The Politics of Pakistani Fiction | karachikhatmals blog

Jun 2014

What is the place of politics in Pakistani fiction?

This question came up at a fiction writing workshop which I attend weekly, and came up in the context of discussing yet another novel concerning Pakistan, terrorism and 9/11. To most of us familiar with Pakistani writing, these topics have become something akin to a curse. It seems like the only way a writer can get published is to weave their stories around these sorts of topics. It feels like the author’s intentions are dictated by commercial and topical concerns, instead of an exploration of life, art or the human psyche.

I had become so frustrated with this straitjacket strangling Pakistani fiction that I recently put forth the following question to Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid at the Lahore Literature Festival.

“Why does every Pakistani novel need to have a big-ticket political agenda at the heart of it?”

The question was relevant to the debate at hand (a discussion on the ‘global’ novel) but it also had particular resonance for me personally. Mohsin’s first two novels seemed to represent the extremes of how politics is worked into Pakistani fiction. His debut novel, “Moth Smoke”, remains one of my favourite novels ever. I remember my delight at coming across a book set in Pakistan which had characters and concerns that I could recognise.  I started reading local authors when I was around 14-15, which would be the latter half of the 1990s. Up until that point, most of the Pakistani novels I read seemed to deal with extremely privileged people, whose characters seemed to not even have an opinion, let alone any awareness, of their place and privilege in our society. While Moth Smoke was also about the privileged, its characters had concerns which were as much psychological as social. Daru wanted to get a fancy job, a hot girlfriend and entry into the best parties where he could drink free booze. It was his personal cynicism and social self-entitlement which made the book so compelling, particularly because his fate was as cynical as he was. This approach meant that class politics, the place of the elite, and the institutionalised cruelty in our society were all present as part of the story and characters. Moreover, the book did not have any noble poor characters, a particular curse of the Pakistani English language novel.

However, Mohsin’s second book, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, completely upended this position. Although it was written before 9/11, it ended up becoming a template of sorts for a seemingly unending raft of Pakistani fiction that was tied into the US, Islam, Pakistan, and terrorism. Every subsequent novel seemed to have one or all of these signifiers in their title, and many of these were about the trauma of well-adjusted upper-class Pakistanis in the West facing the fallout of the attacks.

Comparing these two books, we see that the politics in them manifest in very different ways. “Moth Smoke” ends up revealing its politics through passages like a judge’s musings on air-conditioners and the dynamics of how to blow cigarette smoke into the air. In contrast “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” reads like a vehicle for an almost exclusively security-centric political opinion: in its portrayal of the romance between the protagonist and an American woman, the book serves as a blunt metaphor for US-Pakistan relations.

It is unfair to place all the blame on Hamid’s shoulders. He was justified in seeking a change in content and style after his first book. But the juxtaposition of his second novel and our geopolitical situation at the time ended up making that book the foundation of a cottage industry. Security-centric politics became a gimmick, and, more and more, novels and fiction pieces were furnished with an almost laughable depiction of local concerns and viewpoints.

The exhaustion and dissatisfaction generated by such fiction – which more often than not fails the basic tests of being interesting and intriguing – has led many to be wary of any sort of politics being discussed in fiction whatsoever. This was definitely the opinion of my workshop members, and one which (to my slight surprise) I found myself reacting against very strongly.

To start with, any good piece of fiction cannot, in my opinion, be written without an awareness of the political situation. This does not mean that we bring up NATO and the judiciary and Baitullah Mehsud in each and every sentence, but rather that we have an understanding, through the author, of the various power dynamics at play – whether it manifests itself between two mundane characters in a piece of fiction or within the society that they live in. An overt attempt to frame fiction within the framework of high politics, however, particularly in the Pakistani case, often serves as a cover for otherwise poor writing, plot and/or characters.

But the more I thought about it, the more I came to a second conclusion. I realised that while there is certainly the element of faddishness and well-intentioned neo-orientalism in many of the novels I do not care for, they were also serving a need felt by Pakistani audiences. Anyone who has been privy to the social reactions surrounding any work of art in Pakistan – be it a film, a song, a book or a play – would know that there is always a strong desire for the work to have a ‘message’.

I began to think about why we keep demanding such a message from our art. Obviously, it goes without saying that we don’t have much time for l’art pour l’art, but there is a little bit more nuance to it that I would now like to try and tease out.

For starters, let us begin this conversation by starting with nation-states, and specifically with an acknowledgment that all nation-states are essentially fictions. From the most stable ones to those topping Foreign Policy’s doomsday lists, each nation-state creates a fiction which provides the justification for why it came into existence, and such fictions have degrees of what I would call ‘efficiency’.

