In a country as diverse in opinions, languages and cultures as Pakistan, it’s a shame that most of our literature is the kind that we’re importing from abroad. While most Pakistani readers (especially those more attuned to the English language) will have heard of western contemporaries such as John Green, J. K. Rowling or George R. R. Martin, very few know of our home-grown authors. Even though things might be taking a turn for the awesome in terms of literature festivals, we still have a long way to go.
So if you’re looking to pile up your TBR shelf with a few of our own desi writers but you’re not sure where to start from, add these writers to your list so you can find out what kind of brilliance we’re producing within the boundaries of our own country:
1. A Book with a Minority Protagonist
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammad Hanif features a main character who is a Christian – and not only that, but a female nurse. Hanif could not have found a more socially-fraught demographic for our protagonist to inhabit, and it is a credit to his wit and wisdom that the book manages to entertain without getting bogged down by the heavy topics it takes on. Besides being one of Pakistan's most famous writers, he is also clearly the best at what he does, so it makes sense to start off your reading spree with a book by Hanif.
2. A 9/11 Book
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid might be the best-known title on this list purely because it’s one of the few Pakistani novels to be adapted into a film. The 2012 political thriller of the same name, starring Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson, might not have earned a lot at the box office, but it definitely brought Hamid’s name into public attention. While the movie leaves much to be desired, the book is much better, dealing with both pre and post 9/11 events in our protagonist’s life with a fine touch.
3. A Book set in Karachi
Karachi, being the country’s most populous city, tends to feature regularly in Pakistani literature, and even though a lot of writers attempt to bring the city to life, very few actually manage to do it well. Bilal Tanweer's The Scatter Here is Too Great comes close, describing the city in all its flawed, fragmented glory. Written in barely-connected stories of different characters affected by a bomb going off in Karachi’s Cantonment Station, the novel deals with both the lead-up to and the aftermath of the explosion while at the same time winding between various perspectives and time lines.
· 4. A Book set at the Time of Partition
While 9/11 might be the international incident which finds its way into our narratives, Pakistan has its own turbulent past to deal with in the 1947 separation of the subcontinent, an event which has produced its own subset in literature. Bapsi Sidhwa Cracking India (original published as Ice Candy Man in 1988, accompanied by a 1998 Deepa Mehta movie titled Earth) is set at the time of partition, with a young Parsee girl’s life thrown into tumultuous change because of the drawing of the boundary lines to create India and Pakistan.
5. A Book Related to Partition
1947 may have been 70 years ago but that doesn’t mean the socio-political ramifications of that partition aren’t echoing in our collective consciousness now, and what better way to represent this than through literature. Kamila Shamsie's 2000 novel Salt and Saffron has the protagonist Aaliya set securely in the present times but the story is inextricably bound to her grandparents and their lives during the partition. Written in flashbacks, the novel intertwines both story lines to show how our past is so closely related to our present that there’s no point trying to escape it.
6. A Book About a Controversial Topic
As Pakistanis, there are a lot of things we don’t like to discuss, and chief among them are sex, promiscuity, and also the possibility of a widow daring to enjoy life. Ignoring those pre-conceived notions of proper societal behaviour is Musharruf Ali Farooqi’s protagonist in The Story of a Widow: Mona is not only self-reliant after her husband’s death, she also begins to consider saying yes to a neighbour’s tenant’s marriage proposal, sending everyone around her into a tailspin of horror and outrage. While the execution is imperfect, the book is still worth a read for its daring attempt at an oft-ignored topic.
7. A Chick Lit Novel
Even though the author herself mentioned in a twitter exchange that she doesn’t really classify her novel How it Happened as chick lit, all the elements in Shazaf Fatima Haider’s debut novel combine to produce the lightness and fun needed in times of a much-needed break from more serious, drier fare. Dealing with the concept of arranged and love marriages in a current-times versus older-generation sort of set-up, this book is the perfect thing to read if one is looking for a desi touch in a love story.
8. A Thriller
The social reality of living in Pakistan, with its constant threat of death and destruction, provides a fertile breeding ground for fast-paced thrillers to be written, and Omar Shahid Hamid puts that to good use in The Prisoner. With his background as a police officer, Hamid brings the setting to life in his books, using innocent suspects, corrupted politicians and kidnapped foreigners to produce a novel filled with intrigue, and all the while staying true to his roots as a Pakistani writer.
9. A Humourous Book
If thrillers can find common fodder for content in this country, humour is the counterpart which is severely lacking in material, and yet Saba imtiaz manages to do just that in Karachi, You’re Killing me! The 2014 novel, currently being adapted into a Bollywood movie starring Sonakshi Sinha, explores the life of 20-something journalist Ayesha as she navigates her career, love life and social circle while surviving the explosive, chaotic life of a Karachi reporter. While most books in Pakistan tend to focus on heavier, more serious matter, Imtiaz’s light, easy tone is the perfect antidote to a tough day.
10. A Fantasy Story
The fantasy genre has seen a massive increase in popularity with the airing of HBO’s Game of Throne series on TV, and Pakistanis have also begun to show interest, with Usman Malik's The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn being one of the first entries. Entwining tales of Mughal princesses and magic carpets with stories of jinns and keys to other worlds, Tanveer Malik does an interesting job of introducing the genre in a desi setting.