September 15, 2019

Of Literature and the Language Used to Describe it: Writing Pakistan by Mushtaq Bilal (Review)

“People are writing about drone strikes, for instance. They really want to write about drone strikes because apparently that is very important. They are writing about terrorism because that is very important. They internalize the stuff that they see on television as ‘important’, and they think that this is what we need to be writing about. In both the cases, what you really want them to think about is what is important to them as people, things they actually avoid confronting in themselves and through that a larger reality.”

Writing Pakistan is the sort of book I would never have read a few years ago. That’s because the person I was a few years ago didn’t really give a damn about Pakistani literature, beyond complaining about how little of it there was, and how uninteresting it all felt. Like a greater number of the English-taught, private school kids that Pakistan breeds, I grew up on Sweet Valley and Hardy Books, on Famous Five and Secret Seven, books which featured no Muslims, Pakistanis, or people of my skin tone, and certainly did not contain any similarities to the reality that I inhabited.

But during my undergrad I decided to make an active effort to read Pakistani literature, because I knew nothing about it and I figured I should. And of course, in retrospect the lessons are obvious: there is a lot more literature being produced by my country than I had originally thought, and a lot of it is much more interesting than I had imagined.

There still isn’t a Sweet Valley equivalent, and in my defense this particular ‘boom’ in the production of literature from Pakistan is still a fledgling thing, but there’s a lot more of it than I had expected. Which means that books like this (which aren't the literature itself but talk about it at great length) are great for encouraging a much-needed debate around the whole endeavor.

“Fiction from Pakistan is not supposed to have artistic engagements–it’s required to provide information, not an experience.”

Contained in this book are interviews with some of Pakistan’s bigger names, authors who have achieved a degree of fame both locally as well as abroad. Conducted by Mushtaq Bilal, all interviews were condensed to 20 pages or less of text, and followed a pretty flexible set of questions, sometimes meandering onto details the authors wished to spend their time lingering over except for when Bilal steered it back to the topic. A few questions he repeated to almost all the authors: that of using English as a medium of expression, the post-colonial label attached to Pakistani literature, and whether the authors believed they represented Pakistan. And almost all the authors responded in pretty much the same way: I use English because that’s what I’m comfortable with, I don’t care about the post-colonial label, and I don’t believe I can represent a whole country.

Of course, this wasn’t the only thing they talked about. Some obvious references to topics that I had been expecting came up: 9/11 and our relationship with USA, the concept of pandering to a select audience, how politics affects writing, and how religion affects writing are all things the authors made references to in their answers. And while some statements were pretty redundant or repetitive, there was some really interesting material in there which made the whole reading experience worth it.

“I do know that Pakistanis are very sensitive to their identities as Muslims because they are taught from a young age that Pakistan was founded for them as Muslims. So religious identity matters more to them than it might to a citizen of a country that has always had an organic Islamic identity.”

And while the answers to the questions mentioned above are the reason I wanted to read this book, it was also fascinating to have an in-depth, one-on-one look at the authors I’ve spent the last few years reading. From Kamila Shamsie to Mohammad Hanif, or Bina Shah to Bilal Tanweer, almost all authors revealed something personal about the writing experience, something which was a comment on the greater publishing landscape while still being an intimate account of their own journey. Bapsi Sidhwa’s discussions about the publication of her novel The Crow Eaters could be a comment on how acceptance of Pakistani literature from abroad leads to acceptance from within the country as well.

“The Crow Eaters was self-published in Lahore because nobody abroad wanted to publish it. But after it was self-published, Jonathan Cape in England published it and it got nice reviews and won the David Higham prize, and then it got wonderful press in Lahore too.”

Similarly, Musharruf Ali Farooqi spoke in detail about the Urdu publishing industry, a topic that doesn’t usually get much traction in debates about Pakistani literature, given the oft-quoted and highly controversial decline in the popularity of said language. Farooqi talked about how in Urdu literature tradition you would only be considered a proper writer if you were not just a poet but also a letter writer, an essayist, a storyteller, all at the same time.

“I wanted to become a professional writer and although books written in Urdu sell in Pakistan and also in India, there is not an established Urdu publishing industry in either of the countries. There are no royalties (for books published in Urdu). You have to self-publish your books and then self-distribute them too.”

