Against all odds


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WHEN a country is in the midst of multiple crises and turmoil, its people turn to the world of arts for solace and comfort; the talented rise to the surface and express the pain and heartbreak around them through various forms. In Pakistan, literature is the choice of the day. The acclaimed Urdu short story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, absorbed the pain of a bloody Partition in 1947, which came out through stories such as ‘Toba Tek Singh’. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, in the face of military rulers who reigned with an iron fist, poets like Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz and Faiz Ahmed Faiz penned poetry that was heartbreaking, political and soul stirring, which resonates in political rallies till date. Manto, Bano Qudsia, Quratulain Hyder, Ashfaq Ahmed and many more wrote novels that gave hope to millions, transcribed the stories of ordinary Pakistanis into breathtaking words, and raised the stature of Pakistan in literature and poetry. But all that has been in Urdu – a beautiful language but one that does not carry wide appeal with a global audience.

Enter the 21st century, which saw Pakistan becoming an ally in the war on terror, facing insurgencies, militancy and a war within its own borders. It was perhaps foretold that a flurry of great novels, penned in English and evocative of the turmoil in Pakistan, echoing the times they were going through, would soon follow.


In 2008, came the much-awaited non-fiction, Military Inc. by Ayesha Siddiqa, a damning look at the accounts of the Pakistan Army and their vested interests in various businesses, conglomerates and industries, and an even more devastating estimate of their earnings. The book, although dry and academic in its verse, garnered a massive pre-release buzz, so much so that Military Inc. sold out within hours of its release. It created a huge controversy in Pakistan, and with rumours of Military Inc. being banned abounding, the book cemented its place on bestseller lists.

In fiction, it was Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes that firmly placed Pakistan on the map of brilliant fiction prose. A satirical look at the life and death of the former Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq and the conspiracy theories surrounding his demise, Hanif’s wit and sarcastic prose took the literary world by storm, and finally gave Pakistan someone to be proud of in the English literary scene. Chockfull of sarcastic gems such as, ‘You want justice and they give you chicken qorma instead’, the book achieved huge success and was pirated within two months of its official release, an unknown phenomenon for a Pakistani author. According to Chiki Sarkar, Editor in Chief at Random House India which published the book in India, nearly 15,000 copies of A Case of Exploding Mangoes have been sold to date in the country, which she says ‘is excellent for us’, with the paperback version due to be released shortly.


Aysha Raja, who runs the bookstore chain The Last Word, says, ‘For a very long time Pakistan has been grossly underestimated when it comes to the consumption of literature. Apart from being exceptional books, Daniyal and Hanif wrote with distinctly Pakistani voices, resulting in readers and non-readers alike flocking to buy their books. The sales of these authors have been staggering, compared to anything yet seen in Pakistan. Publishers in India are becoming aware of the potential for book sales in Pakistan and are increasingly bidding for rights to supply books in this region.’

Nadeem Aslam, Pakistani born and currently residing in the UK, released his third fiction novel, A Wasted Vigil the same year. His earlier two books, Season of the Rainbirds and Maps for Lost Lovers were critically acclaimed and achieved best-seller status in no time.

And while 2009 may have started as a bad year for Pakistan in terms of security and political stability, in the country’s literary scene it was a brilliant explosion. January 2009 saw the release of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s brilliant debut collection of short stories titled, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. A landowner armed with a law degree from Yale Law School, Daniyal’s book starts with the following quote: ‘Har qatal di ik jar / Zan zameen zar’ (Three things for which we kill/ women, land, gold). The short stories are set primarily in rural Punjab, with tightly woven stories of crooked feudal landowners, servants who would do anything to make their place in the household and well-crafted tales of men and women who love too much, or too little. The same month, renowned author Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel Burnt Shadows was released, and quickly nominated for the prestigious Orange Prize.


