At a literature festival in Jaipur last year, writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif very aptly remarked that Pakistani English fiction is hardly ever taken seriously by anyone outside the very limited English readership in Pakistan.
What I would say is that even within this group of English readers, there are many people who read a lot of English fiction but do not necessarily follow the work of Pakistani writers, even writers who have won tremendous international acclaim in recent times. For many readers, the fact that the acclaimed work is English fiction coming from Pakistan, or that it is about Pakistanis, is not always sufficient incentive to read, much less appreciate, it.
One simple reason for this could be that much of it is not really literature from Pakistan. The writers of many of the books shortlisted for various international awards over the past decade can often be found to have lived in Europe or America for protracted spells of time, and it is interesting that quite a number of them have attended creative writing programmes in the US. Many of these writers actually moved back to Pakistan around the time their work started gathering attention. The fact that they are based here now helps identify them as being more Pakistani than many other novelists who have been away for so long that they have more of a diasporic identity, remaining relatively unknown to the public here, though events such as the Karachi Literature Festival are helping to change that.
As far as the writers who live here now are concerned, even though their work may be set in Pakistan to varying degrees, much of it has been written – or at least conceived – abroad, often for a primarily foreign readership. What is more, it can tend to represent a certain class – or the world view or experience of that class – which can only be of limited interest or relevance for many local readers. Such local readers might find it interesting once or twice to read about, or enter into the feelings of, a crowd that frequents certain schools within Pakistan and has spent time at certain universities outside Pakistan, facing legitimate East-West identity issues in the process of shuttling between continents. But this can start to pall very quickly, and beyond a point it can be a struggle for local readers from radically different lifestyles and backgrounds (and sometimes even for those from the same background, come to think of it) to engage with the major issues in such characters’ lives, and to relate to their sources of joy or anguish, as well as the kind of relationships they may or may not have with people around them.
Narratives of solitary individuals, relatively free of a host of interfering relations, reflecting on declining family fortunes, disintegrating family ties, perhaps even on the decadence and relative insensitivity of the new, rising elite as opposed to the old one, and the perspective of characters indulging in nostalgia about how much more comfortable, ‘open’, and accommodating Karachi used to be before that villain Zia threw a spanner in the works can only be of limited relevance to many local readers for whom – or for their parents – attending the cabaret never formed such a significant part of their experience of city life.
Of course, when this English fiction steps beyond the personal to focus heavily on national or even international politics, readers’ interest levels immediately increase since politics tends to be a more universal preoccupation. This can happen only to find all too often that political events like the secession of East Pakistan or violence in Karachi during the 1990s merely served the purpose of providing an exotic background to a plot that could really have been set just about anywhere else in the world. Then, a book like The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes your way and you find yourself inexplicably repelled by the rather gimmicky cover featuring a Pakistani-looking face split between the identity of a young, clean-shaven, corporate professional and a bearded and turbaned creature.
Yet, there is no doubt that you are still very attracted to the topic itself and excited to read a book that promises to explore something you see all around you at a time when a fair number of ‘educated’, ‘modern’ youth seem to be heading down a particular path. There is a feeling of deflation, however, as you discover that the book is not an introspective exploration of your own – or rather our own – ideological anxieties, but, in fact, an explanation, directed towards Western readers, of how Pakistanis, or Muslims, come to feel uncomfortable in Western societies. Mohsin Hamid’s novel still remains an important book in global political terms, but it really cannot be considered the great Pakistani novel on the subject.
Even where writers engage with the concerns of a somewhat different class, the issue of authenticity arises. Isn’t it interesting that for writers of a relatively elite background, poorer or lower middle-class people often seem to form a more attractive subject than does the comparatively more affluent middle class? The issue is that in these sympathetic portrayals of the problems of village folk or domestic servants, characters not infrequently come off looking rather ingenuous which may not quite agree with the real picture. And this is not just a problem in English writing for it can be seen in plenty of Urdu writing as well. In English, however, the problem is compounded because of the language barrier. It is not easy to present in English the words of people who do not speak English. And even portraying people who can speak English, and do so, not as a rule, but in certain formal or informal contexts, can be quite difficult to manage for even the most talented of writers. For the style and idiom of English as spoken by such characters, while being perfectly correct, can have a very different feel from the language as it is spoken in the US or in Britain.