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March 04, 2018


At the last Karachi Literature Festival, keynote speaker Francis Robinson called Moni Mohsin the ‘Jane Austen of Pakistan’ for the popularity of her Social Butterfly novels. The recent Austenistan, a collection of short stories edited by Laaleen Sukhera, also reinforces the comparison: on the surface, Austen’s fiction seems to particularly appeal to Pakistani readers and influence many Pakistani writers. But should comparative literature and the study of outside influences, mostly European or Anglophone, be where a critical examination of Pakistani literature begins and ends?

Pakistani writers have always absorbed the literature of other cultures and countries; writer Bilal Tanweer states that 19th century Urdu writers and poets were influenced by the Romantics and the Victorians while, in the 20th century, Saadat Hasan Manto translated the works of Anton Chekov and Guy de Maupassant. Urdu poet Meeraji adored Charles Baudelaire’s poems, while writer and linguist Muhammad Hasan Askari read and wrote about Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as well as modernists such as James Joyce. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher of Pakistan, referenced Vladimir Lenin and Dante in his own work.

But while it is tempting to reduce Pakistani literature to its European influences, the lens of cultural parallels — as outlined by scholar Abhai Maurya in his essay ‘Indian and Russian Literary Mutuality’ — is a more robust tool to analyse Pakistani literature’s development. That is to say, while our writers were certainly impressed or influenced by the European style — implying a relationship of superiority-inferiority and a one-way transfer of ideals — a deeper dynamic is actually at work. These writers discovered the parallels between two disparate cultures, engaged with the texts as equals, not inferiors, and wrote about the resonance between societies and cultures, despite the obvious differences — implying mutuality and reciprocity.

Even though Urdu literature was formalised through colonial institutions, as Tanweer observes, Urdu writers undertook a dialogue — not a mentorship or tutelage — with many European or American writers. The 19th century fascination with European literature was a temporary way station, a testing ground for Urdu poets and writers as they moved away from admiration and in the direction of their own literary experiments in the 20th century. This mirrored the Indian movement for independence, Partition and the creation of Pakistan, showing that literary evolution and national evolution are inextricably linked.

As Indian writer Radhika Oberoi observes, Austen’s work was more than just about matrimony. Using a variety of tools — wit, gentle scorn and comical satire — Austen intelligently commented on the social mores of her times and exposed the duplicity in the system. British writer Bidisha writes in the Guardian that Austen wrote about a harsh, judgemental and unequal society; this has its parallels in Pakistani society with its double standards for men and women’s acceptable behaviour. However, Austen’s work was limited to observation and mockery, not making a demand for real social transformation. Many Urdu fiction writers, dramatists and serial writers get caught in a similar dynamic: exploring the woes of Pakistani women without devising formulas for societal change.

More critical women’s writing in Pakistani fiction owes a greater debt to modernists such as Virginia Woolf than to Austen. Woolf’s writing sought to disrupt society’s patriarchal trends; she famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This is echoed in Bapsi Sidhwa’s An American Brat which portrays the life of a Parsi girl who defies tradition to live and study in America and fall in love with a white American boy. Shandana Minhas also exposes Pakistan’s sexist double standards in novels such as Tunnel Vision and Daddy’s Boy, and the defiance with which Pakistani women attempt to take on patriarchy in their jobs and their personal lives.

Here, the cultural parallels run deeper. England and Pakistan are locked in similar struggles to bring women’s voices and stories to the forefront, reinterpret gender roles and break free from the shackles of a gender-obsessed society. Moreover, the dialogue between writers, even though they occupy different centuries and countries, and even though some died long ago and others are alive today, thrives when European novels are seen not as academic textbooks to learn from, but alternating voices in a decades-long or centuries-long conversation about women’s role in the world.

Something important happens when novelists from one ex-colonial continent begin to engage with the literature of another ex-colonial continent. The Latin American classics with their close examination of military regimes, as in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende, are reworked by writers such as Mohammed Hanif in A Case of Exploding Mangoes, or Maniza Naqvi in Stay with Me. The South American magical realism trend, as seen in Marquez, Allende and Jorge Luis Borges, appealed to Pakistani writers Zulfikar Ghose and Adam Zameenzad in the 1980s, and was more recently evoked by Mohsin Hamid in his latest novel Exit West. It is the cultural resonance between countries undergoing dictatorship, wrestling between traditionalism and modernity, even the tension between religious fervour and science and technology, which lights a creative spark behind these Pakistani novels in dialogue with their South American counterparts — both of whom know something about the yoke of colonialism.

Scholars have traced the classical Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Chekov’s influence on a Pakistani such as Daniyal Mueenuddin. Even more interesting is the influence that Russian Socialist Realism had on the political stance and the output of Urdu writers, whether progressive, leftist or centrist. Yet, as Maurya points out, Soviet literature, with its emphasis on revolution, built on the influence of the Sufi writers who contested authority — a literary tradition that is our very own, cross-pollinated by the work of the celebrated Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi.

In the end, when examining where our literature came from, it is most productive to move on from any serious attempt at disentangling the threads of influence; there is nothing more to be gained from this exercise. Instead, readers and critics alike should try to discern who’s speaking with whom, who’s engaging with whom. That way they can sit back and enjoy listening to all those diverse voices having a conversation about what matters most in the world.

The columnist is a Karachi-based author of six books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 4th, 2018