But Pakistani authors writing in English is not a new phenomenon. In the late ’60s, Zulfiqar Ghose published his brilliant book, The Murder of Aziz Khan, which focused on the lives of two families from different class backgrounds in a village in Punjab. Unfortunately, the book is now out of print and hence unavailable in Pakistani bookstores. In the ’80s, Bapsi Sidhwa wrote fictional novels that dealt with subjects as diverse as colourful Parsi families in The Crow Eaters, to the pain and trauma of Partition seen through a child’s eyes in the Ice Candy Man, later adapted for the silver screen in Deepa Mehta’s Earth.

In the ’90s came a whole new generation of English writers: Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, Moni Mohsin, Uzma Aslam Khan… the list goes on. In fact, it was Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, Mothsmoke, a tale of urban disillusionment, which struck a chord with hundreds of young Pakistanis, who were going through a period of economic and political turmoil. Hamid’s book touched upon the dilemma of being from the wrong strata of society and having to interact with the elite, the dynamics of living in a city as colourful as Lahore, and the thrill of illicit sex in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. For the English-speaking and reading youth of Pakistan, it was the first book they had to claim as their own.

Contrary to Hamid’s realistic description of life for millions of Pakistanis, Kamila Shamsie’s novels centred on characters hailing from the elite of Pakistani society, which alienated much of its audience who could not relate to the lives and dilemmas of characters that belonged to a very slim section of the population. Nadeem Aslam, who left Pakistan for the U.K. when he was 13 during the Zia regime after his Communist father faced a threat to his life by the dictatorial regime, wrote about pain and separation with rich descriptions and references to Pakistan’s literary greats. His second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, evoked the pain of emigration, of a family torn apart and of ties that bind and stifle. But despite their vast differences in subjects, they have achieved great success; Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Mohsin Hamid have gone on to win a slew of literary awards.


But the world media’s focus has centred on those authors that released their work post 9/11. It is understandable to an extent; Pakistan has gone through and continues to face immense problems. From a fledgling democracy that has struggled to stand up on its feet, to fighting against militancy and shadowy Taliban groups, Pakistan’s security situation has rapidly deteriorated. With the spotlight focused on Pakistan’s security and political conditions, it was but a matter of time before that spotlight would also fall on its flourishing literary scene.

According to Aysha, ‘As cynical as it may seem, publishers do capitalise on turmoil to increase book sales and Pakistan is hot right now. Having said that these exceptional times have brought forth some very gifted Pakistani writers, who have managed to break out of the post-colonial cliches peddled by India for the last 20 years and are writing some very exciting, unique and, at times, surreal prose. It could just be that our very own unique existence is fodder for writers or then again as you say – it may just be coincidence. Nevertheless, publishers are presenting us with an opportunity, and it’s up to us to make the most of it, and build a literary foundation.’

Chiki Sarkar says interest in Pakistani authors increased after Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. ‘It’s the country everyone wants to read about, and that’s part of the interest. As Daniyal Mueenuddin pointed out, there might be brilliant literature coming out of Slovenia but the world’s gaze isn’t on it.’


But despite the intense focus on Pakistan, Mohammed Hanif says he did not expect the overwhelming response he received to his book. ‘As a first time novelist all you expect is a couple of decent reviews and hope that some people will read it. I got a bit more than that. After comprehensive rejections from Pakistan I was not sure how the book will do here, so it was a nice surprise that it has gone down quite well. I have met people who usually don’t read books but have read mine.’

So is the timing of the publications coincidental that 2008 onwards we’ve seen a slew of new books, or did external factors such as turmoil in the country lead to a greater interest in Pakistan by publishers, which then translated into book deals? Chiki says it’s a combination, ‘I don’t think any of the writers or publishers were plotting to publish Pakistani stuff, it was given an added dimension due to the high quality of the writing and secondly, the political climate.’ Sharmeen Saleem, who works for the local bookstore chain Liberty Books says, ‘I think the question we need to ask is, was it possible to pen a book like A Case of Exploding Mangoes until a few years ago and get away with it? Authors are bolder in their approach towards writing now. With the international focus on the country, there is an increased curiosity about Pakistan which in turn directs international attention towards these authors. It’s a bit of both coincidence and timing.’ Hanif says he is not sure about the timing. ‘You can’t really time a novel to coincide with a blip in the news cycle. Also, I can’t really remember a time in my life when Pakistan wasn’t facing multiple crises. If Pakistani writers are getting noticed it might be because of the media.’

