In the mid-19th century, English was imposed on the subcontinent as a language for ‘educating’ and subjugating a population. It was used initially by the governing elite and a small segment of Indians working with the British in education and law, and the introduction of English literature was meant to inculcate liberal values. Ironically, during the freedom struggle, English would become a tool of revolt against the colonisers — for instance, the speeches, letters and other writings of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, among other leaders of the subcontinent, were in English.
At the tail end of the colonial era, English was used by writers and poets — including those who came to Pakistan after 1947 — to express identity and assert independence. In Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English — a collection of selected author biographies juxtaposed with discussions on recurring themes used in their works — writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie traces the trajectory of Indo-Anglian literature, focusing on the experimental literature that has brought South Asian writers recognition.
From the late 18th century, Indian acceptance of and interest in English literature and philosophy as a window into the wider world increased. Hindu reformers and educationists in Bengal, such as Ram Mohan Roy, believed the language offered Indians the intellectual space to embrace a modern ethos and not adhere to the orthodox strictures of either Hindus or Muslims. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan believed an English education would help India’s Muslims progress. However, his world view did not include women whom he believed should not be taught English in case their conservative lives were impacted with secular philosophies.
A history of Pakistani English writing examines its origins and thematic interests from the 20th century onwards
Shamsie begins her book with pioneering writers between 1877 and 1967, some aligned with the Progressive Writers’ Movement — such as Ahmed Ali — who innovated and explored new forms in creative writing. The raison d’etre of his novel Twilight in Delhi (1940) is the “desire to explain Muslim India to its critics” and also to challenge the narrative of colonialism. Ali wrote in an essay: “In the process of transformation, from Indian to ‘brown’ Englishman, I found that I had lost not only my freedom, but also my culture and individuality, and I have been engaged ever since in search of myself, my identity.”
Fast forward to the post-Partition years and other writers struggled to express the politics of contemporary state and society. That was perhaps until Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters (1978) embodied a clear, contemporary voice charting the history and changing socio-political structures of a minority community and her country. The Bride (1982) and Ice-Candy Man (1988; also titled Cracking India) dealt with migration, multiculturalism, minorities and the act of surviving. Her novels — that could easily be categorised as feminist — are interesting because she is bold in her first-hand assertions about feminism, patriarchy and her life and experiences within a minority community, and talks about customs, colonial history, women and life in Lahore from a deeply personal lens: she was censured by her family for The Crow Eaters, as it was said to portray real-life characters with a satirical take on their eccentricities.
Another development in contemporary English writing from South Asia has been the use of a hybrid, bilingual English to assert multicultural identity. Shamsie notes that this strategy was first adopted in the 1980s by writers who employed the rhythm and intonations of the subcontinent (especially Urdu into English) so readers could understand the people being written about. This inspired others such as Anita Desai, Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe and Sara Suleri to create and push boundaries.
In the early post-war years, much of the discourse by writers of Pakistani origin in Britain — Tariq Ali, Zulfikar Ghose and others — revolved around political and philosophical influences. As a key figure in the counterculture of the 1960s in Britain and Europe, Ali’s Marxist leanings and his journalism were the focal point of his writing. His prolific non-fiction on the politics of class, race and gender have critiqued the ruthlessness of nation states from the United States to China and Russia and unpacked the causes of religious fundamentalism and the rise of US “imperial fundamentalism” as he terms it. A controversial, fearless literary figure, Ali holds power to account, making him relevant and readable.
Collective ideas on identity, gender, conflict, Islamophobia and migration continue to inform most Pakistani English writing. When 9/11 opened a Pandora’s Box of threats from regional militancy and domestic terrorism, violence, loss and the restlessness of a younger generation appeared in new writing from Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan had to outwardly change its pro-Taliban policy which meant certain former jihadi assets, who had been canoodled by the state, found themselves out in the cold. They reacted by challenging the writ of the state. Terrorism conflated the country’s socio-political crisis. Then, the reminder that the army’s interest in and hold over state and society has never waned. This was (and is) a state forcibly shackled to an institution with diminishing trust in democratic politics. The battle for Pakistan’s soul was the backdrop for novels by Mohsin Hamid, Uzma Aslam Khan, Mohammed Hanif and others.
The 2000s was also the decade when Pakistani art, culture and technology opened up to global influences and interest (Gen Pervez Musharraf touted his commitment as ‘enlightened moderation’). Pakistani writers explaining the present state of the nation to the world garnered the attention of the publishing world. Because Islam and Muslims had been demonised for what seemed forever, writers took on the responsibility of explaining in their own voices. Though the first draft of Hamid’s novel was written in 2001 before the events of 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist challenges the West’s narrative on terrorism through the world view of his protagonist suffering the effects of geopolitics, and the crisis of an unequal world where people from ‘other’ cultures are misunderstood. When a beard, brown skin, an accent and a Muslim name were reason enough for being interrogated or arrested in the West, many wrote about this. Novelists including Hamid (Exit West, 2017), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire, 2017), Sarfraz Manzoor (Greetings from Bury Park, 2007), Uzma Aslam Khan (Thinner than Skin, 2012) and H.M. Naqvi (Home Boy, 2009) grappled with multiculturalism in the age of terrorism. They asked questions — where do you belong; does being non-white make one a second-class citizen; could you be perceived a security risk if you had a Muslim-sounding name — reflecting very real complexities around religion, liberal values, capitalism and betrayal of the vulnerable.
Shamsie’s book is an indication of the sheer enormity of literary output — despite publishing challenges — in the past 70 years. However, the selection of non-fiction could have been substantially expanded with contemporary listings of socio-political works by analysts, academics, former politicians and military men, journalists, etc. Also, the lack of a vibrant book publishing network (agents, editors and publishing houses) deters new writing from reaching home audiences. The critical stories of our times might go unnoticed and misunderstood if it weren’t for publishing opportunities in the West and India.
The reviewer is a member of staff
Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of
Pakistani Literature in English
By Muneeza Shamsie
Oxford University Press, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 5th, 2017