What happens when a Pakistani academic in a small American town teaches Pakistani literature to a group of white Americans?
Illustrations by Samiah Bilal
On the first page of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist Changez, the Pakistani narrator, tells an unnamed American that he is “a lover of America.” Halfway through the novel, the same character, who is modelled after Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Albert Camus’s The Fall, tells his American interlocutor, who looks like a CIA agent, about his reaction to the 9/11 attacks: “I smiled…my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”
Few works of contemporary literature have captured the two extremes of the profound ambivalence most Pakistanis feel toward America as well as The Reluctant Fundamentalist. America is at once admired as the zenith of human progress and reviled as the nadir of human depravity in Pakistani imagination.
Hamid’s novel provided a useful point of entry to a course on Pakistani literature I taught earlier this year at Lyceum, a lifelong learning institute for people over 50 at Binghamton University where I am pursuing a doctorate in comparative literature. I first proposed the course with some scepticism. For one, the American book industry is considered notoriously insular and lacks what has been called “bibliodiversity.” And secondly, I wasn’t sure if anyone in a small, provincial town like Binghamton would be interested in Pakistani literature.
Much to my surprise, an enthusiastic cohort of 15 retirees registered for my course. Among this diverse group was also a retired CIA agent, who had served in Pakistan during the 1970s. But while the students were diverse in many ways, they all had at least one obvious commonality: they were all white. This came as a bit of a surprise because the Department of Comparative Literature at Binghamton University is remarkably multicultural. In hindsight, maybe I should have seen this coming. After all, 86 percent of the population in Broome County — where Binghamton is located — is white.
Interestingly, the impressions of Pakistan most people in my class had were seemingly not informed by the representations of the country in American media and films, which many of them were distrustful of. Instead their views had largely been informed by their interactions with Pakistani immigrants (mostly doctors) in Binghamton.
People in the class responded in a variety of ways to the character of Changez, a Princeton graduate who works for an elite valuation firm in New York. A retired art teacher who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany and came to the US after World War II found him torn between the fundamentalisms of American capitalism and Pakistani nationalism, and reluctant to subscribe to either of the two. However, she found it redemptive that Changez does not sell his soul to the Mephistopheles of American capitalism and returns to Pakistan to become a university lecturer.
A professor of Latin American history read Changez’s silent but menacing interlocutor as a symbol of American power and an indictment of the impunity with which America operates in the world, something the naive American public has never experienced. Although fascinated by Changez’s character, the retired CIA agent in the class found the premise of the novel, a young Pakistani man talking to someone who looks like a CIA agent in Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar, incredulous.
The blend of fascination and revulsion for America is nothing new in Pakistani literature. In the early 1950s, only a few years after the creation of Pakistan, the United States Information Service (USIS) in Lahore approached Saadat Hasan Manto to commission a short story. Manto had openly castigated Pakistani supporters of Stalin and the USIS hoped he would write an anti-Soviet story.
Much to my surprise, an enthusiastic cohort of 15 retirees registered for my course. Among this diverse group was also a retired CIA agent, who had served in Pakistan during the 1970s.
The enfant terrible of Urdu literature, Manto, in a characteristically Manto-vian move, first haggled the writing fee down and then, instead of a short story, submitted an acerbic “Letter to Uncle Sam” from a “Pakistani nephew.” In the letter, Manto mocked how America celebrates gangsters like Willie Moretti but also felt envious of “brother Erskine Caldwell” who had been acquitted of pornography for his novel God’s Little Acre — a charge Manto was convicted of multiple times, both in colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan.
The Manto story that resonated the most with my students was ‘Toba Tek Singh’, in which the governments of India and Pakistan agree to exchange inmates of mental asylums. When Bishan Singh, a Sikh inmate and a native of Toba Tek Singh, is told that he will be shifted to India because he is not a Muslim, he asks if his village is in India or Pakistan. Unable to comprehend how a place that used to be in India is now in Pakistan, Bishan Singh stands on the small piece of land between the borders of the two countries and refuses to move.
A retired healthcare worker in the class found Manto’s take on the absurdity of national borders particularly relevant to America in “the Age of Trump.” Another short story that some readers found memorable was ‘Open It’ in which a father, Sirajuddin, searches for his daughter who had been lost during the turmoil of Partition. One reader wondered how he would have reacted if he were in the shoes of Sirajuddin, whose daughter had been abducted and raped in Manto’s story.