Sharmeen says international publishers are eager to publish books from Pakistan. ‘This has given them an opportunity to identify the actual potential of the local market. However, it is quite unfortunate that these books aren’t being published locally. Although efforts are being made to print in India (this is with respect to cover price only – for instance, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is INR 395 and PKR 795) but the prices are still almost double of what you might pay in India which indicates that a sizable chunk of the market demand is still not being met.’


And this is one of the real problems in Pakistan. Piracy is rampant in the country, as original versions of the book are priced far too high to be affordable for most of the public. With barely any English-language books published within Pakistan, the cost of importing books and then converting them from international prices to the local rupee leaves the reader budgeting for something as important to one’s mind’s development as books. Public libraries are in shambles, and in this dog-eat-dog world, parents barely encourage their children to read, focused as they are on making ends meet.

Despite these daunting problems the response to English-language books within Pakistan has been encouraging. According to Sharmeen, ‘The number of local English writing authors has always been very limited, leaving a vacuum in this market segment. However, this change in response is also credited to the media where until a few years ago these authors would go unnoticed regardless of their recognition by international award committees and reputable publications. Now the general readership is more aware about these achievements.’


But while the success stories are encouraging, Pakistan only has a handful of star authors to claim as its own as compared to India, which has produced a bevy of authors that have won accolades worldwide. With a dismal education system, and a very slim percentage of the population attending private English-medium schools that focus on enhancing one’s writing and provide them with access to quality literature, it is perhaps a tragedy that a country like Pakistan, that could produce Urdu poets like Jalib, Faiz, Fehmida Riaz and Parveen Shakir, has thus far only been able to export a fistful of good English-language writers. Hanif agrees, ‘Half a dozen writers from a country of 170 million are not really a huge number. We also tend to forget that there are writers in Urdu, Punjabi and other languages who are doing very exciting work, but again there are very few of them.’

Two young Pakistanis are also attempting to redress these problems by launching the Life’s Too Short/Short Story Prize competition. Funded by a private organization, Faiza S. Khan, an editor at Herald magazine, and Aysha Raja are the organizers of this ambitious venture, and the competition is being judged by Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin. According to Aysha, ‘People are very excited at the prospect of a local short story competition. Apart from the undisputed talent of Pakistani writers, recognition has a lot to do with being aware of how the publishing industry works. Having an agent to sell your manuscript, a publicist to ensure it does not get ignored when published… it’s difficult to plug into the machine sitting in Pakistan. What the Short Story Prize does give you is a chance to be noticed and that too with the ringing endorsement of three critically acclaimed Pakistani authors.’


It is hoped that this competition will help shatter the stereotype that most Pakistani writers writing in English hail primarily from the privileged class and help promote new writers. But then, there are also inspiring examples of Pakistani writers making it big against all odds. Hanif hails from Okara, a district in Punjab, enrolled in the Pakistan Air Force but dropped out at 17, and started working as a film reviewer before he was offered a job at a local monthly magazine. He then proceeded to join the BBC, where he still works.

However, Hanif says since he was a complete outsider to the literary marketplace, finding the right agent was a struggle. ‘When I sent the manuscript out to agents I didn’t really know what to expect. I never heard from some, but a couple of agents got back right away though they wanted me to rework some bits in the book. At least one promised to make me a millionaire if I changed the title and threw in some more Americanisms. But I am basically a bit lazy and was completely bored with the book by then. The agent that I signed up with got back to me after reading the first 50 pages and said she would like to represent me. I met her and asked if she wanted me to make any changes. She said yes there are eight typos that you need to fix. I fixed the typos and she did the rest. She managed to find about a dozen publishers in various countries within a very short period.