Now let me be absolutely clear here: I am not defining the efficiency of fiction by any objective measure, and frankly outside this context, I would find the phrase to be a bit ridiculous. However, when I say efficient fiction in the context of a nation state, I mean to say one which is able to support and play a role in generating institutions which carry out the practical functions of a state. So we see that a country like the US is based on the various fictions of manifest destiny and freedom of all men, and while we can show these to be untrue, they are efficient enough for the country to construct institutions that effectively perpetuate this narrative.

Again, I want to be very clear that an ‘efficient’ national fiction does not mean that it is fairer, more just or more accurate than an ‘inefficient’ one. It does not mean that the stories the nation-state tells to justify its actions are valid or justified.  In fact, the contemporary identity crisis in many western states seems to be the consequence of trying to apply their self-avowed liberal values with the realities of multicultural societies. However, the one advantage that an efficient national narrative does have is that it has greater functional value than an inefficient one. However, all national fictions have their limitations, and there are certain points where they become inefficient, or fail to provide the basis for creating stable institutions or processes.

Many postcolonial countries have struggled to create narratives or fictions which would be considered ‘efficient’ as per our definition. This has been a particularly acute problem in contemporary Pakistan, where despite almost a decade of devastating terrorism the state and society have struggled to come up with a narrative which allows for a consensus on how to deal with this problem.

To understand why, we have to look at the basis of Pakistan’s own fiction. It was the first country ever made on the basis of religion (and that, too, by a party that had always claimed to be avowedly secular say some historians). It was a country made by men who had never lived in it before, and it was a country that was split into two parts with hundreds of kilometres of “hostile” territory in between. It was a country whose own disillusioned (and soon to be dead) founder bemoaned as “moth-eaten”.

No Pakistani is formally taught an understanding of how their country came to be – instead, we are forced-fed a two-dimensional narrative that rather than efficiently engendering an albeit limited sense of political community, creates tenuous links between traders, vagabonds, opportunists, bastards and usurpers under the banner of religion. We are taught how Muslims were always different, always separate and always seemingly under the motivation of protecting their faith. The culmination of this millennium-long struggle led to the creation of this country, or so we are told. This Muslim exclusionist view constantly comes at odds with the rich and diverse local traditions we all have and revere, and thus has required media purges, ethnic discrimination, unholy alliances and widespread coercion in order to be promulgated.

However, the advent of militancy under the banner of religion has created a major problem for the Pakistani narrative. In a piece for Dawn, Umair Javed explained this problem is great detail. He writes how “There is and always has been a duality to life in Pakistan. A delicate, often sub-conscious, demarcation between ritual and aspiration, between piety and accumulation. This duality is equally present in the state as well. Envisioned and functioning (in whatever condition) as a Western, common law enterprise, it has attempted to resolve its own questions of identity through token homage to ritual and form. An Objectives Resolution here, a Second Amendment there — each resulting in a problematic yet somewhat stable equilibrium of sorts.”

This ‘stable equilibrium of sorts’ has now been exposed by militants. To quote Umair again, “through the government’s indecisive handling of the matter, and a series of well-thought-out manoeuvres by the TTP, Islamic groups have shifted the language of mainstream political conversation away from corruption, redistribution and economic growth, to the question of whether our legal-political system is compliant with the after-life or not.”

Because of the contradictions in the state’s narrative, a space exists for society to create an alternative narrative or fiction, or at the very least be able to explain why terrorism has come to engulf our society. Consequently, the rise of security-centric politics in literary fiction would appear to be a natural response.

However, this is where the discomfort arises amongst the readership. Many people see the inclusion of such topics as mere commercial pandering, and there is no doubt that this certainly plays a role. But on a literary level, I feel that the problem also exists with the fact that the focus on writing about terrorism has been on showing how ‘the rest of Pakistan’ is different from the evil terrorist.

This approach is not a surprising one – after all the fiction I am discussing here is English-language fiction in Pakistan, which automatically means that the people writing these are wealthy, elite Pakistanis. Consequently, their primary concern has been to show how they have a life and culture which is different from the ideology of militants. Moreover, the general view of Pakistani elites, particularly liberals, is to view religious militancy as being caused by either hypocrisy or illiteracy, or both. Thus terrorism is at best seen as a distortion of ideology and an innate hypocrisy. Yet, to quote from Umair’s piece once more, “[this] the kind of hypocrisy one would expect in a country popularly thought to have been created in the name of religion, and where successive regimes, for a host of reasons, have placed a legal premium on ritualistic behaviour.”

Interestingly, the only novel I can think of which shifts the blame elsewhere is Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which makes the Pakistani militant react exclusively to American policies.

However, despite the fact that there has been both an intellectual and a commercial need for tackling the spectre of militancy in Pakistani literature, there continues to be a lot of disaffection regarding the preponderance of security-centric politics in Pakistani fiction.