The primary reason I had proposed to teach the course was to explore a question that had been nagging at me for quite a while now. In recent years, Pakistani Anglophone fiction has gained increasing attention in the Anglo-American literary world. Novels by writers like Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam and H.M. Naqvi often garner critical acclaim in the Anglo-American press and academia.
Inside Pakistan, however, fictions produced by these writers are looked at rather suspiciously. It appears as if many Pakistani readers and academics believe that Pakistani Anglophone fiction offers a reductive, stereotypical and inauthentic portrayal of the country for the consumption of general readers in the Anglo-American world. In other words, these critics assume that Pakistani Anglophone writers are pandering to Anglo-American readers.
For example, in an extremely peevish essay titled ‘Black Masks, White Skin: Neo Orientalism and Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English,’ Sadaf Mehmood and Fauzia Janjua, two professors at Islamabad’s International Islamic University, label Pakistani Anglophone writers neo-orientalists with English tastes and morals, who portray Pakistan as an uncivilised society and are unable to find a single instance of “cultural bliss” in the country.
Masood Ashraf Raja, editor of the academic journal Pakistaniaat and a professor of English literature at the University of North Texas, observes that Pakistani Anglophone writers “see themselves as cultural critics and tend to highlight the darkest and the most troubling aspects of Pakistani culture”, which creates a strong sense of anxiety among Pakistani readers who “see such representations as a betrayal and a negation of the richness and beauty of Pakistani culture.”
Raja demands that Pakistani Anglophone writers must also write about “what is lovable and salutary” about Pakistan. Put differently, he wants these writers to do the literary equivalent of “positive reporting.” If critics like Raja want Pakistani Anglophone writers to write about “lovable and salutary” aspects of Pakistan, one wonders what “lovable and salutary” things Urdu writers like Manto and Ghulam Abbas wrote about.
While it may be possible to make a case that Pakistani Anglophone writers pander to Western readers, there are two main problems with the way this argument has been articulated. First, while Pakistani critics assert that works by Pakistani Anglophone writers offer a reductive and inauthentic portrayal of Pakistani culture, they never define what they mean by “Pakistani culture.”
With a population of over 200 million people, belonging to dozens of ethnicities and speaking scores of languages, it is difficult, if not downright impossible, to argue that there exists one, single “Pakistani culture.” Could the indigenous culture of the Kalash people be considered “Pakistani culture?” Is the culture of indigenous people, who are derogatorily referred to as Choorras and considered untouchable (much like the Dalits in India), “Pakistani culture?” Is the category of “Pakistani culture” inclusive enough to include the culture of non-Urdu speaking Bengalis of the erstwhile East Pakistan?
I invited them to think about Erica as a symbolic representation of (Am)Erica who is still in love with a dead Chris(tianity). Changez’s description of Erica’s relationship with Chris does lend itself to such a reading: “I did not know whether I believed in the truth of their love; it was, after all, a religion that would not accept me as a convert.”
Zain Mian, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, has labelled these writers “willing representatives” of Pakistan in the Anglo-American world. In his 2019 essay titled ‘Willing Representatives: Mohsin Hamid and Pakistani Literature Abroad’ published in the Herald, Mian asks, “is it defensible, then, that the stories of about 200 million citizens be told by such an insignificant minority, and one that claims a singular Pakistani experience in English, the most elite language of all?” But which Pakistani Anglophone writer has claimed that she or he is writing about “a singular Pakistani experience,” Mian does not mention. And what is “a singular Pakistani experience” anyway? Is the experience of Parsi-Pakistanis “a singular Pakistani experience?” Does Mian’s “singular Pakistani experience” admit the experiences of Karachi’s Goan Catholics?
It is important to point out that the comments that Pakistani Anglophone writers consider themselves as “cultural critics” or “willing representatives” of Pakistan are based on assumptions and assertions instead of arguments, because these writers do not see themselves either as cultural critics or as willing representatives. In fact, they resist the assumption that they or their works represent Pakistan.
For instance, in her doctoral dissertation titled, ‘Brand Pakistan: A Reception-Oriented Study of Pakistani Anglophone Fiction’, Barirah Nazir looks at several interviews of Hamid published in the Anglo-American press and shows that he rarely positions himself as a “Pakistani writer” and often resists when he is labelled as such.