‘Since then she has sold it in another half a dozen countries. I am really excited about the Chinese and Hebrew versions which will come out later this year. The only rejections that I got were in Pakistan where one publisher said that they could probably sell three copies. Another publisher was about to publish but their printers refused saying that it would get them into trouble. So I am probably one of the very few writers who were rejected by the printers.’

Nadeem Aslam has also made a remarkable transition. Till age 13, he went to a government-run Urdu-medium school, and barely knew any English till he reached London. Nadeem says that he never saw the language as a problem. ‘You learn. The transition was hard; you could say it’s hard, it’s easy. Sometimes your life doesn’t seem so hard to you because there is no comparison.’ Ghazi Saluhddin, a journalist who also hosts a literary show on Geo News, a local news channel, says Nadeem’s education and grounding in the Urdu language, and his love for Urdu poetry has worked in his favour, as it has helped his writing.


And it’s not just lucrative book deals and recognition in both the international and local market that is the only piece of good news. Aysha says that because of the success of Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, one can expect to see some very big publishers setting up shop within Pakistan soon. Aysha feels one should also set out to rediscover the novels published pre-9/11. ‘Daniyal Mueenuddin highly recommends Sara Suleri’s rather moving Meatless Days. Musharraf Ali Farooqui has also done us proud by translating a condensed version of the Hamzanama and introducing it to a younger generation as the Adventures of Amir Hamza (published in 2007). His translation of the Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism is also set to come out in April.’

So does this mean that with the focus on English-language books, Urdu literature has been left out in the cold? Despite the focus on Pakistan, very little has been written in the local and international media about Urdu writers. On a friend’s recommendation, I picked up Ghulam Bagh (published in 2006) by Mirza Athar Baig, a Professor of Philosophy at Lahore’s Government College, a debut novel which has received rave reviews. I am left enthralled at the language, the sarcastic one-liners, the philosophical dilemmas of the characters, and the enchantment of the fictional land of Ghulam Bagh, and am overcome by sadness that the book is an ignored gem.


According to Ghazi Saluhddin, the readership of Urdu books is shrinking rapidly. ‘In Karachi, there is now one bookstore for every 1500 jewellery stores. Then there is the problem of Urdu’s status in the country, it is still not the official language. Most schools are now English-medium schools, even if the standard of English taught is very bad. The masses now feel that Urdu is no longer the language of empowerment. Hence, in terms of readership, those who can read both Urdu and English books would prefer reading those written in English. Publishing houses, that do publish Urdu books, are not marketing it properly; hence, new Urdu fiction doesn’t get the prominence that say a new English-fiction book’s release might.’

Dr. Asif Farrukhi, a writer and a publisher in Pakistan, agrees with Saluhddin’s view, ‘The market is different, but English books get the most publicity while Urdu books are increasingly out of the limelight.’ However, according to Asif Farrukhi, translations of books like Hamza Nama and Hoshruba are helpful in introducing audiences to gems in Urdu writing and might encourage them to read the original works.


The good news is that against all odds, Urdu and English prose is growing, with a few promising new books set to be released. According to Aysha, there are a slew of young authors waiting to hit the stands. ‘Ali Sethi’s debut novel, The Wishmaker, shall be published in June; I’ve heard a lot about Husain Naqvi’s new book, Homeboy, which will be published by Random House in August. For the more mature reader, there is the novella, Another Gulmohar Tree, by Aamer Hussein, an English professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.’

The bad news is that a few writers do not make a literary scene; for Pakistani writers to emerge out of the woodwork, the standard of education must undergo a drastic re-haul. Books must be made affordable and a love for reading must be encouraged; else despite their success abroad, writers will continue to cater to a very small market segment within the country. And while turmoil may prove to be an ideal working condition for some writers for now, it could result in some writers leaving the country. At the recently held Jaipur Literature Festival, Nadeem Aslam wistfully commented about writing in Pakistan, ‘You’re writing very fast with a quill whose other end is on fire.’