It has been regularly posited that the advent of every new technological style has an impact on how authors write. The change in styles from writing out books by hand to having the printing press, or the change to typewriters and later word processors... all have been said to have affected both the form and style of literature produced in that era.
The arrival of self-publishing platforms — essentially blogging websites and social media — also led to a discernible change in writing, at least in my experience in Pakistan. The internet meant a melting away of old gatekeepers who decided which topics and styles were fit to print in newspapers, magazines etc. But self-publishing online meant that authors could choose to write how they pleased and on what they pleased.
Perhaps one of the earliest successes in this field within Pakistan was Nadeem Farooq Paracha (often referred to as NFP) who gained internet fame back in the ancient era of Chowk.com with his essays on Pakistani pop culture. Not only would NFP write about topics that we never got to read in the papers, he would do it in a style that embraced the local vernacular and divulged political secrets. Given that we now live in an era of constant assault by WhatsApp, tweets and statuses, it is easy to forget how frightfully bland and toothless much of the writing in the post-Zia Pakistan was.
Cultural critic Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s third book attempts to provide easy access to a diverse Pakistan with overlapping identity markers
The audiences of the late 1990s’ and early 2000s’ Pakistani blogosphere comprised exclusively of the privileged elite who had grown up in a heavily sanitised and politically managed society. An identity crisis, which had loomed large over its youth, became particularly pronounced after 9/11 and the role of religion in political identity became central. As a former leftist activist, NFP’s disdain and despair at this development were clear through his writing. For his audiences, his articles were always provocative, if they weren’t revelatory as well.
Over the years, NFP’s style and area of expertise became his calling card. His essays would inevitably deal with alternative histories, scathing critiques of the Zia era, colourful stories about unorthodox characters, a vague appeal to socialist ethos and a very singular take on all forms of pop culture. His series of columns titled ‘Almost Pakistan’ became a byword for the liberal, nostalgic lament for the pre-Zia Pakistan, with its nightclubs and lack of extremism.
At one point over this journey, however, NFP’s columns risked becoming the digital version of an old man yelling at the clouds, as he bemoaned the largely apolitical, right-leaning youth of his country. However, much to his credit, he managed to rein in his provocations and committed to something weightier — an attempt to try and educate Pakistani society about its own evolution.
Points of Entry: Encounters at the Origin-Sites of aPakistan is NFP’s third book and like the previous two, it works as a collection of essays seeking to explain Pakistan (for lack of a better term) to its audience through personal histories. Given his experience as a journalist, NFP avoids leaning too hard into academia and chooses to let the curation of his stories represent his worldview.
Points of Entry has 17 essays and each tells the story of (at least) one Pakistani who NFP encountered. In providing the context of their meeting, NFP takes the opportunity to detail socio-political histories and dissect cultural practices. The essays conclude by returning to the original narrative and often end with a quip or aphorism. Every story represents a different ‘point of entry’ into imagining the Pakistani identity and each one forces the reader to consider a wider reality of what it means to be Pakistani than the one propagated by the state.
When it works, this approach is fantastic to read. ‘The Minister of the Kitchen’, my personal favourite essay in the collection, effortlessly weaves Central Asian history with that of Karachi’s Muslim migration post-Partition in between rumination on the evolution of Mughal cuisine in Pakistan — all told through the story of a cook at a small Burne’s Road restaurant. The rambling narrative, the flourish of small yet significant details, the multiple subjects and the overall cohesiveness is clearly the style that NFP wants the whole book to come out as.
However, there are several uneven moments across the book. A good example is the essay titled ‘The Indus Raga’ where NFP uses the songs sung by a ferry captain on the Indus River to detail the history of some of the region’s most popular Sufi songs. When the essay finally returns to the captain, it ends with an abrupt recounting of his symbolic death in a suicide blast at a Sufi shrine. The feeling one gets is that the character was shoehorned into an exploration of Sufi lyrics and his one-dimensional portrayal next to a well fleshed-out cultural context robs the entire piece of its power.
The other recurring issue is NFP’s decisions over which parts of himself to situate within the narrative. During a talk given for his previous book, he had noted that, “I studied [the subjects in my book] the way I would like to be studied.” However, his own representation of himself rarely does justice. Rather than providing the emotional yearning and personal passions that clearly animated his life choices, he often reduces his persona to labels and cheesy descriptions. There is plenty of talk of his black t-shirts, unkempt hair and ripped jeans as well as revelations such as a girlfriend dumping him because she correctly felt that he paid more attention to Pink Floyd and Aziz Mian than her. Back when he first gained his audience, such details felt subversive in a very controlled society; now, they come across as cliché. Instead, far more intriguing details such as his decision to travel across Sindh to organise student activism are relegated to perfunctory details.
It is ironic that in a book exploring identity, the author doesn’t do justice to his own. However, the book in itself rises above these flaws and its easy approach makes for an enjoyable read. It would probably serve as an ideal gift for someone with only a brief knowledge of Pakistani politics and history — which means most of the people you know — and serves as a good primer for exploring the diverse facets of this nation.
The reviewer is a freelance writer on pop culture
Points of Entry: Encounters at
the Origin-Sites of Pakistan
By Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 26th, 2018