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.”



Pakistan pulp reading censored at Jaipur Lit Fest

Updated Jan 25, 2011 at 02:36pm IST

Jaipur: It started with a bang with sexually explosive content being discussed in a matter of fact way, but enter a few teenagers clad in school uniforms at the ‘pulp’ session of the Jaipur Literature Festival Monday, and the content was “suitably moderated in accordance with the sensibilities of the audience”.


The session on day four at the informal Baithak Hall saw Pritham Chakravarthy, who has translated the popular Tamil pulp fiction anthologies, and Karachi-based columnist Faiza S. Khan in conversation with writer-publisher Namita Gokhale.


Chakravarthy, bustling with restless energy, read out what she called a “dirty” passage from the book translated from Rajesh Kumar’s works about a father trying to find a suitable match for his daughter as she has “a big one”.




Pakistan pulp reading censored at Jaipur Lit Fest


Her self-celebratory way of reading raised many a eyebrows and left many red-faced. Gokhale, who was visibly taken by surprise, called it quite “shocking and sloppy”. Then came the turn of Khan to read. But it was not to be, as a few school students entered and Gokhale dropped in a line about not scandalising them.


Khan, who has translated Urdu writer Humayun Iqbal’s “Challawa”, a serial novel from the 1970s, warned that the passage she was going to read might be a “rude awakening” for the students.


On a cue, Gokhale took a look at the passage and gave a disapproving look. On this, Khan again flipped through the pages in her pursuit to find a suitable one. The whole process was repeated with Gokhale still looking unconvinced. All this went on even as the audience kept laughing and the kids looking perplexed.


“Wow…I’m so excited to find that literature from Pakistan is so racy…I am so thrilled,” Khan said to a roaring audience.


“This is the kind of stuff what sells the most in Pakistan. People there really like reading it and are not scandalized about it.”


In the end, she did read out a passage which was the “least offensive” one.


Books in 2011 – from the new Alan Hollinghurst to David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King

There’s little by way of ex-prime ministers’ memoirs, but the year ahead offers some fiction big-hitters and some impressive debuts

Anne EnrightAnne Enright’s first novel since her Booker prize-winning The Gathering is out in April, entitled The Forgotten Waltz. Photograph: Murdo MacleodBy far the two most talked-about (if not most read) books published in the past 12 months have been Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey and Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. It is tempting, therefore, to ask what their equivalents are likely to be in the coming year. The good news is that, as far as I can tell, they won’t have any equivalents. If 2010 was, in literary terms, a year of disproportionate attention lavished on a few high-profile titles, 2011 looks set to be one in which the spoils of praise and publicity are more evenly divided.

It helps, of course, that no ex-prime ministers (or indeed ex-presidents) will be publishing their memoirs, although political anoraks will still have much to get them going, from volume two of Alastair Campbell‘s diaries,Power and the People (Hutchinson, January), to Sarah Brown‘sBehind the Black Door (Ebury, March), her account of life at No 10, which will certainly be more revealing about what wielding power is like than her husband’s recent Beyond the Crash. Another politics title to look out for is Medhi Hasan and James Macintyre’s Ed Miliband and the Remaking of the Labour Party, a July offering from the innovative politics publisher Biteback.

Those who like their reading to track the news cycle closely will also find much to divert them in Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website (Cape, February), by Assange’s former number two, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. It’s a book that is likely to irritate Domscheit-Berg’s former boss, scooping as it does his own recently signed (and currently untitled) memoir, which Canongate expects to publish later in the year.

A broader, more reflective take on the recent past will be provided early in 2011 by two hard-hitting works of current affairs: Eric Hobsbawm’sHow to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (Little, Brown, January), about the thinker’s ongoing relevance to the modern world, and Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly – And the Stark Choices Ahead (Allen Lane, January), a critique of postwar western economic policy by the well-respected author of 2009’s Dead Aid. In history and biography, 2011’s offerings look slightly less compelling, aside from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, January) and Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven on Earth: A History of Sharia Law (Bodley Head, June). In October, the biographer Claire Tomalin publishes her eagerly awaited life of Dickens (Viking).

