The Life’s Too Short team regrets to announce that it will not be awarding its prize money for last year’s submissions due to a lack of suitable entries. The stories received have failed to meet the standards we require for publication. We thank you for your feedback and apologise for the delay in this decision. However the e-mail address for submissions ( is still active and should writers wish to contribute their work, we remain keen to consider it for publication. We remain committed to publishing the best of new writing from Pakistan.


The results of this year’s Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize are due, as was the case with the last prize, in autumn. Watch this space.

Bombs, Bullets & Burqas Print E-mail
Though the publishing world, especially in the United States, has recently been entranced by Pakistan, the work is narrowed to depictions of terrorism and Islamic militarisation. Few publications portray the beauty and mundanity of private life in Pakistan.

Portrait of Faisal Shahzad, “The Times Square Bomber”

ast summer, at the local farmers’ market, I was surprised and pleased to see a stand advertising “Pakistani Food.” Who would expect such an offering in a small New England town? But when I approached the stand I found that none of the food, a series of fried, stuffed turnover-like snacks called ‘mantus,’ seemed all that Pakistani. I struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter. His English was poor. I tried Urdu. His Urdu seemed poorer. I was confused. He was confused. Finally, I asked, in English, very slowly, “You’re not Pakistani, are you?” He acknowledged that he was not. He indicated he was Persian, but said he was not from Iran. Finally I ventured that he might be from Afghanistan, and he agreed, but hedged his response by mentioning that he had lived for some time in Pakistan. He seemed convinced that advertising his food as Pakistani was a smarter business move than associating it with Afghanistan. This summer the booth has been a fixture in the market again, but now the banner reads “Afghan-Pak Foods.”

Thanks to such characters in the ever-expanding cast of the Global War on Terror as through Faisal Shahzad, the loftily nicknamed ‘Times Square Bomber’ (can you really be called a ‘bomber’ when your bomb didn’t go off?), an awareness of Pakistan has suddenly burst into the American popular imagination. Our previous total lack of awareness of Pakistan in the United States has now been replaced with a perhaps more unfortunate awareness of militancy in Pakistan. Even the disastrous flooding of vast swaths of the country, characterised by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a ‘slow-motion tsunami’, has failed to make much of a dent in perceptions of the country. The chance that an increasingly xenophobic American populace will agree to buy stuffed savory snacks from Afghanistan over those from Pakistan have diminished greatly over the past year.

Millitancy waportant topic in Gs an imranta’s Pakistan issue


Into this void of information about a country and a people comes a spate of new publications of Pakistani literature in English, some of it now widely available in the United States. With the publication of a special issue on Pakistan by the UK-based literary journal Granta, it is safe to say that Pakistani literature has become a hot commodity. Granta’s Pakistan issue presents an array of essays, stories, poems and artwork that bring together in a single volume a portrait of the country that is much more complex and enriching than the images readily available in the United States. Militancy is an important topic, but so are pop music, folklore, religious minorities and even glaciers. Even for readers who have some knowledge of the region, Granta 112 is bound to broaden conceptions of life in a region grown cartoonishly over-simplified by a media market obsessed with underscoring Pakistan’s role as ‘The Most Dangerous Place in the World.’ While some pieces in Granta 112 discuss militancy head-on, such as Declan Walsh’s “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, others merely allude to it.

Nonetheless, violence, if not all-out militancy, is a touchstone for nearly all the pieces included in the issue. The longest of these is the story “Leila in the Wilderness” by Nadeem Aslam. A modern retelling of Laila-Majnun, “Leila in the Wilderness” takes up the issue of female infanticide. The narration’s quiet magical realism gives it a timeless, folkloric feel, brought to earth periodically by leaden reminders of, yes, militancy, as in this passage, describing the clandestine construction of a beautiful mosque on an island in the middle of a river.

The masons and labourers had to work with minimum light, overcoming fear of snakes, djinns and scorpions. Only once did they think they were about to be discovered – when a truck broke down close to the riverbank and its driver and passengers got out to repair it, their voices reaching the island, the truck’s headlights visible. But they were members of a jihadi organization returning from Faisalabad, the city full of textile factories from whose markets chemicals used in explosives could be bought in bulk without raising suspicion.

OnAt first I was turned off by the use of magical realism and the author’s attempt to cover so many bases at once. It seemed like another piece of fiction that owed a little too much to Salman Rushdie, and perhaps it does. But ultimately, the blending of the fabulist’s style with modern themes and concerns started to remind me of the amazing paintings of Pakistani artist Shazia Sikander, whose work takes Mughal miniature painting as a starting point and then moves way beyond.