Moreover, these critics never mention who these “general readers” in the West are whose sensibilities Pakistani Anglophone writers are pandering to. Do these “general readers” really exist, or is it merely a convenient theoretical construct? And if “general readers” do in fact exist, what qualifies these Pakistani critics to speak on their behalf? These are some of the questions that are never addressed in these critiques.
One of the questions I wanted to explore in my course was: do members of the “general” public in a small American town think that Pakistani Anglophone writers are pandering to them? While some people in my class did say that a novel like The Reluctant Fundamentalist appeared to be addressed to an American audience, they did not find it pandering to them at all. Instead they found in the novel an indictment of American exceptionalism and used it as an opportunity to reflect on their own privilege and preconceived notions about America.
While critics like Raja and Fawzia Afzal-Khan, a professor of English at Montclair State University, have read Changez’s move to Lahore as his attempt to become “the reluctant fundamentalist”, readers in my course quickly picked up that the fundamentalism in the novel was the fundamentalism of capitalist America, which Changez had embraced, albeit reluctantly. This realisation did create a sense of anxiety among some members, who found it tricky to associate the word “fundamentalism” with America.
Several readers in my class found the character of Erica, the American girl, with whom Changez falls in love, quite puzzling. Changez meets Erica in Princeton and although she likes him, she has not gotten over Chris, her dead boyfriend who had “an Old World appeal.” Erica ends up “at an institution” before disappearing one day. Some readers thought Erica suffered from a mental illness and wanted to know what I thought of her condition.
If critics want Pakistani Anglophone writers to write about “lovable and salutary” aspects of Pakistan, one wonders what “lovable and salutary” things Urdu writers like Manto and Ghulam Abbas wrote about.
I put forward what I thought would be an unflattering comment for American readers. I invited them to think about Erica as a symbolic representation of (Am)Erica who is still in love with a dead Chris(tianity). Changez’s description of Erica’s relationship with Chris does lend itself to such a reading: “I did not know whether I believed in the truth of their love; it was, after all, a religion that would not accept me as a convert.”
The mental illness of (Am)Erica, I said, could be read as a result of the secularisation of Christian values. The example I used was that of Christmas: if America thinks of itself as a secular state, why is Christmas designated a “national” holiday? I had expected a pushback but instead people agreed with me, and one of them even said that my comment was “spot on.”
An expectation that many in the class had was to be introduced to a quintessential work of Pakistani literature, a work that illuminated the Pakistani “national” reality. For this purpose, I chose Ghulam Abbas’s 1969 short story ‘The Rainbow’ which, in Chekhov’s words, offers the proper presentation of the (Pakistani) problem, and, in my opinion, should be considered the Great Pakistani Short Story à la the Great American Novel.
Set in Karachi against the backdrop of the first moon landing, in Abbas’s story, it is Captain Adam Khan, a Pakistani astronaut, and not Neil Armstrong, who is the first man to land on the moon. While the world rejoices in Captain Khan’s accomplishment, Pakistani clerics declare it a result of “the satanic sciences” and overthrow the government that permitted such a heretic endeavour.
Thereafter, the Green Party, led by a fiery mullah, comes to power and establishes a Sharia-based government to make Pakistan “the Kingdom of God on Earth.” To stymie the fast-growing sectarian divides, the leader of the Green Party constitutes a Consultative Council comprising members from the Red, Blue, Yellow, Black, and White parties: “Separately these colours mean nothing, but together they can create a breathtaking rainbow.” But despite the Green Party’s best efforts, unbridled sectarian violence ensues, leading Pakistan into a full-blown civil war.
‘The Rainbow’ remains one of the most prophetic stories in all Pakistani literature. Two years after its publication, in 1971, the eastern wing of Pakistan seceded after a brutal civil war to become Bangladesh. Six years after that, in 1977, Gen Ziaul Haq overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to institute a dictatorial Islamist regime not entirely dissimilar to the one Abbas had imagined.
As I discussed Abbas’s story with a group of Americans genuinely curious about Pakistan, I kept wondering if it were possible to teach the same story inside Pakistan, where it remains conspicuously overlooked, not only in educational curricula but also in the literary canon. A few years ago, I had translated the story for the now-defunct Annual of Urdu Studies edited by the late Muhammad Umar Memon, and I decided to use my own translation in the class. I’d be very interested to know how many readers in Pakistan knew about Abbas’s story before reading about it in this article.