One non-genre fiction that is thriving is the memoir, and the first few months of 2011 sees a glut of them, many with a depressing theme: stand-outs include Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (Granta, February), about the author’s struggle with degenerative disease, andJoyce Carol Oates‘s A Widow’s Story (Fourth Estate, March), about her battle to survive her husband’s unexpected death. Another leading American novelist, Annie Proulx, is also branching out into the personal form, with Bird Cloud (Fourth Estate, February), an account of building a new home on a 640-acre plot of Wyoming prairie.

For some reason, books about raising children are much to the fore in coming months. Affluenza author Oliver James returns with How Not to F*** Them Up (Ebury, June), about bringing up under-threes, while in the memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Bloomsbury, February), Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, outlines the superiority of Chinese child-rearing methods. Joining them in this contentious terrain is Rebecca Asher’s polemic Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality (Harvill Secker, April), calling for a revolution in child-rearing based on greater equality for mothers.

Moving to fiction, the first few months of the year are chiefly notable for some impressive debuts. In January, Sunjeev Sahota’s Ours Are the Streets (Picador) audaciously attempts to make us feel sympathy for a British suicide bomber, while AD Miller’s highly accomplished thrillerSnowdrops (Atlantic) relates the misfortunes of a British lawyer in contemporary Moscow. Another January debut, Scissors, Paper, Stone(Bloomsbury), by Observer journalist Elizabeth Day, deftly unpicks a daughter’s troubled relationship with her mother after her father has lapsed into a coma. In February, Tristran Garcia’s Hate: A Romance(Faber) – a novel that took France by storm – chronicles friendship and death in 1980s Paris, while Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator (Viking) is a heartbreaking portrayal of war-torn Kashmir in the 90s. In March, Leo Benedictus’s The Afterparty (Cape) – touted as a “new kind of novel” – offers an ingenious postmodern take on contemporary celebrity culture. Surely the year’s unlikeliest debut, though, will be Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton), a collection of stories set in Pakistan’s northwest frontier by a 77-year-old Pakistani ex-government official.

As the year moves forward, there will be a greater number of works by established authors. In April David Lodge brings out A Man of Parts(Harvill Secker), a fictional account of the life of HG Wells, and Esther Freud skewers the world of acting in Lucky Break (Bloomsbury). Edward St Aubyn returns in May with At Last (Picador), the final instalment of his exquisite Patrick Melrose series, while Anne Enright publishes The Forgotten Waltz, a story of remembered love set in contemporary Dublin, her first novel since her Booker prize-winning The Gathering. In June, the highly talented Ross Raisin brings out his second novel,Waterline (Viking), and there’s also a return for Ali Smith, with the eccentrically titled There but for the (Hamish Hamilton).

But two novels stand out, for very different reasons, as particularly momentous. In April, David Foster Wallace‘s unfinished work The Pale King (Hamish Hamilton) finally hits the shelves, more than two years after his death. The story of life in a tax office, it promises to be yet another reminder from this remarkable writer of how wide the possibilities of fiction remain. And then in July, Alan Hollinghurst publishes The Stranger’s Child (Picador), his first novel since his Booker-winning The Line of Beauty (2004). An epic story of two families and two houses spanning the entire 20th century, it promises to enhance its author’s claim to the title of best British novelist working at the moment.


DECEMBER 24, 2010

Stories We Tell

Hasan Altaf

Reading about Pakistan has become, for me, a fraught experience. Every time I see the country mentioned in a headline, my first reaction – the news or analysis being so unending, and so uniformly disheartening – is to hold my breath. I don’t know how other people interpret our current ticking-time-bomb situation, but to me, it feels like a particularly bizarre and dramatic existential crisis, dragging on and on without end. I can never resist the articles, but it’s an exercise in masochism.

For that reason, I was both eager and anxious to read two recent collections of Pakistan-centered writing. The cover of Granta’s Pakistan issue, designed like one of the brightly painted trucks that were the representation of our country in what seems like a happier time, was a pleasant surprise; by itself, it did a great deal to alleviate my nervousness. The Life’s Too Short literary review was impressive for its novelty, its uniqueness – and its sheer audacity, too: In the middle of the madness, life goes on, life is lived, and life is always too short.

Beyond theme, the two collections have little in common, and they leave the reader with very different impressions. At first read, Granta seems more familiar, more in sync with other contemporary coverage of Pakistan. It’s not all beards and bombs, but none of the pieces seem too far away from the country we read about every day in the New York Times or the BBC – it has that sense to it, of bated breath, of decades of decay, of disaster around every corner.