Is violence simply a literary preoccupation in Pakistan? Or does this have something to do with Western expectations of the concerns of Pakistani fiction writers?



A major failing of Granta 112 is the lack of linguistic diversity it presents, even as the issue seeks to represent a wide swath of Pakistani writing. This is not an insignificant detail. The press release for the issue boasts the latest writing from “the corona of talent writing in Sindhi, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto and English which has burst onto the English-language publishing world.” But, disappointingly, most of these languages are only represented by translations of extremely short poems. The renowned Urdu author Intizar Hussain’s reminiscence (translated by Basharat Peer, whose excellent essay on Kashmir is also included in the issue) about life as a journalist under the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq is all too brief. Beautiful, exciting writing is not a new thing in Pakistan and many important authors of languages other than English are living and breathing in the country as we speak. How much more worthwhile it would have been to have read a translation of a short story or a journalistic piece from Balochi, Siraiki or Sindhi, than to be subjected to Mohsin Hamid’s ghastly, though mercifully short, Danny Pearl redux tale “A Beheading.”


round the time of the release of Granta 112, I came across an interview with the magazine’s new editor, John Freeman, about the Pakistan issue. I hoped I would find some plausible rationale for the linguistic chauvinism of the issue, but I was disappointed. When asked why so few translations were included, Freeman responded, “…we got loads of submissions, a lot of them translations from Urdu, which we especially asked for, but it was very hard to find something contemporary that made sense.” This idea of what ‘makes sense’ troubled me. Was the writing bad, were the translations poor? What does it mean for a piece of writing to ‘make sense’ in this context? Did they not talk about Islamism or militarisation? Were they not keyed into global conversations? I was fortunate to have the chance to query Freeman on this point, but he demurred, saying, “We did have a few close calls with short stories from Urdu, but in the end we had to pick what had the intensity and beauty which was most arresting.”

The Story of a Widow concentrates on everyday life in Pakistan


Subjective assessments based on ‘intensity and beauty’ are a matter of editorial choice, of course. But with so many of the pieces of writing in Granta 112 touching on themes of violence, I was beginning to wonder if this was the default position of Pakistani writing in English (a notable exception is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which was very well received in the US). Is violence simply a literary preoccupation in Pakistan? Or does this have something to do with Western expectations of the concerns of Pakistani fiction writers? This quickly becomes a chicken and egg argument. The demands of the publishing market can be hard to separate from reality, so I didn’t expect to get much of an answer to this question. But two recent publications have persuaded me otherwise, neither of which has found a publisher in the United States, as of yet (both are available in India).

The first is a marvelous novel by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, The Story of a Widow. The novel, blurbed promisingly by Mohammed Hanif as the novel Jane Austen would have written had she grown up in a Karachi suburb, tells the story of a woman whose husband, a rigid, ungenerous man, has recently died. The Jane Austen-ness (Farooqi has said that he has yet to read this writer known as Jane Austen, and drew inspiration from the Japanese novelist Tanizaki) of the story lies in its detailed, sensitive portrayal of the heroine, Mona’s feelings as she explores the possibilities of love and independence. The novel is full of delicate descriptions of social and familial interactions and is not in any way meant to provide the far distant reader with a couch-side view of Life in Pakistan. It is in fact because of the narrative’s resolute commitment to painting an intimate portrait of a private life that one gets a much more immediate sense of everyday life in Pakistan than is possible from many pieces of writing that overtly seek to introduce the reader to that country.

I loved for example this passage, leading up to the denouement of the novel, when Mona and her new husband, the reckless and drunken Salamat Ali, are driving home in the rain:

As their car approached their street, Moa saw some overhead electrical wires shorting up ahead. She asked Salamat Ali to slow down. Then she saw the electric company’s truck parked near the electrical pole. Technicians stood on the street. One of them was trying to set up the ladder. Salamat Ali saw them too, when the technicians signalled with a flashlight for their car to stop. They were dangerously close to where a jangle of shorting electric wires hung overhead.

In a classic ‘show, don’t tell’ move, Farooqi gives us a vivid description of the infrastructural snarls around every corner in a city like Karachi, without shining a sociologist’s spotlight on the worrisome electrical work that is being done in the storm. Why is it that this novel, a witty and absorbing portrayal of urban middle class life, has not found a publisher in the United States? Is it because the easily relatable content does not fit preconceptions about life in Pakistan?

