In the local context, choosing to write in English has so far proven to be a safe political choice because not a single Pakistani English writer has been banned or tried for anything critical since Ahmed Ali’s Angarein 1932 and that was also not in English. Ahmed Ali had the distinction of being a progressive writer as well as a translator of the Holy Quran. In those days, it was possible to combine Islam with the idea of social justice because American neocolonialism/neoliberalism had not erased the possibility of this progressive syncretism.
This does not mean Pakistani English writers have not written anything critical of this society. The problem is that they appear to have done it usually for those who can read English. This is the local reality. For a contrast, one can only mention the trials and persecution of Saadat Hasan Manto, Shaukat Siddiqui, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ustad Daman and Fehmida Riaz among others. And we have almost forgotten the Punjabi writer, Nawaz.
At a global level, however, Pakistani writers in English are a different story altogether. These writers challenge many racist stereotypes and media representations of Pakistanis at the global level. Urbane, even chic, globe-trotting Pakistani writers represent that possibility that always existed in Pakistan but was thwarted when the state decided to become a proxy war machine for its new colonial masters and acquired a different worldview.
The green belt doctrine of Zbigniew Brzezinski required Pakistan’s transformation into a jihadist state for the aim of bleeding the USSR, at that time also a superpower, in Afghanistan. This policy changed Pakistan’s image at the global level. It started appearing as a country populated by AK47-brandishing people and tourism declined.
In this scenario, Pakistani English writers created a new image of Pakistan. Bapsi Sidhwa made the world realise that Pakistan was a multicultural society where Parsis also lived.
Sara Suleri, in her memoir Meatless Days, linked the national history of Pakistan with the personal. Her portrait of her Dadi (paternal grandmother) who conversed with God showed the everyday, non-militant reality of Pakistan. Sara Suleri’s politics was hybrid and everyday (in the sense used by Michel de Certeau) but also elitist because she reported on her postgraduate research assistants who were protesting and trying to have a better collective bargain with their employing university.
Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke showed the hardcore partying segment of Pakistan’s urban elite. In his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid tried to erase the possibility of hybridity and multiculturalism by showing only two options available to the protagonist. Either you are a globe-trotting technocratic businessman or you retreat into an ultra-orthodox version of a jihadi. And the reason for choosing jihadism is shown to be Western racism as if there were no racism and hierarchies within the various jihadi outfits. This is similar to the stark choices Bush offered the world: “either you are with us or against us.” There are millions of Pakistanis, Europeans, Chinese and Americans who are neither with the Republicans of America nor with the mullahs of Af-Pak variety. This is how Mohsin Hamid’s protagonist becomes a reverse version of Bush, forgetting what Gandhi said: “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”
There is another aspect of the community of Pakistani writers who choose to write in English. The rural and urban divide also exists among them. Aamer Hussain, Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid are considered part of the Pakistani urban elite who could easily choose where to live in the world. These choices were not available to Mohammad Hanif in the early part of his life. He had to acquire them through hard work and diligent vocational training. This also shows in the son-of-the-soil Bakhtinian and Rabelaisian dark humour in his writing and also in his continuous bilingualism and translation. Hanif is a rare breed for various reasons. He continues to write in Urdu and English and, armed with a British passport, goes and teaches creative writing to Palestinian students. He also made Ali Akbar Natiq an international name by translating his (Natiq’s) short-story ‘Ma’amaar ke Haath’ as ‘A Mason’s Hand’ for Granta’s special issue on Pakistan. This emancipatory praxis does not appear to be part of other contemporary Pakistani writers of English.Pakistani English writing, so far, has not produced any Dostoyevsky or Michel Houellebecq. But Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi and Punjabi writers have produced works that can compete with any writer of the world. For example one can compare the politics of Bulleh Shah’s facelessness “I don’t know who I am” with Michel Foucault’s “Don’t ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. For there is more than one person in me who writes in order to have no face.”
On the other hand, writers in English have engaged with those themes that deal with Pakistan as it is seen by the civilisational others (by writing about the problems of the joint family and culinary specificities), the problems of the immigrants (the West versus Islam or the East), the conflict of tradition and modernity or secularism (democracy and dictatorships).
There is no big game hunting yet. No English writer from Pakistan has dealt with the politics of human-machine interfaces awaiting humankind, ontological insecurity of living the human condition in Pakistan, the feminine future (of Houellebecq) that will not let masculine extremism take cover, and the impact of the human genome project and its possible link with the surgical/chemical removal of the extremist gene.
There are many science fiction scenarios possible in this. There may be a neurochemical solution already available to curb extremism (Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange dealt with the question of evil and human freedom with this hypothesis). We, the readers, are waiting for this kind of big game hunting to emerge in Pakistani writing. Pakistani fiction needs to create and deal with its own Raskolnikov (from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment), Winston Smith (Orwell’s 1984), and Alex Burgess’s (A Clockwork Orange). Until that happens, we are going to have to deal with the limitations imposed by identity politics.
The human condition should not be allowed to be submerged by the needs of the global readers to read a particular vision of Pakistan. Pakistani writers have the potential to transform these needs and tastes.