November 2010

November 24, 2010, 12:15 PM
Risqué Writing in Pakistan

KARACHI, Pakistan — Sabiho Bano, a wealthy Pakistani socialite with a penchant for martial arts, crawls out of her Mercedes and hops onto a crummy public bus picking up schoolgirls across this sprawl of a city.

Bano, 35, is not a social worker, but an aggressive lesbian about to pounce on the “sumptuous spread” of innocent lower-class schoolgirls. Her tools of seduction are simple enough: beauty, money and clout. Still, she says frankly, “it’s hard to pick just one.”

On this day, her pick is a teenager with a complexion resembling “a white flower smudged with saffron.” Bano woos the girl back to her mansion, where they engage in two taboos in Islamic Pakistan: a shot of brandy and gay sex.

Bano’s woman hunts are the stuff of Urdu fiction — fiction once shockingly popular in mainstream Pakistan, and eventually banned. Stories like the one about Bano were silently collecting dust until earlier this year, when a vivacious British-born Pakistani, Faiza S. Khan, stumbled upon them in disbelief.

Driven by curiosity, Ms. Khan, 35, tracked down the author, an elderly man who now lives in poverty, and discovered that Bano’s story was part of several erotic Urdu fiction serials that curiously thrived in the 1970s. The Reader’s Digest-like journals seduced readers from all social classes until the journals were banned under the American-backed Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Now, for the first time, Ms. Khan has made this little-known literary anomaly available in English, as an excerpt in a literary journal she and her co-publisher Aysha Raja produced in August called The Life’s Too Short Literary Review.

The New York Times
Mohammed Hanif, the author of “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” translated the story, and the British Council, a cultural organization, helped finance the publication.

Ms. Khan said her next step is to translate the entirety of “Challawa” — the three-inch thick book that comprises the Bano journal — and to publish an abridged English-language version.

In the past few years, the Western media has become enthralled with a so-called literary boom in Pakistan, often citing writers like Mr. Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin, who wrote a critically acclaimed short-story collection called “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.” The boom is often explained as the result of Pakistanis going abroad, acquiring liberal values and returning to disseminate them. But “Challawa” is evidence that such writing is hardly a new phenomenon in Pakistan.

“There’s always been a perfectly robust market for risqué topics and frank, candid discussions of sexuality,” said Ms. Khan. “The notion that Pakistan is full of repressed religious lunatics and that four years ago someone educated abroad blew open the scene is wrong. People in this society have offered glimpses for 40 years, but it’s just been in their own language.”

Today’s prominent Urdu writers say erotic literature, like many social freedoms, has disappeared here, and Ms. Khan agrees. They blame an increasingly conservative country in which protests and target killings occur frequently. Most writers, they say, aren’t willing to take the risks.

Today’s sexual discourse is limited to projects like Chay Magazine, an fringe alternative online English-language magazine that aims to counter the silence around sex that is “oppressive on all of us, irrespective of gender,” and that leads, “at the very least, to unhappiness in our daily lives.”

But the success of erotic fiction only three decades ago is a lesson from another Pakistan. Bano’s creator, Humayun Iqbal, 70, says the serial “Challawa” lasted three years. The character was so popular and so public, he said, that the publishing house received thousands of adoring letters from 16-year-old girls “who had that yearning,” and from wealthy male banking executives. Many were convinced that Bano was real, and some demanded to meet her.

“She was a very appealing character for men,” Mr. Iqbal told me recently, with a wry smile.

In some respects, he said, the demise of his career — from a free-spirited writer to a scribe who is still scarred by censorship – has mimicked that of his country, which he “doesn’t feel like living in anymore.” He explained his downfall in his small house in a once-elite Karachi neighborhood that is now victimized by sectarian killings and violent land grabs.

In 1975, Mr. Iqbal enjoyed secret stardom. No one, not even his wife, knew that he was churning out 30 pages a month about Bano’s exploits in Alif Laila (A Thousand Nights), a monthly journal.

After Mr. Iqbal’s story was published, the journal’s circulation went from 5,000 to 40,000. Another journal with more vulgar, straight erotica called Sabra claimed about 100,000 readers.

Mr. Iqbal said intimidation was infrequent, and often more humorous than dangerous. One day, for example, an angry man with a large beard stormed into his publishing office to complain about the vulgarity of “Challawa.” Mr. Iqbal apologized, and said it was a mistake limited to the most recent issue.

When the man countered that the previous issue was also vulgar, Mr. Iqbal replied, “O.K., sorry, maybe just the last two issues.”