While in Life’s Too Short (centre) there was a conscious editorial decision to avoid the topic


Newly released in India is the literary review Life’s Too Short, a collection of Pakistani short fiction written in English (and one translation), another publication that has yet to find a distributor in the United States. In these stories as well we find a wide array of narratives that are deeply involved in all different aspects of Pakistani life. Only one story engages with violence caused by a bombing, Bilal Tanweer’s “To Live.” The beauty of this particular story is that, until the ending, when the car the narrator is driving is hit with shrapnel and body parts from an explosion, the story has been about a seduction. What sets apart a story like “To Live” from the crowd of violence in Pakistan fiction is how it reveals the texture and details of the everyday lives coursing around the peripheries of an act of violence. As we hear the news in far off countries, we will learn that an explosion killed a certain number of people in a certain place and was caused by a particular militant group. These descriptions come to comprise the entirety of what is known about a place halfway round the globe. It is difficult to write a story about a bombing that brings to life the ways in which such violence is not a part of people’s lived experience. Faiza Sultan Khan, the editor of Life’s Too Short, told me that the inclusion of only one story about a bombing was a conscious editorial decision. Writes Khan, ”While we received numerous submissions featuring bomb blasts and other increasingly commonplace forms of violence, we only selected Bilal Tanweer’s as we were looking for literary merit – not representations of Pakistan, be they positive or negative.”

Wholly engrossing, Life’s Too Short includes many well-written stories that deal with a host of different themes, social strata and geographical locations. Included in the collection are a tale of a woman who grows to feel envious of her tenants (“Lucky People”), a depressing story about an unfit mother ruining her daughter’s doll’s wedding (“The Wedding”), and a witty account of a middle-aged man’s unsuccessful attempt at coloring his hair (“Mir Sahib’s Hairdo”). Special mention must be made of the one translated piece in Life’s Too Short. This piece, an excerpt from the serialized lesbian erotica Challawa, by pulp author Humayun Iqbal, was translated by Mohammed Hanif. Challawa was widely read and extremely popular in Pakistan throughout the 1970s. Its inclusion in the collection achieves some powerful stereotype-busting about Pakistani culture. Amusingly, when Khan began to read a portion of the translation aloud during the Pulp Fiction panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the panel’s moderator, festival co-chair Namita Gokhale, asked her to stop because there were teenagers present. Khan was “excited that literature from Pakistan is too racy to discuss.”

Preconceptions about what themes Pakistani literature should deal with are not likely to go away soon in the US. Fresh news from the ‘AfPak’ frontlines, such as the Raymond Davis affair, only further this. While Indian writing in English occupies its own stereotypical ‘saris and spices’ niche in the US, Pakistani writing thus far seems destined for the bombs and violence market.


review: A Pakistan you don’t see on TV
Published: Sunday, Apr 10, 2011, 0:00 IST | Updated: Saturday, Apr 9, 2011, 19:46 IST
By Samhita Arni | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

Book: The Life’s Too Short Literary Review 01: New Writing From Pakistan
Edited by Faiza S Khan
122 pages

International interest on Pakistani writing has come as mixed blessing,” comment the editors of the first issue of The Life’s Too Short Literary Review.“More people are inspired to write, but sadly a fair amount of them are inspired to write utter guff — to cart around the self-conscious burden of representing the mythical Real Pakistan.”

In a time when Pakistani writing is the rage, this anthology resists pandering to the stock image of Pakistan that proliferates in the media.Life’s Too Short presents a diverse, eclectic mix of ‘new writing from Pakistan’ — short stories, an excerpt, non-fiction, a photo essay and an extract from a graphic novel.

Not all of the stories are ‘about’ Pakistan: ‘Baby,’ a searing, painful account of a relationship, isn’t ‘Pakistani’ — the characters don’t have a discernible ethnic background and could be from anywhere.

One story in this collection, Ruth and Richard, strives to depict the difficulty of ‘representing the Real Pakistan’. Richard Mohammed, a failing Pakistani writer, stares at the TV screen at a cocktail party in New York — at “women in black shrouds shuffling through dusty streets under the gaze of rugged tribesman with rocket launchers slung over their shoulders like suit jackets.” These images portray a Pakistan that is as unreal as the idyllic, privileged Karachi of his childhood memories.

Of course, other stories — Bilal Tanveer’s ‘To Live’ and Azim Sheikh’s ‘Six-Fingered Man’ feature a Pakistan familiar from TV and news headlines. However, both stories, well-written and crafted, offer individualistic, fresh perspectives.

But the most provocative, startling story is the explicit sexual excerpt from Challawa. Penned by Urdu writer Humayun Iqbal and translated by Mohammed Hanif, this excerpt features the amorous adventures of a lesbian lady detective, Sabiho Bano. Set in the Pakistan of the ’60s, Challawa, a pulp novel serialised in an Urdu newspaper, had a large, mainstream audience. What’s even more remarkable, in a pulp tale, is the truly exquisite, skilled writing — featuring highbrow references to the classical Greek poet Sappho and subtle allusions to Nabokov.

