Home art Pakistan’s unexpectedly rich English literary evolution – Huma Kirmani

Pakistan’s unexpectedly rich English literary evolution – Huma Kirmani

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Huma Kirmani |

The development of English literature in Pakistan evolved its own identity and has become the socio-cultural document of an era of aspirations and austerity for the past seventy years. Authors have a third eye which venerates curiosity, inspiration, imagination, where seeing is a synecdoche and synesthetic gerund. The disbandment of the British throne in the Subcontinent in 1947, and the accompanying mass migration across the new borders between the newly independent states of India and Pakistan, stands out as one of the momentous developments in socio-cultural history.

It subsequently categorized issues of class, community formation, ideological fissures and cultural separatism, however with the absence of women and ordinary people playing any role. In the post-1947 inception of Pakistani English literature, authors tried to hold their ground for the leftist and liberal issues of class and people, in a discourse which simply portrayed a pivotal and exclusive role in the literary backdrop for novels of partition horrors. However, these historical accounts never acquired the discipline of art and no literature based on hate and prejudice can be great.

The ultimate rejoinder lies in the Pakistani writers ability to construct raw experiences with emphasis on the positive and softer aspects; the writers through complex and varied genres paint a multi-faceted picture of Pakistan.

Thankfully, by the 1960s, the Pakistani English literature authors found fresher themes and hypotheses regarding long-neglected areas like gender, the celebration of people over power and the evolution of newer paradigms involving tribes and peasants. The enormity of English literature on existing themes is preoccupied with the formation of the country, the role of Islam, geopolitical developments and the recurrent issues of governance, whereas socio-economic disquisition hinging on identity politics and national integration remain few and far between.

The writings in the English language, which had appeared as a literary trend in the early years of Independence, have gradually formed a tradition and a large number of younger generation writers have taken to expressing themselves in the English language. The literary prism of Pakistani English literature writers is extraordinary; their contribution to literature as honest, curious, self-critical and acting as the profound sightseer of the convoluted society, to their readers being able to portray a world of wit, razor sharp prose, and a fine sense of negotiation.

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The writers see the world as a storehouse of story ideas with moral ambiguity even in a doorknob. They see themselves and others as characters in a narrative called life and see endings, even before they write a beginning, where the reader can escape. They see every complication as a potential resolution, and every resolution as a potential complication using English language as their playground.

Pakistani writers have penned some of the worlds most recognized and acknowledged English literature; offering the best discourse, enlightening the long shadows of reality, they narrate the tales of a holistic society in a manner which exquisitely depicts the whirlpool of rituals, which devour the real essence and sustenance of life.

The enormity of English literature on existing themes is preoccupied with the formation of the country, the role of Islam, geopolitical developments and the recurrent issues of governance.

Bapsi Sidhwa’s, ‘The Crow-Eaters (1978)’, is one of Pakistan’s most beloved storytellers. Her raucous sense of humour captures a long gone Pakistan, setting her story of Freddy Junglewalla in pre-Partition Lahore. Come for Freddy — Parsi, entrepreneur, fraud, and arsonist, but stay for his “tank” of a mother-in-law Jerbanoo. Her other novels –  ‘Ice Candy Man (1988)’ and ‘The American Brat (1993)’ – describe the life of Parsi families in Pakistan in a transcultural setting. The Thirteenth House, published in 1987, gives a cross-section of Pakistani consciousness, connecting the past with the present, and opening inroads into astrology and mysticism. It mixes desire with horror and attempts to regain the imaginative grasp of a child’s perception through the unfolding of its story.

Tariq Ali’s novel, ‘Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree’, published in 1993, is a historical narrative, which seeks to find sources of strength in the civilization of Muslim Andalusia. Structured as a family saga, the colorful ambience of the medieval Muslim-European world is evoked to reconstruct a loving past. Fatima Bhutto’s novel as ‘The Shadow of the Crescent Moon’ (2013) is written in the backdrop of the insurgencies in Pakistan‘s tribal areas near the border of Afghanistan. The incredible strife of women who pave the path for survival through the turbulence of tribe’s stubborn conventions.

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Mohammad Hanif, a prominent, darkly humorous and talented author, was once asked whether Pakistan’s violent and often oppressive political system was the reason the country was producing such fine novels. “You know the expression, worse the place, the better the literature. Possibly,” Hanif replied,” but I’d rather have peace and bad books.”

His ‘A Case of Exploding Mangos’ (2008) based on the real life – on the martial law of General Ziaul-Haq – shows how only a writer as skilled as Hanif could weave a tale about the dictator’s eventual assassination in a  mid-air plane explosion, suicide, adultery and satisfy our predilection for conspiracy theories, while still keeping it humorous.

The writers see the world as a storehouse of story ideas with moral ambiguity even in a doorknob. They see themselves and others as characters in a narrative called life and see endings, even before they write a beginning, where the reader can escape.

Kamila Shamsie, the British Pakistani author of five novels including ‘Burnt Shadows’, (2009) which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and translated into over twenty languages. ‘Kartography’, (2002) is a story about home and friendship, set in the shadow of the 1971 war that split East and West Pakistan. It’s the only novel written in English capturing the war that divided Pakistan. Though Shamsie has gone on to write many more novels, this is a superb introduction to life in Karachi’s web of intricacies.

Mohsin Hamid, who moved to the US for his studies, later returned to Lahore as a freelance journalist. ‘Moth Smoke’ was his first novel (2000) which earned the winning of a Betty Trask Award and shortlisted for the PEN Hemingway award. Subsequent books have gone on to win other prizes and indeed one ‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ (2007) has made it to the silver screen.

Pakistani English literature has been in vogue for years however the novels such as Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shame’ (1983) appeared as a site of the archaic, hell-bent on distorting reality, moving between the civilian and military, shut off from the rest of the continent and from the contemporary world, not quite Pakistan, but having solid roots in reality. “Shame is like everything else,” Rushdie writes, “live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.”

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The contemporary style of Pakistani English literature authors offer a vision of Pakistani modernity cleaving right through the stereotypes. The abandonment of anti-modern discourse became a necessity for literary diversity, as literature is not all about smartly crafted plots, and enchanting heartfelt words. Authors have portrayed issues of women empowerment, domestic violence, post trauma of war and terrorism. Great literature emerges from what is inspired by the real, the intense, and the present.

Here a question arises whether these writers are successful in molding a positive visage of Pakistan. The ultimate rejoinder lies in the Pakistani writers ability to construct raw experiences with the emphasis on the positive and softer aspects; the writers through complex and varied genres paint a multi-faceted picture of Pakistan. Their books are often the western readers window to the soul of Pakistan; one which is not necessarily the same as shown on their TV screens. The discerning folk anecdotes as the foremost Pakistani genre in English, engages the readers from all walks of life, and from every corner of the world.

Huma Kirmani is an author and has written 13 books. She is a public speaker, a social activist, a mentor and an honorary member of United Nations of Pakistan. Her first novel, ”Corridors of Transmutation, “ is on Afghan war and refugees crisis. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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1 COMMENT

  1. Quite an explicit review of Pakistani English literature. A write-up heart warming, and academically important. Thanks

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