Pakistani pulp fiction ‘too hot’ for Indians

  • Amanda Hodge, South Asia correspondent
  • From:The Australian
  • January 26, 2011

FAIZA Khan knew she might encounter trouble when she published the first English translation of one of Pakistan’s best-selling and most salacious pulp fiction serial novels, Challawa.

The editor of the recently published Life’s Too Short literary review of new Pakistani writing just didn’t expect to find it at the wall-to-wall luvvy weekend that is India’s annual Jaipur Literary Festival.

The adventures of a lesbian detective kept millions of Pakistanis enthralled for eight years. In weekly instalments, its male writer brought to life in high Urdu and Farsi the voracious Bano, a wealthy Karachi-ite who solved crimes and trawled school buses for schoolgirls.

In Pakistan, only the repressive 1980s regime of Zia-ul-Haq could end Challawa’s reign as king of the Penny Dreadfuls – though back copies can again be found in thousands of Urdu book stalls across the nation.

On Monday, however, it was the festival’s co-director, Namita Gokhale, who deemed Challawa too hot to read aloud, insisting the decision was not censorship but merely accounting for the “sensitivities of the audience”, which included teenaged students.

The English extract from the Challawa serial – which remains a household name in Pakistan, albeit one mentioned in abashed tones – is the first glimpse into the lusty world of Pakistani pulp fiction.

In the expurgated passages Khan was to read this week, Bano scans for prey on a schoolbus before settling on a fresh-faced 15-year-old “whose breasts met my preference of size and shape”.

“I casually put my hand on her thigh and asked; ‘Where do you live, baby?’ ”

“Nasirabad,” she responded shyly.

“I liked her shyness. Bold and extroverted girls are usually more delicious in bed, but it’s difficult to get them there. The shy ones are easy to seduce.” And on it goes.

Khan, a London-born and educated Pakistani who doesn’t read Urdu and relied on friends to translate, says she was surprised at being “unexpectedly censored” at the Jaipur festival, but also “excited that literature from Pakistan is too racy to discuss”.

While Challawa strays from the Life’s Too Short anthology’s basic new writing criteria, it was included “to make the point that the West did not invent sex”.

“It wasn’t brought to Pakistan by a couple of authors who studied abroad,” she says. “This is what the gentleman who makes my tea will be reading. It sells more than anything else.”

Khan is delighted by the “boom” in interest in Pakistan’s writers – on Sunday, HM Naqvi took out this year’s South Asian Literature Prize for his debut novel, Homeboy. But she is irritated at the way Western critics review Pakistani literature.

“It’s seen as a matter of cultural anthropological interest, like, this is a window into a troubled country. Please don’t be so f . . king patronising. Either it’s good writing or it’s not.”

But she doesn’t deny the relatively explicit nature of Pakistan’s vast canon of pulp fiction sits uncomfortably with the country’s lurch towards extreme Islamic conservatism.

It’s one of the many contradictions of Pakistani culture that such material can be openly sold at any bazaar while traditional dancers and singers face Taliban threats for offending Islam.

“It’s so arbitrary what people take immense umbrage to. In Pakistan this is what people are likely to read and people aren’t scandalised by it,” says Khan.

“But I suspect if it was written in English it would generate far greater fuss.”