Challawa is an exciting story — for it marries the quality of literary fiction with the detailed plots of pulp. Most importantly, this story presents a Pakistan remarkably different from what many would ever imagine — a Pakistan of amorous lesbian encounters and a liberal, risque and adventurous readership.

The Last Moghul Of Shalimar, a non-fiction piece, elaborates on a similar subversive theme. While discussing the love affair between the Sufi ascetic Shah Hussain and a Brahmin boy, the writer also describes a festival, reminiscent of Diwali, on the premises of the Sufi saint’s burial place: “The Hindu iconography in the dhamal — there’s even something close to fire worship — is testament to how, Sufism, the religion of the soil of this part of the world, still represents a challenge to the status quo.” In this piece, the writer brings a subversive, syncretic history to life and criticises the way this history is purposefully excluded and whitewashed in the construction of a larger, Islamic national narrative.

Although Life’s Too Short features some very good writing, some others fall short. ‘Not another story’, a Diaspora tale of the consequences of a still-born birth — has a distinctly amateurish, contrived feel. ‘Mir Sahib’s Hairdo’, a lovely concept, would have benefited from tighter editing. ‘Rabbit Rap’, an excerpt from Michelle and Musharraf Farooqui’s graphic novel, appears to be a political satire — mystifying to this reader. The photo essay ‘Sign Your Name Across My Heart’ would have also benefited from some context. And lastly, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Notes On The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a bit of an outlier — it doesn’t fit into an anthology featuring new writing.

Nonetheless, Life’s Too Short presents a collection of raw, fresh writing that challenges the way those outside of Pakistan have grown to think of the country in recent years.

Samhita Arni is the Bangalore-based author of The Mahabharata — A Child’s View




Sandwiches and tuitions

This Pakistani anthology presents lives concurrently private, steamy and violent, finds TRISHA GUPTA


Faiza Khan & Aysha Raja, Eds Hachette 124 pp; Rs. 395

THE LATEST edition of the prestigious Granta Magazine encourages readers to look to Pakistan for more than violence, religious extremism and abject desolation. It chooses to do this with a collection dominated by pieces about violence, religious extremism and abject desolation.” Thus began Faiza S Khan’s superbly caustic review of Granta 112: Pakistan, published in November 2010. Khan, with collaborator Aysha Raja, has since brought out her answer to Granta: The Life’s Too Short Literary Review 01. Published in Pakistan by Raja and Khan’s Siren Publications, the volume available from Hachette India (in “slightly altered form”, it says mysteriously) contains 14 contributions. The juiciest is Mohammad Hanif’s translation of an excerpt from Challawa, a serialised Urdu fiction featuring a lesbian detective called Sabiha Bano. Though barely four- and- a- half pages, it makes clear why Bano’s exploits were so popular in 1970s Pakistan (and frankly, why Jaipur Literature Festival organiser Namita Gokhale baulked at Khan reading it aloud at a festival gathering that included schoolchildren). Here is Bano eyeing the possibilities on a bus: “…the daughter — about 12 or 13 — was still too young for purdah. I looked at her small breasts and could feel the taste of guavas on my tongue, a taste I hate. I prefer oranges, fresh, round oranges.”

Beyond headlines Khan (right) and Raja

The rest of the volume, sadly, contains nothing half as steamy as Challawa. But there are many fine stories by talented new writers. Sadaf Halai’s marvellously understated Lucky People deftly evokes a milieu of hunter beef sandwiches and maths tuitions and its distance from the world of spinach quiche. A much grimmer urban world emerges from Sarwat Azeem’s tale of a doll’s wedding. Childhood and the loss of innocence are also the subject of Aziz A Sheikh’s consummate The Six- Fingered Man, set in a strife-torn but still magical Kashmir. Despite the editors’ understandable (and nearly successful) effort to avoid self-conscious takes on the ‘big issues’, violence hovers often in the background. In To Live, a couple on a romantic assignation is shaken up by a bomb blast, while in Madiha Sattar’sRuth and Richard (perhaps my favourite), an ageing Pakistan columnist watches another blast unfold on a Manhattan television screen. Even so, it can only be described as deeply ironic that a long New York Times piece about Khan’s discovery of Challawa and its publication in this book is filed not under Books, or even Travel, but in NYT’s ‘At War’ blog.

