LETTER FROM KARACHI - DECEMBER 2012: PAKISTANI LITERATURE IN LONDON
 
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- by muneeza shamsie
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For the past few months I have been reading assiduously for the DSC 2013 prize for South Asian Fiction. Quite an experience it has been too because the books were really diverse. One of the interesting aspects of the prize is that it is open to translations and writers of any nationality as long as the subject matter relates to South Asia and South Asian Diaspora. The jury, chaired by the Indian poet Satchidanandan and consisting of Eleanor o’Keefe, Rick Simonson and Suvani Singh and me, met in London to choose the shortlist. We reached a decision quite amicably after detailed discussion but for all of us I think it was quite hard putting aside some really interesting books on the longlist. The six shortlisted books were announced at an event at The Mayfair Hotel where each book was discussed briefly by a judge followed by a short reading. Next, the jury will meet in India, at the Jaipur Literature Festival to chose the winner. The contending books will be:
 

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmed 
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam 
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghose
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif 
Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

 

As a rule, I visit London in the summer but this was my first winter visit to England since we went there en famille in November 1998 for the launch of Kamila’s first novel In The City by the Sea. Now Kamila lives in London. This summer she reviewed several of the international Shakespeare plays performed at The Globe Theatre including those by troupes from South Asia. This was all part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad which also included the British Museum’s stunning exhibition ‘Shakespeare Staging the World’ which I managed to see in its final weeks luckily. 
The exhibition recreated the age in which Shakespeare lived through paintings, artefacts, manuscripts, maps and much else including an oil portrait of Moroccan Ambassador at the Elizabethan court, a 1647 map ‘Long view of London from Bankside’, a Roman coin minted by the assassins of Julius Caesar, Henry V’s sword, saddle and shield – and of course the original Shakespeare’s Folio. Throughout there were brief video clips of well-known actors performing Shakespeare. The exhibition was supplemented by series of panel discussions sponsored by The Guardian at the British Museum and Kamila took part in one ‘The drama of nation building: did Shakespeare change the course of history?' chaired by Jon Snow. It was really interesting to listen to Professor Helen Hackett explore the changing concepts of nationhood in Shakespeare’s plays. She asserted that he had moved from an English identity under the Tudors, to a British identity after the accession of James I which, in turn, how led to a rethinking of Britain’s relationship with Europe as he revealed in his later plays. Stage director Roxanne Silbert spoke of Shakespeare’s ability to portray great kings in manner that they cease to be rulers but become people with very human emotions. She also spoke of Shakespeare’s comment on power and powerlessness which ‘captures an essence’ that holds leaders to account in era before the democratic age. Kamila referred to early Shakespeare plays which were performed in the subcontinent but honed in the translation, adaptation and indigenization of Shakespeare’s plays into Urdu by the famous Parsee theatre of Bombay in the late 19th century. In turn, these influenced the Bollywood film industry in the 20th century.

In London, as autumn gave way to winter, the days grew shorter and trees shed leaves of rust and gold, I was reminded of the fact that this was the season for new plays, exhibitions, literary events and much else including the South Asian Literature Festival which is now in its third year. Many of its events are held at the Bush Theatre and included a session with Nadeem Aslam. He spoke about his new work and gave a poetic reading from his novel The Blind Man’s Garden (forthcoming February 2013). The novel tells of two foster brothers, Jeo and Mikaal who leave their home, a Pakistani village, to sneak into Afghanistan amid American bombing during the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ with the idealistic intention of caring for wounded civilians. Inevitably they are overtaken by events beyond their control. The novel also deals with torture and its effects, but Aslam explained that he cut out details of horror and physical cruelty; instead he focused on brutalization and psychological violence. Aslam spoke of the way he has depicted extremism as well as other aspects of religion and belief and said he was fortunate to have a large extended family in Pakistan where he has been able to observe all these dimensions. The plot also revolves around the family that Jeo and Mikaal have left behind in their village, particularly their blind father. 

Aslam is known to immerse himself so completely in his writing and his characters, while working on a novel that he shuts himself off from the outside world for long periods. To capture a sense of being sightless, he went to the length of blindfolding himself for weeks; he kept bumping into everything at first and was covered with bruises. He also wore thin shoes so that his feet became more sensitive to obstacles; he hammered nails into the floor near the cooker to help him find the place to stand and prepare his meals. 

