Adam Zameenzad, the Pakistan-born author of six novels, passed away in Britain on Dec 4, 2017, at the age of 80. He was one of the major pioneers of contemporary Pakistani English fiction. In 1987, his book The Thirteenth House won the David Higham Prize for Fiction for best debut, making Zameenzad the first English-language novelist of Pakistani origin to win an international literary award. It was also long listed for the Man Booker Prize, as was Zameenzad’s gargantuan and ambitious fourth novel from 1991, Cyrus Cyrus. In 1988, Zameenzad wrote his second novel, My Friend Matt and Henna the Whore, in response to the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85 and gave the royalties for famine relief efforts. This poetic, haunting book, which combines the child narrator’s enchanted world with daily sorrow, is now being developed into an animated film by British filmmaker and publisher Franc Roddam.
Adam Zameenzad was the pen-name of Saleem Ahmed. He spent his early years in Nairobi where both his parents, Fatima Aziz and Shammim Ahmed, were teachers. He moved to Pakistan when he was eight because his father, a landlord’s son, had inherited lands in Sindh. Zameenzad read voraciously, preferred the company of older people to children his own age and hated school. He also befriended the jhuggi [slum] dwellers who lived beyond the walls of his father’s haveli. These experiences would shape much of his fiction and the sensitivity with which he portrayed troubled children, rich or poor, and “the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the outcasts of this world.”
Zameenzad’s parents separated and at 11 years of age he went to live with his mother in Lahore. He continued to “bunk” school, but matriculated at 14, graduated from college and earned his Masters degree from the University of Karachi. He then became a professor of English at Forman Christian College, Lahore. He left Pakistan when his mother was killed in a car accident and lived in the United States, Canada and Scandinavia before arriving in England in 1974 during a teacher shortage. He taught English at schools in Kent and Essex and continued to live in Britain — Robert Bush in The Guardian described him as “a great friend, a man of immense intellectual power, endlessly disputatious, with passions that brooked no compromise.”
In 1989, Zameenzad became a full-time writer, following the success of The Thirteenth House, a tale of power and powerlessness set in the early years of the Zia regime. Narrated by the disembodied voice of a dead mill owner’s son, it tells of the tribulations of Zahid, a poor clerk who, with his wife and handicapped son, falls prey to the machinations of a fake pir. The novel merges reality with the supernatural, as does My Friend Matt and Henna the Whore which employs the innocence of a child-narrator to great advantage to tell of a country ravaged by famine, brutal soldiers, venal politicians and ‘do-good’ foreigners. Zameenzad continued with themes of desperate people struggling against natural and man-made disasters in 1989’s Love, Bones and Water, which is steeped in Biblical images and describes the friendship between a rich, neglected child and the kindly dwellers of a shanty town in a fictitious South American Republic. Zameenzad gathered up elements of all these novels into Cyrus Cyrus to follow the misadventures of Cyrus, disfigured since birth, who belongs to a choorhha [sweeper] family which has converted to Christianity. Cyrus’s quest for dignity, justice and self takes him from India, East Pakistan and the US to Britain, and ends as a dictation to “Adam Zameenzad: Man, Son of Earth.”
Zameenzad was the first Pakistani English novelist to explore transgender issues with his tight, multilayered novel Gorgeous White Female, published in 1995. The book, replete with the imagery of Hollywood and contemporary film, looked at the crisis of a British Asian boy, Lahya, in New York. Unfortunately, Zameenzad had a serious road accident in 1999 that brought long-term effects. He published only one novel thereafter, Pepsi and Maria, in 2004, a moving tale of streetchildren terrorised by the authorities in a South American country.
One of the most significant and innovative writers of early contemporary Pakistani English fiction — and his novels are to be reprinted very soon — Zameenzad is survived by his wife Shammi, three daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The writer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14th, 2018