I think one answer might be the fact that the state has never really been considered a reliable source of narrative. The spectacular popularity of talk shows and the electronic media in general was in many ways a reaction to decades of state control of news and information. But other literature, some could argue literature that gets less traction in the international press but is more popular among those who live and breathe on Pakistani soil, has been seen and trusted as a reliable witness as well as a way of understanding our society better.

The splitting of British India into two countries brought with it unprecedented levels of communal violence, much of which was grotesquely sexual in nature. Even now, historians struggle to make sense of it and thus it is no surprise that Pakistan’s official history barely acknowledges it, let alone attempts to understand it. But where the national narrative is silent, fiction has emerged to take its place.

The work of several authors, most notably Saadat Hasan Manto (but also others like Ismat Chughtai, Krishna Baldev, Intizar Hussain, Amrita Pritam, Khushwant Singh, etc.) have been instrumental in serving as both a historical record (of sorts) as well as a means to try and make sense of what happened.

Manto’s masterly short story, “Toba Tek Singh”, is the most celebrated example of this, where the writer juxtaposes the confusion of nation-state formation against the understanding of mad men in an asylum. But I find the ones he wrote on the sexual violence even more influential. Stories like Khol Do (Open It) and Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) are devastating in their exposition, but are also vital for their insights into the protagonists – who were not some brainwashed villains but ordinary people caught in a madness they did not quite understand.

I still don’t know why Partition was so violent (and why certain areas avoided such communal violence) but I do know that the fiction I read about it was the only resource which helped explain some of it to me.

And this is a central concern in Pakistan. With all the sources of narratives (the Establishment, the corporate media, the entrenched elite) so committed in preserving their own power, fiction and art are often the only recourse for someone looking to understand this country.

And that is where we return back to the original question: Even though many writers have used sexy, security-centric political concerns to get themselves published and recognised, we still cannot afford to discount politics in Pakistani fiction. Even though it is unfair to expect a writer to not just focus on their craft but also furnish a thesis for explaining Pakistani society, we have no other choice.

I will end here by trying to give some examples of literature which works at these levels. Jamil Ahmed’s novel The Wandering Falcon is not written by an insider telling his story, and yet it ends up providing a rare insight into the parts of the country we can’t name properly but don’t mind bombing. The book’s triumph is that like partition narratives, it helps create a human connection with people whose decisions, ideas and choices we rarely understand. It deals with issues like honour killings and selling women without tripping over either, and seeks to promote empathy rather than explanations. More importantly, its approach creates both strong characters and addresses inherent political situations, which ends up satisfying both the burden of good literature and responsible politics.

Another example would be Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which takes one of Pakistani history’s most fraught periods and creates it into a highly entertaining fiction that also (almost paradoxically) creates a more honest version of history. This is because Zia ul Haq occupies the intellectual imagination as either Super Muslim Patriot or The Antichrist Who Destroyed Liberal Pakistan, and never in between. He is particularly popular amongst liberals, who trace almost every problem in Pakistan back to him. Yet Hanif’s embodiment of the general as slightly dim and perennially insecure provided far more answers than those dealing in non-fiction, who often end up creating Zia as a demigod of sorts. Salman Rushdie’s Shame also deals with the same cast, and while he is far more caustic, his characters are similarly insightful for explaining the times and politics the book was set in.

And I think this is what contemporary Pakistani literature needs to be aware of. If an author is committed to bringing up security-centric politics, than they must realise the need to use literature to provide the sort of insight and understanding that others achieved with, for example, partition literature. On the other hand, if an author is tired of politics, than they must keep in mind that it is (almost) impossible to write well-rounded literary characters without explaining their place and class in society, and to do that one requires an honest engagement and understanding of politics. Therefore, someone writing about a rich housewife in an urban setting does not necessarily have to bring up militancy, but they also can’t avoid dwelling on some aspect of the larger social processes which define (at least some of ) their characters’ wealth, choices and mobility.

Ultimately then, our greatest takeaway is this – in a country like Pakistan, literary fiction often ends up becoming the most believable truth, and that is a responsibility authors cannot shirk away from.

karachikhatmal is the Brian Lara of his generation. He’s a genius but his team usually loses. He’s also a freelance journalist, who writes on cricket, music and film.

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4 Responses to The Politics of Pakistani Fiction | karachikhatmals blog

  1. […] Why does every #Pakistani novel need to have a big-ticket political agenda at the heart of it? […]

  2. zehra on Jun 2014 at 8:02 AM

    pretty sure reluctant fundamentalist was written after 9/11. other than that, great essay

  3. Are on Jul 2015 at 3:16 PM

    Where does this Fiction Writing Workshop take place ?

  4. Mir Mohammad Ali Khan on Mar 2017 at 3:45 AM

    Nice to read it !

    Mir Mohammad Ali Khan

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