A few particular authors I was looking forward to reading, such as Kamila Shamsie, one of my favourite Pakistani authors who spoke true to form, smart and insightful in her commentary about both the country as well as the writing process. What I particularly like about Shamsie’s work, reflected in her three-dimensional female characters as well as in her thought process during interviews, is how smartly she speaks about issues pertaining to women and specifically to Pakistani women.

“Some of the strongest and most independent women in Pakistan are not upper class and some of the most oppressed women, in terms of their ideas of the world, are upper class.”

In some cases, a lone author would take a stance separate from the rest, such as in the issue of representation, because while almost every author believed that they couldn't carry the burden of representing the whole country, Mohsin Hamid spoke to the contrary. Almost all authors very firmly stated that they had not attempted to, and did not wish to be representatives of anything or anyone, but Hamid took a different route.

“After 9/11, I felt myself more of an intermediary. Not because I wanted to assert some kind of a ‘Hello world, allow me to explain, I am some privileged Pakistani…’ it was because I thought the misconception about Pakistan is so enormous and so dangerous that I have to, for my own sake, try to address and correct this.”

What was even more interesting was when the authors would talk about their very personal experiences of writing the book. In Pakistan each author has their very own publishing experience since we don’t have a proper industry, so it’s fascinating to see the paths each one has taken to achieving literary recognition. In some cases, such as with Uzma Aslam Khan, even the process of writing the book was worth discussing.

“Strangely, upon completion of each book, I have also found myself getting extremely sick. After The Geometry of God, I developed a problem with my ankle; after Thinner than Skin, with my knee. I still have these problems. It is very strange. It is as though I write with all of me, not simply the mind or the heart. I write with my ankles. I write with my knees.”

Unfortunately, it was hard to feel connected to authors whose works I haven’t read, since I had no context for the texts they were discussing. That might be part of the reason I’d put off reading this book for so long, given that I bought it at KLF two years back. It also explains why I wasn’t questioning the book for being outdated (in the sense that the authors questioned have published other works by now), since I delayed the reading of it myself.

Two years from when I bought this book, I’ve read all the authors except for two of them, whose interviews I predictably did not care for. Aamer Hussain (who sometimes had interesting things to say about the language he chose to write in) came off as confrontational and rude, regularly insulting the questions Mushtaq Bilal chose to ask. One wonders, is that a normal way to behave while being interviewed? It was such a bizarre experience, to have the interviewer’s questions be judged as so lacking. Shehryar Fazli (God, the spelling of his name kills every past version of me who got a misspelled certificate or legal document) was another author whose interview I almost skip read, because I haven’t read any of his books. Clearly it would have been better to read their books before jumping into this.

On the flip side, there are a number of famous Pakistani authors I’ve read who aren’t mentioned in this book: Bilal accounted for this by limiting his requirements. All authors not only had to be of Pakistani origin, their work also had to ‘present an active engagement with issues that are characteristically Pakistani’, they must have had some level of critical acclaim both locally as well as abroad, and finally, they had to produce literary fiction (thus excluding those of the genre fiction writing such as Shazaf Fatima Haider, Moni Mohsin, Saba Imtiaz, Omar Shahid Hamid, etc). Some who did fulfill the requirements Bilal missed for reasons he explained in detail: Nadeem Aslam’s literary agency claimed he was not available for an interview, H. M. Naqvi said he preferred to let his novel speak, Ali Sethi said he’d do the interview once his second book came out, Fatima Bhutto our interviewer couldn’t contact, Jamil Ahmad was in ill health, and Daniyal Mueenuddin apparently answered questions so inadequately that Bilal didn’t bother adding him in the final list. Other writers also fulfilled all the criteria except for one—that of their written work not dealing with contemporary Pakistani issues—including Tariq Ali and Zulfiqar Ghose, both prolific authors in their own rights.

The thing is, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as engaging material for any reader. I obviously really liked it, but that’s because I have a vested interest in Pakistani literature, given how much time I spend reviewing it. And I’m glad that it has been published, because not only will it serve as great material for classroom discussions and reference material, we also need as much material as we can generate about our country’s literature output. But beyond that, would an average reader care much for this book? I doubt it. Frankly, the format and the content are not fascinating enough to urge me to recommend this to just about anyone.