The other anthology is kind of jarring; reading it, you would never know that this country has become a war zone, a deathtrap, a state whose list of failures grows by the day. In these stories, Pakistan is just a place, where people live and die, get by or don’t, fail and succeed, love and hate – as people do everywhere, anywhere. These are really the more familiar stories: what we did today, where we went, where we came from – but in the context of Pakistan, somehow I did not expect such ordinariness.

It would be oversimplifying to say that the difference between the two is that of macro and micro, capital-H History and ordinary stories. It’s more likely that the collections simply reflect their different intentions. Granta is geared to the “international market,” which in this context means, I imagine, the Western market, and that market has certain expectations from Pakistani writing. The Life’s Too Short anthology will probably not be read as much, outside of the country, and so does not have to meet those expectations.

There is a semantic difference, too, which is important. Granta published a Pakistan issue: The theme, the unifier, is “the country” itself, whatever that means, Pakistan as a concept. The other, when it advertised earlier for submissions, asked for writing “by Pakistanis,” and on its cover highlights writing “from Pakistan.” Granta takes the concept of Pakistan and examines it in light of our current situation; the other creates a Pakistan, or many Pakistans, out of the lives and stories of Pakistanis.

Given that they are engaged in such different projects, it doesn’t make sense to me to really measure the two collections against one another, but reading them together made me think about what it means to be writing, now, about Pakistan. Cynical as it may sound, this is an excellent moment to be a Pakistani writer: The mess and the mayhem make a fertile ground, and there is, for now, always someone willing to listen. This comes, though, with a kind of responsibility, or if that is too strong a word, a set of expectations and considerations that other writers do not have (although most corners of the world have been or will be in this strange spotlight at some point). What we say about the country now has a resonance that it would be foolish to deny.

I don’t see how anyone writing about Pakistan now, writing anything, could fail to at least indirectly touch on the current situation; it would be like writing about Atlanta in the 1800s and never mentioning slavery, writing about Europe in the 1940s without even hinting at a war. This is our environment, now; violence is part of the fabric of our lives, more so than it was before. But a story made up of beards and bombs, with perhaps an honor killing every now and then for spice, would be an uninteresting polemic with little to say about reality. It would be writing directly to an expectation, giving some readers exactly what they want and expect – and if that’s all it does, then what would be the point of writing?

People confront the current situation every day, but in small ways; the war may be general, but the battles are specific. A father whose son is disappeared; a child whose mosque is suicide-bombed or drone attacked into oblivion; a woman trying to drive across a dysfunctional city; even someone waiting for hours and hours for their lights to come back on – these are the battles, the small, individual ways in which Pakistanis live Pakistan. In some pieces in the Life’s Too Short anthology, the situation lurks like this, as background noise, part of the set – but never the star.

So perhaps we have a dual challenge, a double responsibility. In writing, the important thing is always going to be the particular, the individual, but ignoring the general would be disingenuous and blind. Maybe successful writing about Pakistan has to speak to both these challenges at once. Because both are important – no individual exists alone, and there is no experience that is without context.

In Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat touches upon the difficulty of this balancing act. When the place you’re writing about has become such an “issue,” then of course your work will be interpreted, by some, in that light. But for writers, the unique and the particular have to be the focus. She quotes a letter she wrote to a character in one of her earlier books: “And so I write this to you now, Sophie, as I write it to myself, praying that the singularity of your experience be allowed to exist.” The singular has to come first – for writers, at least, a bottom-up approach makes more sense than a top-down.

It’s a difficult balance, a tightrope act in which falling to either side is dangerous. In my view, one of the strongest masters of this art is Joan Didion, in her fiction and, especially, her essays. Books like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Where I Was From and even Political Fictions tell stories, individual stories, particular stories, and somehow a larger theme emerges. Her books say something about an era, a place, a culture, while allowing singular experiences the right to exist.

We read a writer like Didion, now, with hindsight, and this kind of balance is much harder to do in the moment, especially when the moment is so bizarre, but I think this may be the only way to really deal, on paper, with Pakistan. You can’t write about Pakistan and get to Pakistanis – it has to be the other way around. Pakistan must be approached as Pakistanis, through Pakistanis, through singular experiences, through the stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories, even if they are never written down and exist only in words over coffee or just in our heads. These are the stories that get us through the day, through the “situation,” through the concept.

