The second out of three events held to launch Granta Magazine's Pakistan issue was held in collaboration with the South Asian Journalists Association, at the Columbia School of Journalism, a starkly different environment from the first launch event which was held at an art gallery. Instead of affluent New York City desis, the audience consisted of journalism students, Columbia professors, media professionals, as well as a multitude of various interested people. Perhaps giving more credence to Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage, the conversation between Granta editor, John Freeman, Ayesha Nasir, Mohsin Hamid and others was more focused, this time round, on the issues of journalism, media, and the distribution of fiction.

As anyone who has written about Pakistan can tell you, it’s not an easy task to capture the complexity of post-colonial South Asian society and communicate it to diverse global audiences. Sometimes a journalistic medium just doesn't have the luxury to be vivid and descriptive, not allowing the readers to grasp some of the nuances which define a society and the issues it faces. A dry objective news story of a few hundred words is insufficient in transporting a reader to the place even momentarily. This is where the short story, the novella, monologues, personal anecdotes come in; such narratives may be far from objective and authoritative, but sometimes its more important to communicate the essence than merely stating the facts.

It's quite apparent that though Pakistan can make headlines in global media, the chasm between the fictional and non-fictional representations of the country has widened. For all the curiosity about Pakistan, the country's fiction is acutely underrepresented among the global literati. This may be because there isn't enough fiction coming out of the country in English, but it's also because there isn't a sustainable infrastructure to give any writers the exposure they need.

At the same time, there is a lot of literature in Urdu and other Pakistani languages which never gets translated or exposure beyond its immediate audience. Non-English writers, like Chekhov and Tolstoy, are celebrated in the short-story medium, but Urdu literature doesn't get translated and/or published, circulated etc. There's a lot to talk about when it comes to literature and writing in Pakistan, but it’s hard to explain why there aren't any significant literary journals, fictional magazines, and other publications that get the kind of wide circulation some of our newspapers get. Perhaps we don't pride our literary tradition enough to promote it in the world.

The discussion at the Columbia School of Journalism delved into some very interesting related facets. A subject which might be of interest to young writers was the role of writing competitions like the “Life is Too Short, Short Story Contest” play in making known commodities out of undiscovered talent. Mohsin Hamid touched upon the role of internet  proliferation in Pakistan, and how these “digital commons” give the written word a much more resounding impact within Pakistani society. And how the new age of media liberalisation is somehow undoing the damage done by Zia's regime of repressive Islamisation in the ’80s.

But does having fifty-odd television channels and a sleuth of meaningless talk-shows really help? The discussion also explored some of the more nightmarish dystopian affects of mass-media culture on an unsuspecting place like Pakistan. Hamid commented, "the waters are intentionally muddy, which gives rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories and factless discourse," adding that he thought the state was actively engaged in creating a culture of political apathy, where people were inclined to go on “lazily believing something they know isn't really true.” This made me think that perhaps fiction had a much more relevant and political role to play in how Pakistanis see themselves and the world around them. Perhaps art, creativity, and fictional narrative could succeed where free media and the “lawyers' revolution” had failed in bringing about change.

English literature aside, Pakistan has had a very vibrant and often political writing scene in Urdu, among other languages in the country. One shouldn't get too comfortable with the assumption that just because something is in Urdu, it expresses conservative ideas, or presents a status quo version of reality. In fact, many writers like Saadat Hasan Manto for instance, one of the pioneers of the Urdu short story, and one of Mohsin Hamid's often credited literary inspirations, wrote many controversial, scandalous, and even licentious stories full of dilemmas and paradoxes. In addition to Manto's work in Urdu, Hamid told the audience that "there's some pretty racy stuff in the Urdu literary scene",  while citing an example of an Urdu short story Challawa, recently translated into English by Mohammed Hanif, about an older lesbian woman who would ride buses in Karachi trying to pick up younger girls. The Columbia students seemed mildly perturbed by the idea, but they nodded in agreement in any case.

Of course, like any other conversation about Pakistan in New York, the issue of Faisal Shahzad reared its ugly head at least once. Ayesha Nasir, one of the contributing writers had written a piece in collaboration with Lorraine Adams about the personal side of Faisal Shahzad. They claimed that it was necessary to imagine some parts of the narrative to tell a fuller story while presenting the subject as a human. My mind drifted in to the fictional possibilities of a character like Faisal Shahzad. I saw, what the panel even called a “tragic character” at one point, to be pretty close to a Hamidesque character, nihilistic, with a bitterness for the world around him, perhaps he could be a fusion of Dara Shikoh, and Changez from Hamid's two novels. But then tragically, Faisal would need a more resounding name than what his parents chose (no offence to all the Faisals out there).

For Mohsin Hamid (not that he's a terrorist sympathiser or anything), Faisal Shahzad's ultimate buffoonery was the fact that he bungled the military time on the bomb-timer, and set it for 6:00 am instead of 1800 hours, and that too despite being the son of a military man.

Once the discussion about one of Pakistan's lesser prided expatriates was over, the conversation came back into comfortable territory. Pakistan's budding music scene and the Coke Studio collaborations were discussed. Hamid said that he was surprised when a friend of his had a Zeb and Haniya song as his mobile ring tone, he added that though Pakistan had many female acts coming out before, the music that's been coming out more recently is something special. Pakistani female writers also discussed, and more interestingly Columbia students were interested in Pakistani female poetry, which no one on the panel seemed to know much about. If anyone knows anything about the topic they should post some links in the comments.

Overall the second Granta launch discussion was informative, and brings out a lot of related questions about how we should value our creative output as a society. That Granta has given Pakistan such exposure in a time of distress is definitely a positive development, and one can hope that younger creatively-driven Pakistanis can take this as a sign that they should put themselves out there more in order to get some recognition, and perhaps invest more dearly in their art and craft.

Asif Akhtar is interested in critical social discourse as well as the expressive facets of reactive art and is one of the schizophrenic narrators of a graphic novel. He blogs at, can be found on Facebook and tweets at Akhtar is currently writing from New York City where he studies politics at the New School for Social Research.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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