But the man wouldn’t budge. “No, no! It’s been happening constantly.”

Mr. Iqbal turned to the man and rhetorically asked, “This means you’ve been reading every single episode?”

“Challawa” came to a sudden end in 1975, when a brain hemorrhage forced Mr. Iqbal to stop writing. When he recovered in the 1980s, he tried to revive a similar journal, but General Zia was now in power, and was brandishing Islamic law to crack down on social freedoms.

“So many times I was shut down,” said Mr. Iqbal. He said government officers told him to remove the word “barefoot” from a description of a woman.

He describes his writing as sophisticated erotica, not vulgar, a distinction he acknowledges was too nuanced for “politicians who don’t care about these things” and for the nation’s religious groups, which increasingly use violence as a form of moral condemnation.

These political frustrations came across in Bano’s tantalizing woman hunts, including the bus journey:

“Now, when a 14-year-old girl reminds you of overripe fruit you know society has failed in its basic civic duties. Puberty before its time has its causes in specific societal evils, but if I start lecturing you on the flaws of our society, I’ll never get round to my own story.”
To date, Mr. Iqbal has written 150 novels and more than 300 short stories, mostly suspense and detective novels. But he cannot publish what he wants to, and feels more like a robotic tradesman than a creative spirit.

“I’m a machine, not a writer,” he said, looking down. “Unfortunately I’m an Urdu writer. If I wrote in English, I’d be a lord by now.

“Whatever has happened to this country has also happened to me. The country has become too expensive. Poets are not being born. Thinkers are not being born. If I write Sabiho Bano’s story again, she will kill the landlords for completely destroying the country. Or maybe she could have a daughter now. But she could never have a daughter.”


Granta editor: ‘no expectations’ with Pakistan issue

Ben East

Last Updated: Oct 20, 2010


When John Freeman, the editor of the well-regarded British literary quarterly Granta, planned a themed issue on Pakistan, he did so without any expectations as to what the finished product would contain.

“I have to say, we didn’t give briefs to the contributors or even have any preconceived notions of what we wanted written,” he explains. “That would have heightened the likelihood that we would have created an issue about how the West sees Pakistan, rather than what stories the best Pakistani writers – and people who write about Pakistan – want to tell.”

But in opening the doors to many generations of Pakistani writers and artists, what Freeman got back cut through much media sensationalism and provided a real insight into the country, through storytelling, reportage, poetry and art.

Freeman is, above all, keen to stress that Pakistan was not chosen as a theme because it is so patently a newsworthy topic. The commissioning process – Freeman says he had always hoped the big hitters such as Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and the Pulitzer finalist Daniyal Mueenuddin would contribute, and they have – was separate from any particular event. In fact, the whole issue was born out of a suggestion from the Granta contributing editor Peter Carey that the quality of work coming from Pakistan deserved the kind of attention that led to the publication of Granta: India! in 1997.

Still, when Freeman says “there’s just a great collision at the moment between this evidently interesting time for Pakistan and the exciting new work coming from the country”, he cannot help but implicitly refer to the terrorism, repression and violence that seems – rightly or wrongly – to characterise daily life. It’s there in print, too: Mohsin Hamid, the author of the Booker-shortlisted The Reluctant Fundamentalist, contributes the stridently visceral A Beheading. The clue is in the title. Mohammed Hanif shot to fame with the satirical A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, and his love story, Butt and Bhatti, is a tale of unrequited love that has horrific consequences. And Declan Walsh’s revealing reportage on the Taliban’s activities in the north of the country is depressing, but also required reading for anyone who cares about life beyond his or her own four walls.


Along with the short stories and essays that have always been Granta‘s stock-in-trade since the first issue in 1979, there have always been diversions into art, photography and photojournalism. Freeman thinks that the art in Granta112: Pakistan is “as exciting as the prose” and while it won’t get the same attention, he may have a point. One image, in particular, is essentially a graphic representation of the whole issue. In Ayesha Jatoi’s Clothesline, a woman drapes her red washing over a decommissioned fighter plane to dry. If this is a snapshot of Pakistan, then, Jatoi seems to suggest, terrorism, war and violence are a part of everyday life. Does Freeman agree that there is a slightly bleak side to the issue?

“Well, this is honestly an attempt to celebrate something Pakistan can rightly be proud of,” he argues. “There are many conflict-ridden parts of the world, but you’d be hard pressed to find an explosion of talent like there is coming from Pakistan.”

