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