow.
We hugged and shook hands and cheered. Europeans, Chinese, and Baluchis; Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and a Hindu all brought together by circumstance.

A fine glimpse of what would be our future in the globalized world.
First published at sawnet website