Aslam is a major talent and his novels were a discussed extensively at a seminar ‘South Asian Fiction: Contemporary Transformations’ organized by The Open University. Dr. Rehana Ahmed’s paper ‘Creative Freedom and Community Restraint in Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers’ explored Aslam’s second novel which revolves around an honour killing in a small, nameless all Asian working class neighbourhood in northern Britain. Ahmed also referred to the narrative’s cyclical structure, the portrayal of the changing seasons and pastoral setting as well as the use of intertextual references, metaphors and images (including photographs and paintings) to create a polyphonic narrative which is built up by tales within tales - a technique which Ahmed said is ‘not unlike Sheherzade’s storytelling’ in A Thousand and One Nights. Ahmed dwelt on the manner in which Aslam juxtaposes a system of rigid religious beliefs of one set of characters against a more open secular ethos of others. Ahmed began her talk by referring to Aslam third novel The Wasted Vigil, which is set in contemporary Afghanistan. In the opening paragraph Lara, a young Russian visitor to the villa of an English doctor Marcus looks up to see books impaled onto the ceiling by Qatrina, his late Afghan wife: Ahmed said this illustrates metaphorically the Taliban’s hostility to creative freedom. 

Dr. Peter Morey also discussed the image in his paper ‘How Stories Travel: Worlding of the 9/11 novel in Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil’. Morey said the impaled books embody the fate of culture and world literature in a lawless society. He went on to discuss the manner in which today’s globalization challenges the traditional Anglo-American narrative. He pointed out that Aslam’s extensive references to overlapping cultural and literary references from ancient times to the present day indicate world literature and world reading. He says that the Englishman’s Afghan villa is essentially a ‘house of readers’, a place where men and women of different nationalities – Afghan, American, British, Russian - have converged and ‘read’ - i.e listen to - each other’s stories: each tale imbued with a personal quest. Amid these interlinked internationalist characters, Aslam places a would-be suicide bomber and a war orphan, Casa, a young man shaped by a militant religious propaganda in the refugee camp and who cannot - and does not know how to - articulate his story. Morey also dwelt on the novel’s historic sweep and the central image of the stone statue of Buddha which lies in the garden: he explained it was in Afghanistan that Buddha was first given ‘a human face’. He went on to discuss Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist which picks up on the dichotomies of the post 9/11 discourse and ‘deterritorializes’ with a universalist approach which questions and destabilizes notions of east vs. west, them vs us. Aslam and Hamid were the only two novelists discussed in of Priyamavada Gupta keynote address ‘Of Capitalism and Critique: Anglophone Pakistani Fiction after 9/11’ chaired by Amina Yaqin.


 

 

 

 

 

As a result it was great relief to find that some papers at least explored a different aspect of Pakistani English fiction which has much more to offer than the ‘9/11’ novel. Claire Chambers presented a lively paper on ‘The heart, stomach and backbone of Pakistan: Lahore in Bapsi Sidhwa’s and Mohsin Hamid’s fiction which explored the city’s history and its social fabric, its contradictions and contrasts as a microcosm of Pakistan. The many other papers presented at the seminar addressed fiction from other South Asian countries. These included Emma Dawsons’ Varghese’s paper on Chick Lit in India; Ruvani Ranasingh’s ‘Islam and Resistance in the novels of Kamila Shamsie and Monica Ali’; Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s ‘Kashmir: A New Pastoral’ which included a discussion of the Indian-born Mirza Waheed and his critically acclaimed novel The Collaborator; Stephano Mercanti’s turned his attention to a little-discussed subject: South Asian literature in Australia in his very informativie paper ‘Sharing Histories: Transcultural Australia in South Asian Australian Fiction’. The seminar ended with a plenary panel with Elleke Boehmer, Susheila Nasta and Suman Gupta chaired by Alex Tickell.

Towards the end of my trip, I managed to catch the British Library fascinating and extensive exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture, Empire’ portrayed the history of the Mughals and their lifestyle with particular emphasis on their patronage of art and literature. The exhibition included a few artefects and a number of beautifully illuminated books, but its focus was paintings, particularly Mughal miniatures.

I returned home to the sad news that an old family friend, the columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee had passed away. He was man with a great sense of humour, a raucous laugh and an irreverent view of authority. He wrote fearless weekly columns in Dawn and did not hesitate to champion just causes. Many tributes and obituaries have been written about him, but I think I can do no better than to concur with the excellent article by columnist Ayaz Amir who pointed out what rare and remarkable man Ardeshir was ‘a genuine seth (tycoon) belonging a family of shipping magnates’. However Amir went on to say: ‘And to think that the foundation of his national and, indeed, international reputation was neither philanthropy nor the championing of good causes – although in both activities he distinguished himself greatly – but newspaper-writing, not just unusual but unique for a seth with his background.’ (‘An Unusual Man’ The News, Nov 30). However Ardeshir did live long enough to see the publication of his book Vintage Cowasjee- A Selection of Writings from Dawn: 1984-2011 With a Foreword by Amina Jilani which his many readers and admirers will surely treasure, as I do.

 
 
was published in November 2016
 
 
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