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Pakistani literature as lifeline

To those it reaches, literature can take us from a place of ignorance to higher awareness.
Updated Jul 20, 2019 12:18am
— Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro
— Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

I grew up between Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, a common rite of passage for many South Asian families in search of a "better life", between home and a place that is similar — yet not quite.

You’re not an immigrant, nor will you ever be a citizen; even the diasporic element is amiss. That desert space is filled with an array of South Asian dialects and shades of brown skin. Whether it’s outside, operating a crane in 40 degrees Celsius, or inside your air-conditioned corner office, both reminisce about the homes they’ve left behind, yet one group’s lifestyle is much more fulfilling than the other’s, a difference based on class privilege.

I’ve often written about how growing up between the two caused a split in my identity. I was always made to feel too foreign for either place. Urdu was my first and most fluent language, but that quickly changed once I moved to Dubai and went to a British school. It was difficult to find a middle ground, to find someone who shared my exceptional privilege, and yet was burdened similarly with the crises in my head. I longed for recognition, and it was only through reading books that I managed to find what I was looking for.

Never a fan of Harry Potter or fantastical beings, I gravitated towards realism that could depict the human condition without the use of dragons or wizards. I simply yearned to read raw, realistic stories that challenged narratives of Otherness, and painted images of hybridised citizens to which I could relate in my mind.

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There are books that bring us to tears; they infuriate us with their portrayal of societal injustice; there are books that make us feel warm, euphoric even; and then there are books that speak to you in ways you could only dream of. These are the books that make you think, “Finally! Someone understands.”

These, for me, are books that feel like an affectionate pat on the back, sweet assurances letting me know everything will be alright, that I’m not the only one burdened by my childhood’s seemingly anomalous experiences. These are the books that told me my struggle with identity consciousness is genuine and authentic; yet, still exceptionally privileged because of socio-economic class, which many of us prefer to ignore.

These are the books written by South Asian writers who possess a similarly privileged background as me, who write stories reflecting their own hybridities, and who write in a language imposed on us as a tool to drive the cleavage between different classes; historically, we have been told: West is best.

Shame, an emotion labelled as "soul-eating" by Carl Jung, is also the title of a 1983 book by Salman Rushdie. The novel ironises General Ziaul Haq and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Sufiya Zinobia, daughter of the dictator, serves as a fictitious representation of Pakistan’s multilateral societal shame and religious despotism. When she feels shame, the emotion mutates into a burning, red-hot violent blush.

The novel, true to its name, has maintained relevance since its publication in 1983. Gender-specific shame is a historic and cultural epidemic in South Asia, which has been exacerbated particularly in Pakistan through religious nationalism, classism and gender-specific violence. Shame affects women of all socio-economic backgrounds, from those residing in villages under the tutelage of a feudal landowner, members of the armed forces, to women like myself, who were raised in socio-economically elite or bureaucratic households.

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For me, its relevance stood out through the depiction of the patrilineal avoidance of shame; it is easier to disown a daughter than to deal with her. Sharam can seep into the psyche through different sources, but its core remains the same. While shame may affect people differently based on background, it is certainly universally experienced by women in a patriarchal society where women must resort to drastic means in order to claim control of their agency.

Throughout history, the creation of nations has been a male-dominated enterprise. Nationalism, particularly in South Asia, has adorned women as merely ornaments, repositories of culture and purity for men to show-off their 'honourable' nations to one another. Shame is a core part of our societies, and is infamous for shoving things under the rug, a process more technically known as systemic repression. If we spend decades remaining in complete denial of what’s underneath, shame mutates and evolves into a multitude of unexpected trauma-inducing forms.

I came across In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin at a point where the hyphen in my identity became too alienating to understand, a state of utter confusion and dissociation. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection of stories set in contemporary Pakistani society and most of the interconnected stories trace back to one feudal landowner: K. K. Harouni.

With a swell of beautiful eloquence and flow, Mueenuddin takes us between villages, cosmopolitan cities, classes and genders, and depicts how classism and feudalism affect Pakistanis of different socio-economic backgrounds, trends continuing on from the formation of the country in 1947.

Two of the stories’ recurrent themes focus on drug abuse and ‘deviant’ sexual behaviours, both subjects about which very little awareness and education exists in Pakistan. Drugs and sex, shown as vices on all sides of the class divide, indicate how one can engage in an doubly conscious-yet-unconscious blindness; how people letting down their guard lose sight of their morals, of religion and culturally acceptable behaviour, and their own self.

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Mueenuddin echoes Chekhovian elements with a kind, yet, unbiased, undiscerning narrator. With his ability to coalesce each story into one, he effortlessly portrays the tensions that exist in between pressures of traditionalism and modernity.

For me, however, the strength of Mueenuddin’s collection lies in his portrayal of strong women, hailing from different classes, who struggle to claim their agency through whatever means possible, typically through sex. It was the penultimate story in the collection, ‘Lily’, where I felt I was reading something that had been written for me, even about me.

