How literary times change for Pakistan
By Razeshta Sethna
Saturday, 23 Oct, 2010

KARACHI: In the past decade or so, Pakistani writers and writing coming out of the region is not only a celebration of immense talent but has been further solidified by the socio-political milieu that makes this country the one big story. Want the perfect scoop, better still a lucrative book deal? Come to Pakistan as a reporter is what foreign correspondents are telling these days: the story is right here. It’s the story of war, violence, terror but not without hope and without resilience of a kind that only Pakistanis can tell you about. At such a time when the country’s identity is not only complex but mangled, a well-timed issue of Granta devoted to literature, reportage and artworks from Pakistan appreciates the vibrant though diverse creative forces within society.

Granta 112:Pakistan was celebrated in Karachi at an event on Friday evening, organised by the British Council, only a month after its official launch in London at Asia House. Granta’s editor John Freeman was fired with some rather half-intelligent questions (that were answered with wit and honesty) as were the other panellists for the evening – Declan Walsh, reporter with The Guardian in Pakistan, Faiza Sultan Khan, editor of The Life’s Too Short literary journal, Mohammad Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, and Murtaza Razvi, an editor and writer with Dawn – all of whom agreed that many interesting writers come from South Asia and that the new clichés in fiction today are terrorism and beheadings. When asked why Pakistani writing was the focus for this issue, Freeman explained it was an idea that he was given by Australian novelist Peter Carey about a year and a half ago when he was in New York.

Granta’s autumn collection, with an exceptionally dazzling cover depicting work by truck artist Islam Gull, represents brutal forms of violence, militancy, and how reaction to the west has shred the internal fabric of Pakistani society, but with brilliant writing that dares to find traces of love, humanity and passion: all to tell the reader that’s a less visible road travelled but you only need to look for that portion of real Pakistan. It’s been almost impossible in the last few years to have picked up a newspaper and not read about Pakistan’s failings as a nation state, its war with fundamentalists, its internal corruption and its obsession with the US, all violent news stories. It may be a Pakistan moment as many writers claim and their stories are excruciating works of fiction cushioned in reality. Some stories are direct reminders of distorted historical legacy and conflict: Intizar Hussain’s “The House of the Gallows” portrays Zia-ul-Haq as a hypocritical dictator who turned the 1980s for most Pakistanis into a nightmare of censorship rules (“Please don’t read any poem that refers to liquor”).

Kashmiri author Basharat Peer’s “Forever War” is when he comes home to Srinagar — “a medieval city dying in a modern war” — and teenagers are hurling stones on city streets inspired by a Palestinian style stone-throwing intifada. Declan Walsh’s reportage (an excerpt from his forthcoming Inshallah Pakistan to be published early next year) takes us on a fractured journey with a flamboyant, multi-lingual, Pashtun politician from Lakki Marwat, a hub for suicide attackers in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; lending an informed, layered context to the north’s “roasting hospitality, smouldering pride and cold and clinical revenge.”

Granta is indeed a window to a troubled world as Freeman says, but not without stories of love. The two most heart-wrenching stories are that of Leila unable to bear sons in Nadeem Aslam’s novella “Leila in the Wilderness,” and Gul Bibi in Jamil Ahmad’s “The Sins of the Mother,” whose short but sad spell of domestic happiness with her lover is described with endearing engagement, as she lives in the knowledge that her tribal kinsmen, whose code of honour she has defied, will eventually kill her. Seventy-nine-year-old ex-civil servant Ahmad was discovered by editor/journalist Faiza Sultan Khan and has never been published before but now has a book deal to his name.

In the book, Hari Kunzru in his introduction to the Green Cardamom art project says the question of Pakistani identity now has geopolitical significance. Pakistan today is about seeking balance between war and peace; extremism and tolerance; love and hate. Rather like Ayesha Jatoi, the artist in her quest to find answers settles her washing to dry on a publicly-installed decommissioned aircraft, to protest and subvert. As Freeman reminded on Friday evening he published writing that is beautiful and if it’s beautiful, then it’s true. Almost all stories come back to family and love, he explained.

Granta’s collection delves into some of the pressing issues of our time, making it a must-read book this season.