[Did a version of this for the Delhi-based Sunday Guardian newspaper]
A shout-out for Granta magazine’s new Pakistan special.
As a big admirer of contemporary Pakistani writing in English, I was very pleased to see the line-up of contributors to the issue – Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, Aamer Hussein and Nadeem Aslam, among others. So pleased, in fact, that I sat down and read some of it on a PDF file (something I rarely do) because the hard-copy version hadn’t arrived yet. It’s a good mix of fiction, reportage, poetry, nostalgia - and even artwork, courtesy a visual essay that showcases the work of artists like Ayesha Jatoi and Imran Qureshi (not to mention the book’s dazzling cover, created by a truck artist).
The pieces are very varied and it’s impossible to discuss them all, so I’ll mention a couple that I really enjoyed. The shortest story in the collection, Mohsin Hamid’s “A Beheading”, is also the most startling, perhaps because it taps directly into the deepest fears of an artist (specifically a writer) trying to live and work under a repressive, intolerant regime. If you’ve read Hamid’s fine novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (my review here), you’ll remember his use of a deliberately theatrical, non-realist narrative – a first-person account by a Pakistani man addressing an American tourist. “A Beheading” does something similar to induce a very real sense of claustrophobia and dread.
The sense of terror in Mohammad Hanif’s “Butt & Bhatti” takes longer to emerge, but when it does it packs a punch. What begins as a droll story about a policeman (named Teddy Butt) who has fallen madly in love with a nurse (Alice Bhatti) soon becomes something darker, with far-reaching repercussions. In the process, it makes telling observations about the relationship between violence and love, and between poetry and gunfire. It’s all done very funnily, as you’d expect from Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. (He’s the sort of writer who will, right in the midst of a description of riots and violence, throw in a caustic sentence like “Newspapers started predicting ‘normalcy limping back to the city’ as if normalcy had gone for a picnic and sprained an ankle.”)
I also liked Kamila Shamsie’s “Pop Idols”, about experiencing Pakistani pop music as a teenager in the late 1980s through the emergence of bands such as Vital Signs, against the background of the changes in the country’s political climate. (“Watching the video of ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ today,” she writes, “I’m struck by the void that must have existed to make pretty boys singing patriotic pop appear subversive.”) Based on what I've read so far, these pieces aren't about stereotyping a nation, or losing sight of the many coexisting realities that make it what it is - they are about using high-quality writing to create a sense of a people, a place and a society. I look forward to finishing the collection.
(More on this book soon. Meanwhile, here are some old posts about Pakistani writers and their work: outtakes from a story about Pakistani writing in English, a long conversation with Mohsin Hamid, a Q&A with Daniyal Mueenuddin, notes on Musharraf Ali Farooqi's translation of the Hamzanama, on Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows, Bapsi Sidhwa's Lahore anthology)