18 Oct 2020


Shopping for art at an Islamabad open air market — in their normal lives, Pakistanis often do not conform to the image created by the political lens the West views them through
Shopping for art at an Islamabad open air market — in their normal lives, Pakistanis often do not conform to the image created by the political lens the West views them through

Put together by German — or Germany-based — academics, Pakistan: Alternative Imag(in)ings of the Nation State is an ambitious work. It aims for nothing less than to study Pakistan through a non-political or non-current affairs lens, countering an image of Pakistan as a subject primarily of political science.

This volume is thus concerned with a cultural history of sorts, an examination of language and literature, cultural life and the quotidian. But nothing in Pakistan is apolitical and, even in this alternative imagining, politics creeps in through one essay on student organisations and Sindhi nationalism, another on issues of forced conversion and the book’s last essay on the rise of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). But more on that later.

A key feature of this volume is that it is very eclectic. There is something in it for everyone, and I found myself thinking of recommending the book to friends who are aficionados of Urdu literature, to those interested in nationalist politics, even to those who frequent Islamabad’s farmers’ market (yes, there’s an essay on such markets as well!). But at the same time, there is perhaps too much of a canvas being covered here. This is serious reading, and one’s mind flits from one subject to the next rather quickly.

The essays are organised in a sense, the first three dealing with literature and language, the next three being concerned with religious minorities and the last four are a mix — more political, but with a strong flavour of anthropology. As a result, the average reader, whose interests may not necessarily be wide ranging, will not engage with the subject matter consistently. To be honest, I almost skipped over the first essay on debates on modernism in Urdu literature, but then was gripped by the chapter on forced conversion. I dare say other readers will have a similar experience.

Having said that, a little bit about the contents. A well referenced introduction explains how the concept of Alternative Imag(in)ings of the Nation State came up and, as the term implies, political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities — wherein nationalism is conceived as a social construct — is a starting point.

An anthology of essays is an eclectic cultural history of sorts of Pakistan, attempting to look at the country beyond the political lens it is usually viewed through

Jürgen Schaflechner, one of the book’s three editors, posits that Pakistan has been repeatedly mentioned in political science literature as a place “insufficiently imagined”, thus implying a historical deficiency, or a failure to see Pakistan as anything but “not India.” For Schaflechner, this pejorative view can be “counter-appropriated” by saying that all democratic, diverse societies are “insufficiently imagined.” Seeing the country through a range of alternative images is a means to, as the book implies, celebrate this so-called “insufficiency.”

Having explained the rationale behind the diverse subjects of the chapters in this volume, the editors — Schaflechner, Christina Oesterheld and Ayesha Asif — present 10 essays. As noted earlier, the first three deal with literary expression. In the first, Oesterheld looks at how Urdu literature deals with concepts of progressivism and postmodernism. Aqsa Ijaz analyses a modern Urdu novel — Mirza Athar Baig’s Ghulam Bagh [Garden of Slaves] — focusing on how it portrays characters who are uprooted and intellectually displaced, yet rooted in modern Pakistani society.

Laurent Gayer argues against dismissing Urdu digests as pulp fiction and, instead, says that they allow for a study of social change in Pakistan over the years. Gayer’s essay provides a biographical sketch of the Amrohvi brothers — Rais Amrohvi (born Syed Mohammad Mehdi), Syed Mohammad Taqi and Syed Mohammad Abbas — including their youngest sibling Syed Husain Jaun Asghar, better known as the ever-popular Jaun Elia. The writer also unearths popular digests serialising erotic literature in Urdu, including the ‘Challava’ series, popular in the 1970s, whose protagonist was a gay female detective! For those of us growing up in the 1980s and after, the idea that such a character had ever gained popular currency is incredible.

The next three essays look at Pakistan through the experience of religious minority communities. Not surprisingly, this is sometimes a wrenching read. Peter Jacob, a Pakistani Christian prominent in civil society circles, writes about how the political participation of religious minorities has gradually shrunk over the decades.

Schaflechner’s essay on forced conversion amongst the Hindu community in Sindh uses a number of case studies to illustrate how the cycle of kidnapping (or elopement), conversion and marriage proceeds. But he is quick to point out — and quotes women’s rights activists to support his case — that cases of forced conversion are complex and the situation may not always be clear from a superficial reading of newspaper accounts, or by just hearing one community’s account.

There is an interesting quote from well known activist Marvi Sirmed who, when talking about the famous Rinkle Kumari case, admits that she was in doubt about whether she was interfering in the young woman’s right to choose a life partner and leave behind a life of oppression as a woman from a minority community which faces multifarious forms of discrimination. While many cases of forced marriage may be attempts to conceal sexual assault, others may be attempts by women to break through the rigid patriarchal norms they are faced with.

Meanwhile, Quratulain Masood’s essay on interfaith marriages in Karachi gives many examples of how society’s reaction to such marriages, and the attitude of the protagonists themselves, varies considerably with economic and social status and the circumstances in which the couples meet and decide to be together.

The last four essays cover more of a range of subjects. Michel Boivin looks at how the legend of Jhoolay Lal survives on both sides of the divide (in the Indian state of Rajasthan and in Pakistan’s Sindh province), transcending borders and religions. Julien Levesque traces how Sindhi nationalism is portrayed in literature, and through the growth of student movements in the province. He draws on the writings of Hyder Bakhsh Jatoi, a leftist and Sindhi nationalist who strongly opposed the One Unit, as well as the political career of G.M. Syed, and explains how ethnic polarisation became a feature of even the left-wing student movements in the ’70s and ’80s. His characterisation of the latter as a “reluctant separatist” would be interesting to students of ethnic politics.

The last two essays in the volume are perhaps the weakest links. Julia Porting’s piece on urban farmers’ markets in Lahore and Islamabad implies that these markets disrupt as well as re-enact social hierarchies, and does not make for very convincing reading. Characterising these tiny urban bubbles, which cater to a select audience, as “spaces of resistance against global and local power structures” seems a bit far-fetched.

Ayesha Asif’s essay on the rise of the PTI is rather superficial, taking the PTI’s rhetoric at face value and lauding the party’s ability to bring together “diverse groups” against traditional politicians. Writing of the PTI as a populist party with a unique agenda doesn’t quite ring true to anyone who studies Pakistan’s politics seriously.

All in all, however, this volume is a valiant effort to talk about Pakistan as something other than a “dangerous” nation that “harboured” jihadi elements and poses a danger to the West.

The reviewer is a researcher and policy analyst

Pakistan: Alternative Imag(in)ings of the Nation State
Edited by Jürgen Schaflechner, Christina Oesterheld and Ayesha Asif
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0190701314

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 18th, 2020