That meant Freeman was keen to make sure he didn’t just cherry-pick the Pakistani writers who already had international profiles. Intizar Hussain came to Freeman via Basharat Peer, whose own contribution to Granta 112: Pakistan is a beautiful yet devastating account of his return to an increasingly militant Kashmir. Peer was so keen to highlight Hussain’s work outside Pakistan, he translated it himself for this issue. The wry humour that runs through Hussain’s story of the contradictions in Pakistani life – “What an era General Zia has brought to Pakistan! The echoes of prayer and the roar of public hangings” – prove that he was right to do so, and Freeman hopes such exposure will lead to more of the author’s work being translated.



Hussain does at least have some prominence in Pakistan; he has published six collections of short stories and four novels in Urdu. But Granta dug deep to find brand-new writers too, such as the hitherto unknown Jamil Ahmad.

“I wanted our issue to introduce a writer, but I never would have imagined it’d be a 79-year-old retired career civil servant from Islamabad,” Freeman laughs when I ask him about Ahmad, whose first novel, The Wandering Falcon, is out next year. “It was a good day when we got his story. But then, we also looked at a lot of short stories submitted to a prize in Pakistan called Life’s Too Short, and they were all very good. Some nearly made it into the issue. I think prizes like that, and the sense that Pakistani literature is as important to the fate of the country as its laws, will go a long way to encouraging more writing. In years to come I suspect we’ll hear a lot more from every writer on this issue.”

Ahmad’s heartbreaking contribution is the very last in Granta 112: Pakistan. A meditation on love and shocking violence, it seems to sum up the collection. So I wonder what Freeman himself learnt from editing this collection?

“Well, it’s sharpened my sense that the way Pakistan is today has as much to do with its role in proxy wars as it does with the intentions of founding fathers like Muhammad Ali Jinnah,” he says. “His feelings about whether it was to be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state were, as it’s pointed out in the issue, equivocal. But we basically handed this project over to the writers. And I think writers by nature expand and explode anxieties that are felt in the place they call home.

“Look, we definitely didn’t want to make an issue that was all about terrorism and violence. And I genuinely think there’s hope in each one of these pieces, but it’s hard-won and tentative, as is the best kind of hope. Otherwise it’s simply sentimental.”

Granta 112: Pakistan is available to order now. You can also read Mohsin Hamid and Basharat Peer’s contributions online at


News on Sunday – Special Report

Writings on the wall

What do the three winners of Life’s Too Short competition have to say…

By Ammara Ahmad

“…it takes a certain amount of carelessness” sadaf halai masters in creative writing from boston university, she has also taught the same at iba, indus valley and other institutions in karachi

What does it take to become a good short story writer?

I think it takes a certain amount of carelessness. If you worry too much about what kind of story you want to write, the plot, the pace, your audience in general etc, it will make things really hard for you.

What kind of short stories do you like?

Well, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I like stories that are moving and strike a chord somewhere. If the story appears to be fabricated, if the writer has ticked off all the bosses, the plot is paced in a certain way, if it pays too much attention to the craft and not the art, the human element is left behind. You are left with a beautiful skeleton but it is arguable if there is any meat on the bones.

Was the Creative Writing course of much use?

Definitely, but you can do without it also. I think people who have been to Creative Writing workshops may not end up writing because they don’t have the discipline to keep writing once they enter the real world. You have jobs, children and other time constraints.

Which modern short story writer has inspired you?

Alice Munroe, especially her earlier stories. There is a collection called Dance of the Happy Shades that inspired me in particular.

What do you think of the Life’s Too Short competition?

I think it is incredible. Most of us couldn’t have done it, it takes a certain kind of drive to make such things happen because there are so many hurdles. You have financial and other issues. In our society, it’s hard to find funding for art. It will absolutely inspire new talent.

Your descriptions are quite impressive. Are they based on your observations or are pure imaginings?

Some of it, not all, has been based on my observation. Some of the details have stayed with me that I remembered growing up in Karachi. People in urban settings who have no one to cook for them often carry those Styrofoam boxes.

Are your characters based on real life?

No. (laughs). I know a lot of people who are similar to these characters but I haven’t made a conscious effort to base them on real people.

There is a stark class difference between your characters Asma and Nadia. Is that why their take on motherhood should be different?

There are only certain women in our society who can say in a public space that they don’t want to have children. It’s not a statement just anyone would give.

Is this story linked with your own motherhood experience?

I was expecting my daughter when I wrote the story and was on bed rest. It just filtered through.

islamabad-based doctor; he has been

educated in pakistan and middle east

Have you taken a professional course for Creative Writing?

No, I haven’t and I don’t intend to.