It is the story of a reckless, impulsive and directionless young Pakistani woman, with ample privilege and freedom, who uses sex as a means of approval from men. Her search for someone who could understand ends in the discovery that her self-rejection and desire for escape were, in fact, stronger than anything else she desired.

While Mohsin Hamid is better known for the publication and notoriety of his second novel-turned-film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it’s his debut novel, Moth Smoke, which was the first anglophone-Pakistani novel I read that evoked a euphoric sense of relatability.

The story takes place in Lahore, where I lived during the time of my reading, and poignantly represents adult life among the elite of Pakistan. Through irony and satirical twists in the lives of the protagonists, it provided much needed explanations for the incomprehensible behaviour of adults older than me, especially my own family members, and opened a door to understanding the realities of being a privileged Pakistani, a door I was indeed reluctant to access. The fact of our privilege and elitism, after all, is also shoved under a rug and hardly discussed.

Hamid is another novelist who has used themes of sex and drugs, of the desire to distract and ‘numb’ the suffering one undergoes because of this perilous truth of classism. It is one of the most accurate representations of the Pakistan I grew up in, among many Westernised elites unaware of our region’s history, art and culture, and whose elitism simultaneously promotes dangerous breeds of hedonism.

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The writer manages to attend to two contrasting elite attitudes in Pakistan, one of the “progressive” and “intellectual” elite, and the other, the more predominant bureaucratic and economic upper-class. In the novel, this second demographic typically possesses minimal knowledge of the colonial era and is blindsided by the power it enjoys in contemporary Pakistan due to this history, while the former consists of those who, while aware of class inequality, wish to possess the means of the latter’s lifestyle, especially the material privileges that accompany their ‘birthright’.

The clash of traditionalism and industrialisation throughout Moth Smoke maps how drugs, weapons, nuclear power and class differences evoke pressures and terror into that world. In a world that hypocritically denies corruption, Hamid shows exactly how far a person is willing to go to cross the line and enter the club of elites, but how crossing that line inevitably leaves one feeling irrevocably small. A world I know far too well. A world where the only thing that grants you access is your name and bloodline.

I bought Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography a few years after its initial release, and unironically, finished it during a flight to London for our annual summer family vacation. The novel, set between Karachi and London, discusses the lives of the comfortably rich amidst a country whose majority is not as such, and amidst a city ridden with violence and conflict.

Once again, the story tugged at my own ‘homeland’ heartstrings, but yet, also reassured me that love between people doesn’t need to be confined to who one thinks are one’s 'own'. For a hybrid like me, reading this resonant story reignited a belief in the power of love, as it was during my parent’s volatile separation that I began to read the novel.

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During my schooling in Pakistan, we were told the bare minimum about the separation of East Pakistan, and it wouldn’t be until I was an adult that I could come close to understanding the importance of this event depicted in the novel. Our private education revolved around remaining silent about Pakistan’s weaknesses, instead indoctrinating us into praising all things British.

Shamsie’s novel helped demystify the hyper-nationalist sentiments of my family and those around me. At the least, I learned to be kinder to the few Bengalis in my school in Pakistan, especially since I could sense that other Pakistani children, who didn’t have the experience of ostracism in a foreign country, would continuously ostracise those of darker skin and slightly dissimilar features.

All these stories depicted for me the psyche of a classist and patriarchal system, completely laden with unspoken trauma. They helped me understand where the discrepancies in my own identity lie. And, through poignant metaphors and graphic imagery, they help to accurately portray the contrasting and overlapping hybridity of privileged Pakistanis.

These stories bring to the surface both our own ignorance as well as the repression of violence that affects those with less, especially those who work ‘for us’, of whose loyalty, tolerance and dispossession we consciously and unconsciously take advantage.

In Mohsin Hamid’s collection of essays Discontent and Its Civilization: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, he summarises the privileged Pakistani’s search for identity perfectly:

“Mongrel. Miscegenator. Half-breed. Outcast. Deviant. Heretic. Our words for hybridity are so often epithets. They shouldn’t be. Hybridity need not be the problem. It could be the solution. Hybrids do more than embody mixtures between groups. Hybrids reveal the boundaries between groups to be false.”

In Pakistan, where the emphasis on bloodlines and culture is immense, hybrids can, for Hamid, be part of the solution. People like Hamid and Shamsie are certainly hybrid products of the colonial past in the post-colonial present because they write literature in English.

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But, their writing sheds light on the very issues that can potentially save our future. Their stories challenge dominant perspectives on class and gender inequality and shed light on our realities in a powerful way.

It was their literature that became a lifeline for me and made me more aware of the starkly contrasting status of London- or Dubai-residing Pakistanis, perhaps construction workers on the one hand and investment bankers on the other.

While their writing may be inaccessible to many, to those it reaches, it can become a vital lifeline that takes us from a place of ignorance to a higher awareness of these issues.


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