Unlike Abbas’s story, in which the Green Party’s reign ends when Pakistan is bombed back to the stone-age by an enemy’s army, Gen Zia’s dictatorship ended when his C-130 Hercules exploded mid-air in 1988, killing him along with Arnold Raphael, the American ambassador to Pakistan at the time. Of course, Gen Zia’s last days leading up to his plane crash are fictionalised in Mohammed Hanif’s darkly comical novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, the next story on our reading list.
Expectedly, some people in the class drew parallels between President Donald Trump and Gen Zia who, in Hanif’s novel, has a case of pinworm infection and suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. A retired computer programmer in my class remarked that Hanif’s portrayal of the state institutions in Pakistan resembled that of Latin American drug cartels in American crime thrillers.
As I was teaching A Case of Exploding Mangoes in a small town in upstate New York, copies of the Urdu translation of the novel were being seized (By who? Let’s pretend we don’t know) from the office of Hanif’s Pakistani publisher, Maktaba-e-Danyal, in Karachi.
And this brings me to yet another issue of grave importance: state censorship in Pakistan. While the English version of Hanif’s novel has remained in circulation unencumbered since 2008, it is only its Urdu translation that needed to be kept from reaching the Pakistani public. Clearly, the Pakistani state does not allow the public to be exposed to a certain narrative critical of its policies and former rulers even when they happen to be ruthless military dictators.
It is not without any reason that much of Pakistani Urdu fiction is silent about one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the county — the 1971 civil war that led to the secession of the former East Pakistan. One is at pains to find any works in the corpus of Pakistani Urdu fiction that have explored this monumental tragedy in a self-reflective or compassionate manner. And when Pakistani Urdu writers have written about 1971, their writings are, in the words of Muhammad Umar Memon, full of “clichés and stereotypes…as well as the desire to peg the blame for what happened on the Bengalis and the Indians.” It is difficult to understand this narrative vacuum about 1971 as anything other than a case of national amnesia.
The few self-reflective works of literature on 1971 like Noor and Kartography have come from Pakistani Anglophone writers such as Sorayya Khan and Kamila Shamsie. We must keep in mind that the stories that Pakistani Anglophone writers are telling can only be told in English, a postcolonial inheritance, for these stories can certainly not be told in Urdu, the so-called “national language” of Pakistan.
On a related note, I have spent the last year-and-a-half trying to find any works of Urdu literature about or by the Punjabi Choorras, one of the most depressed Scheduled Castes in Pakistan. Even my discussions with leading Urdu scholars such as Nasir Abbas Nayyar and the late Asif Farrukhi did not yield much.
Commenting on Hanif’s novel and the censorship of its Urdu translation, a retired professor of English literature remarked that the state’s attitude toward ordinary Pakistanis was similar to that of British colonisers toward native Indians. Other literary works that have captured Pakistan’s postcolonial condition include Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Chekhovian short stories set on the sprawling estate of a feudal landlord, K.K. Harouni, a beneficiary of the British colonial policy of granting vast swathes of arable land to native collaborators.
Some students compared Pakistani civil servants like Harouni with American slave owners, and his employees (Nawabdin, a conniving electrician, and Husna, a semi-literate young woman) with victims of the greed of the Pakistani landowning classes.
As the course progressed, I couldn’t help but notice that, while most people wanted to read about Pakistan, they used Pakistani literature to reflect on their own American reality, which for me was both fascinating and rewarding. Initially unsure, I am glad I went ahead with my proposal because, apparently, several Lyceum members found it to be the most memorable course they had taken. I even ended up winning this year’s Bucali Manav HuseyinSkerecisoy Award for teaching, which has made me take myself a lot more seriously as a teacher. Established in 2018, this award is given to a graduate student “who has lectured during the academic year for Lyceum and contributed to cross-cultural communications, international relations, or access to education for underrepresented students.”
Lyceum has asked me to teach the course again in the fall and, since I regrettably did not include any women writers last time, I plan to devote the next iteration of the course to Pakistani women writers. Let’s see what old, white America thinks of a heady mix of works by Sara Suleri Goodyear and Bapsi Sidhwa sprinkled with the feminist poems of Fahmida Riaz.
Mushtaq Bilal is a Fulbright doctoral fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at Binghamton University and the author of the book Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fiction (HarperCollins 2016). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 19th, 2020