Why, you don’t think such courses are effective?

I don’t know. I haven’t taken one, so I can’t comment.

What qualities does a good short story have?

It should be a story, to begin with. Besides, it should be engaging. I personally look for balance in form and style.

Which Pakistani writers do you like?

To be honest, all the three judges of this contest — Kamila Shamsie, to begin with, because she started earlier; Daniyal Mueenuddin and Muhammad Hanif.

What do you find most appealing about Daniyal Mueenuddin?

There’s something about his characters that makes you want to read and feel for them. Daniyal reminds me of an author, Alice Munroe. Here, I am talking as a reader.

What do you think of the Life’s Too Short competition?

It is a very good venture. Other than me, very nice people shall come up. (laughs)

What gave you the idea for The Six Fingered Man?

I don’t remember. It was written almost ten years ago. I was visiting some place or reading something, I don’t remember what it was.

Is it based on a real-life character? Does the shrine Mai Kabootri exist?

No. But something similar to Mai Kabootri does exist.

bachelor in law, freelance associate

producer, currently producing a short film


How did you get the idea for the story, ……?

It was a combination of different points of inspiration.

Have you got any professional training in Creative Writing?

I attended a small-time workshop, but never trained. Therefore, I can’t comment. But I am sure it helps. Though you can write without training, too. I don’t feel limited in any way.

What do you think about the Life’s Too Short competition?

It’s a great forum and these guys have worked hard. It’s very useful for young authors.

Which Pakistani authors do you admire?

I like Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Zulfiqar Ghose’s Murder of Aziz Khan.



News on Sunday – Special Report


short story of fiction

Has the boom merely taken place in the minds of local and foreign journalists?


By Huma Imtiaz

The boom or “renaissance” in Pakistan’s English literary scene is becoming a cliché that needs to be laid to rest. Had there been a boom, one would not have to keep referring to the usual suspects — Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam — to ask what sparked the world’s focus on Pakistan or why there is not one reputable international publishing house in Pakistan or a sustained stream of novels by new authors. Or, why it takes a privately-run initiative like the Life’s Too Short short story prize for one to see new writers emerge.

The reasons for this are numerous: the lack of state patronage of the simple habit of reading, the dismal state of the education system, or the lack of bookstores to provide cheap, quality publications. It took the Ministry of Education-run National Book Foundation 63 years to organise a National Book Day and have unexpected celebrities like Reema endorse reading.

So, has the boom merely taken place in the minds of local and foreign journalists? According to Kamila Shamsie, the interest began in India, sparked by William Dalrymple’s article “Moonlight’s Children” about Pakistani authors writing in English, followed by a dozen or so more. It was boosted, she tells TNS, by the presence of Nadeem Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mohammad Hanif at the 2009 Jaipur Literature Festival. “Mohsin had just been on the Booker shortlist, and my novel Burnt Shadows was weeks away from being published. So, a number of journalists saw a story,” she adds.

Mohammed Hanif’s response is a less diplomatic version of Kamila’s. He writes, “This is the sixty-third time I have been asked this question in 2010. I think it’s all because of desperate features editors who don’t really have imagination/budgets to commission proper stories. It works like this: First, we do a story on a writer/book, then after a couple of media outlets have done the same story, we do the ‘writers getting attention’ story and, obviously, that will lead to the story that asks ‘why writers are getting attention’.”

Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose poem “Trying Tripe” was recently published in the Granta Pakistan issue, nearly two years after his stellar debut collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is exasperated and takes to sarcasm: “I’m sure my fellow Pakistani writers will agree, this is due to the fact that we’ve been producing world-shatteringly splendid work. I suspect that in future times, ‘in the fullness of time’, as they say in bad movies, historians will speak of Pakistan in the naughts and tens (2000 to 2019) in the same hushed and respectful tones as they speak, for example, of fifteenth century Florence. A renaissance, in short. The only question is, who will play the part of the Medici? There are, as you know, several contenders.”

Shamsie adds, “It really is far too early to talk about sustained interest — three years is not sustained. 30 years, that’s sustained.”

Another way of getting a wider range of voices across into the international market is through translation, with recent efforts being Musharraf Ali Farooqui’s translations of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba. Another example is Bilal Tanweer’s translation of Ibn-e-Safi’s detective Imran series, The House of Fear, which went largely unnoticed thanks to the lack of PR by its publisher Random House India.

“Whichever writer would not want his work to be translated?” asks noted writer and critic Intezar Hussain, talking to TNS. “This is part of the adab (literature). My work has been translated into Hindi, Marathi and other languages, and there is nothing wrong about it.”