Posted by Hasan Altaf at 10:18 PM | Permalink


Ten Best Books of 2010

by LAPATA on DECEMBER 20, 2010 ·

In December, it is the custom of taste-makers everywhere to create lists of the ten best things of the year. Taste-makers, aware that they will be called upon to perform this task, work hard throughout the year winnowing through possible entries into this category so they will be prepared by December to do their duty by the public. We are sad to report that no one at Chapati Mystery has properly planned ahead for the preparation of lists of the best things of 2010. But when we read lists drawn up by other people, and find names of authors we have never heard of such as a gentleman named Jonathan Franzen, we feel it is incumbent on us to create a list of our own. We must admit we were not paying much attention to whether or not the books we were reading were published in 2010. We could perhaps instead attempt to make a list of ten best movies, or ten best Broadway musicals, but we feel we have not engaged with these media with sufficient rigor. And so, with all good holiday cheer, we bring you instead our list of the ten best books we happened to read in 2010, regardless of when they were published.

(This list is alphabetically, and should not be taken as a countdown, or up)

  • Ali, Agha Shahid, The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems. The first time I carried it on the S-Bahn, I remember complaining about its heft – and its hard-cover. Then I opened it randomly: We shall meet again, in Srinagar,/by the gates of the Villa of Peace,/our hands blossoming into fists/till the soldiers return the keys/and disappear. Again we’ll enter/our last world, the first that vanished/in our absence from the broken city. I have never carried a lighter book with me. On ride after ride, I have reached for it, read a poem, a half-poem, two verses, a hint of a mood. Long ago, in another city, faced with another new beginning, I approached Faiz as a talisman, a mantra. This hardcover of Agha Shahid Ali fits the contours of my hands. (sepoy)
  • Asad, Talat & Mahmood, Saba, Is Critique Secular? Those crazy kids are at it again! Formidable scholars Asad and Mahmood give us the low-down on secularism, critique and the Danish Cartoontroversy. Make yourself the toast of any cocktail party when you smite down fellow party-goers’ paeans to secular critique with these erudite arguments! Additional essays by Judith Butler and Wendy Brown can be skipped. (lapata)
  • Devadasan, Rashmi Ruth, Kumari Loves a Monster. From the awesomeness that isBlaft comes a little jewel-like picture book full of Kodak moments documenting the happy romances of curvaceous damsels and a wide variety of monsters. The illustrations by Shyamare what make this a must-have item for any coffee table. (lapata)
  • DeWitt, Helen. The Last Samurai. This book, urged upon me by Jessa, rocked my world. Speechless, it made me. (sepoy)
  • Jalib, Habib. Kulliyat/Collected Poems. Zamana thak giya, Jalib hi tanha/wafa kay rastay par chal raha hai. ENUFF SAID. (sepoy)
  • Kumar, Amitava, Nobody Does the Right ThingMuch cyber-ink has already been spilled in these pages about this novel (published under the title Home Products in India). Suffice it to say, this is the great realist novel of Bihar you never realized you were missing. Oh, plus, it’s really well written, too! (lapata)
  • Life’s Too Short Literary Review. Had it just about up to here with the Granta issue on Pakistan, and even more so, discussions of the Granta issue on Pakistan? The antidote is in! This slim volume of terrifying (but not terrorist-centric) power is full of engrossing and original stories. As a major bonus, there’s also a translation from Urdu of lesbian erotica by celebrated author Mohammed Hanif. (lapata)
  • Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Both this and Mumford, I read before, but didn’t read before, if that makes sense. This book has truly asked me some seriously hard questions – which I have no answers for, but which I might spend a decade or so trying to answer. (sepoy)
  • Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. I literally quote this at cocktail parties. Ok, correction. I have not been invited to a cocktail party in years – but I quote this at pubs. Usually, people simply look at me “oh hai, crazy academic person.” But they don’t know that this 1968 classic is an astoundingly dark piece of work: The palace: the exchequer: the prison: the mad-house – what four buildings could more completely sum up the new order or better symbolize the main features of its political life. These were the dominants. Between them stretched the blankly repetitive façades; and behind those façades the forgotten and denied parts of life somehow went on.
  • Yashpal, This is not that Dawn. Did I mention that this novel is the War and Peace of Hindi literature? Oh yes, I did.

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