TWO SUGGESTIONS: Ahmad Rafay Alam’s The Last Moghul of Shalimar is a superb piece of writing, spare yet atmospheric, which makes one wish there was more non-fiction here. And could the next volume contain more translations?

Interview: Bilal Tanweer

Bilal Tanweer is our latest New Voice, with his story ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’, published yesterday. Here, Bilal tells Ollie Brock about about his book of connected stories, of which ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’ is one, and the importance of voice in his fiction.

OB: You’re both a writer and a translator. Which came first? Do they exercise completely different parts of your brain, or is it similar work?

BT: Fiction writing came first, although it came very late – during the sophomore year of my undergraduate studies. I started translating even later, when I wanted to win a translation competition during my MFA at Columbia. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it immensely and have been translating ever since. It also anchors me, keeps me thinking about words, writing and language.

For me, translating is very much like writing itself; and like every other translator, I also feel that literary translation is underrated and underappreciated (and underpaid) for the amount of imaginative and technical labour it requires. One has to make a lot of choices that are similar to writing fiction, and many that are specific to translation itself. On the whole, it could be as imaginative an enterprise as any other creative endeavour. William Weaver once used the metaphor of a performance for translation: you must act out the text in a different language. Ultimately, I feel every good translator is a writer first. Yes, translating can be tedious and oppressive if you don’t find some kind of personal affinity with the work you’re translating, or if you don’t believe in it. If you love the work, it’s like travelling to a new country with the person you love. At heart, I think, all good translators are like writers: they want to share something important, something urgent, something beautiful with the world.

The book I just finished translating (and sent out to a few publishers – fingers crossed!), a humorous novel from Urdu, Love in Chakiwara (and Other Such Adventures), I enjoyed translating immensely because I found a connection with the narrator’s voice – mischievous, oppressed, trying to show spine to somebody who is openly fleecing him but cannot do so because he also admires and hero-worships him. Great fun!

The story we’ve featured has a very distinctive style: a rough, brazen monologue from an angry, rather cruel narrator. What inspired it?

In my writing, the voice is the primary concern for me, and most of the time I construct everything else from it. My influences are mainly from Urdu poetry, and for this story, Karachi street language. The writer I go back to for voice is N. M. Rashed, one of the pioneers of modernist poetry and free verse in Urdu, and also among its finest practitioners. His poetry started making sense to me when I understood the voice. It also made me realize how important voice is for my own writing. I was also influenced a lot by Grace Paley’s stories. Goodbye and Good Luck is one of my favourites.

It’s interesting you consider that narrator to be ‘cruel’. I think it comes from the fact that he is vehemently a know-it-all guy, who is not prone to being surprised – at least he won’t admit to being surprised. So whatever he narrates, it will be with the intention to entertain, with the pretence that he knows and understands everything perfectly well. Perhaps the cruelty also comes from the fact that he’s ostensibly enjoying what he’s narrating. But this could simply be his way of telling the story. He might be performing for an audience who would not have it any other way.

The bomb-blast of the ending seems to deny all meaning to the encounter on the bus. Is this deliberate? Does it reflect something about life in Pakistan?

This story is part of a larger work. The bomb blast at the end ties it to the other stories in the same book, which are all about the same bomb blast. The book is 80 per cent done. It is deliberate, yes, because the book is trying to show a host of different characters and how they are affected by the blast.

I am not sure if it reflects anything about Pakistan except that there is an occasional bomb blast somewhere and people just factor that risk into their lives and go on with their business.

Our last issue’s theme was Pakistan, and it brought together some of the country’s finest novelists and non-fiction authors. Does it feel like a good time to be a Pakistani writer?

I do think that a sense of community is healthy in all circumstances. I also feel that all the Pakistani writers I’ve known (almost all of them!) are incredibly generous and supportive and helpful. I wrote my first story for Kamila Shamsie’s workshop and since then, she has been one of my key supporters and mentors. For the last two years or so, Musharraf Ali Farooqi has been unbelievably kind and helpful, especially with the translations but also with just about everything else.

Is it a good time? It certainly feels good to know that if you write something worthwhile, there is an audience for it, although I am not sure how much of that applies to short stories because agents and publishers tend to gravitate towards novels. The international audience – I am told repeatedly, and by reliable sources – has no appetite for Pakistani or South Asian short stories.

Tell us a little about what you’re working on now.

I finished the translation of Love in Chakiwara last month, a humorous Urdu novel considered to be one of the milestones of Urdu humorous fiction. Now I am writing the final two chapters of my Karachi book, of which ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’, is the opening chapter. Another chapter appeared in The Life’s Too Short Literary Review last year. ■

Read ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’ here, or visit our New Voices section for a full list of stories and interviews.