Hussain’s essay, titled “The House by the Gallows”, translated by writer Basharat Peer in Granta’s Pakistan issue, was very well received by reviewers. And, while all the authors interviewed rubbished the notion that they had been pressured to ‘exoticise’ their work, perhaps the fault lies in the hands of those who market the books and commission work from Pakistan. Talking about the balance between writing about issues in Pakistan and falling into “representational traps”, John Freeman, editor of Granta, said in an interview to a local daily: “It’s a catch 22 for many of them because it is in some ways what makes them marketable. I think they write about it because they are deeply concerned, but to be marketed based on something that’s very close to your heart and very serious raises all sorts of questions.”

Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke, doesn’t find the issue of representation particularly problematic: “Hanif writes about politics, there are the deep magical stories of Nadeem Aslam, the writing is very diverse, which refutes the notion that we’re writing for the West.”

Hamid adds that since his move back to Pakistan, he has almost always turned down offers to write for foreign publications. “I’m a secular Pakistani, I love living here, and this has nothing to do with being a nationalistic person, but I don’t want to be serving up the ‘Here is Pakistan’ thing all the time.”

But if one really wants Pakistan-produced fiction to be treated differently, it will require a push from agents, publicists and dedicated publishing houses within Pakistan to treat books with the marketing angles they deserve, not something that fits into Western stereotypes. Sadly, both are missing in Pakistan, something that the writers too feel the absence of.

“It’s frustrating not to have at least a couple of publishing houses, committed to Anglophone fiction, and with effective editorial, marketing and distribution systems present in Pakistan,” says Shamsie. “They don’t have to be international. If you look at India, Penguin India is the only international house that was there for a long term. But you had a series of good independent houses such as Kali, Rupa and Roli who provided a home for many good writers. It’s only in the last few years that the big international houses have made a major push into India — this is after three decades of Indian writers being ‘big news’ in English-language publishing, and I suspect it’s the size of India’s consumer population rather than just the breadth and depth of its Anglophone writing which has caused the big international publishing push into India. Let’s face it, the number of Anglophone fiction readers in Pakistan is probably not very commercially enticing.”

Mohsin Hamid is keen to lure international publishing houses into Pakistan. “I want them to establish a publishing operation in Pakistan. So many of our writers get published first in India. We have a surprising number of readers which is growing, even though it is only limited to those who are reading English fiction. I’m not doing this for myself, but for the other Pakistani writers out there.”

Aysha Raja, a relatively new publisher and bookseller, regards Pakistan as a virgin territory: “Although it is safe to assume that the readership in Pakistan is relatively small, there is room for significant growth. One has to consider that in this day and age there are various devices and pastimes competing for a consumer’s attention. To neglect marketing books under the assumption that people will buy and read out by force of habit is absurd. Even more so when you consider that reading has not been inculcated as a noble pursuit amongst our population. Numbers are destined to fall further and good marketing by a publisher can only do so much.

“We may get giddy with excitement when a handful of Pakistani authors gain global recognition, and harp on about a literary renaissance, but without a concerted push towards creating readers this success will register as a mere blip on the global literary landscape,” she adds.

“To assume that we have writers before readers is putting the cart before the horse, although a writer’s success may inspire one to write, how well one writes will depend on how well one reads. I’m glad to see that some institutions have caught on to this. At LUMS, Bilal Tanweer, a creative writing lecturer, begins his course with a mandatory class called the ‘Mechanics of Fiction’ — a reading course for writers. I don’t think inculcating reading as a habit is a mammoth task. My experience as a bookseller has taught me that there is a great deal of intellectual curiosity in Pakistan. You have a receptive audience that needs to be stimulated with ideas and concepts and some guidance.”

However, this is just the starting point. A few novels and a handful of nominations is indeed commendable when one looks at the way literature and writers have been treated in Pakistan, but for the industry to grow and for more work to be produced, there must be a conscious effort from both the private and the public sector to push for the creation of a proper arts and culture sector which can lead to a vibrant literary scene.

Faiza S Khan, critic, publisher, sometime agent and editor-in-chief of the Life’s Too Short Literary Review, Pakistan’s first English language literary journal which has attracted international attention, says: “For me Pakistani literature is an attractive bandwagon to throw oneself upon. Whether the reasons for the popularity of Pakistani writing are less than appealing, the fact that one’s voice now holds greater value is a boon all the same. Perhaps one can ride the rumour of a literary boom into something more tangible.”


The writer is a Pakistan-based journalist and can be reached at