And one final statement before I wrap it up: what in the world is up with that horrible cover design? As someone who works with books, I spend a lot of time engaged in heated discussions with our Design and Sales teams about what colour scheme, illustration, or design we will be using for our book’s covers. Given how much time I know publishing houses can spend finalizing these things, it’s amazing to me that such a boring cover got approved. I guess one can never really learn all there is to know about the publishing process.

May 30, 2019

Of Culture and Society: Being Pakistani by Raza Rumi (Book Review)

I’ll admit that I really wanted to like this book, primarily because the author has been appreciative of my reviews. It’s obviously not a very valid place from where to judge a piece of text: there’s a reason I don’t like to review stuff by people I’m even casually acquainted with. But a friend had it lying around and I knew I would be reading it eventually, so I figured why not. I figured I’d try to be as impartial as possible. 

Still, I hadn’t expected how very bored I would be. I mean, a book about Pakistan’s literature and subcontinental TV shows and South Asian music hypothetically sounded like a good bet. I might not be a fan of non-fiction but when the topic is captivating enough or relevant to things I love talking about, I’ve been known to take an active interest. Case in point, Rumi’s previous book Delhi By Heart, and one of the major reasons I decided to start his second book. Unfortunately, this time it seems all the charm has worn off. Completely. 

There’s some major obvious reasons for why it didn’t work. First, given that the book is a collection of previously published articles, it’s highly outdated. Most of the articles in it were printed more than four or five years back, and talk about stuff that’s moved much forward in time and in context. It’s no fun reading a 2010 article about amazing women like Fahmida Riaz without the mention of her death in as recent a time as November of last year (and having worked with her as an editor of the stories she wrote for children, it somehow felt doubly offensive). It’s pointless reading about the pioneers of Pakistani pop like Alamgir without mentioning how musical platforms like Coke Studio are revolutionizing a new generation’s relationship with our country’s older music. And it’s frankly irritating to read articles from as far back as 2010 without the very acute awareness that the world has moved much ahead, and that the text could have done with much updating. 

Even besides the fact that most of the content feels horribly obsolete, there’s also a certain lack of connection between the various topics being offered. Even though there’s been a clear effort at trying to arrange them under certain loosely defined categories (devotion, literature, and arts being what the editor and author seem to have wanted to focus on), the fact of the matter is that all these texts were written at different points in time, with the author wanting to focus on very different things in each speech or scholarly article he has chosen to share. What that leads to is a constant repetition of certain themes and sentences, especially in the introduction portion of each text, which quickly got boring. That, coupled with the fact that there seems to be no smooth transaction from one article to the next, and we’re very obviously left reading a bunch of loosely connected pieces of text. 

But of course all of these things could have been forgiven if the content itself had been very fascinating. I’ve been known to forgive a multitude of problems in any text when faced with the prospect of a well written, heartfelt piece of non-fiction, but those words unfortunately don’t apply in this case. I mean, there’s some good stuff, and I stayed pretty captivated by certain texts, such as those that talked about Asim Butt’s fascinating activism, the amazing miniature artwork being produced by Shahzia Sikander, or how public architecture in Pakistan is intertwined with the religious and the political. Unfortunately, the good stuff is few and far between, and is the only reason the book managed to creep its way from a one to a two star rating. 

There are definitely some people out there who could potentially really like this book, and I do believe there’s a market for titles such as these. Unfortunately, I’m not that reader, even though the blurb convinced me otherwise. While I’m all for encouraging a healthy and vigorous discussion about Pakistan’s culture, whether that be literature or music, music or TV shows, I need something with more nuance for it to captivate my attention. Given that I left this book lying on my side table while I finished two other books, I’m going to give this a very, very hesitant recommendation. 

May 22, 2019

Of Short Stories and Society: The Mercurial Mr Bhutto and Other Stories by Maheen Usmani (Review)

Maheen Usmani’s debut, The Mercurial Mr Bhutto and Other Stories, might be the beginning of her fiction writing career, but it is a strong beginning and one she has used to her advantage.

Unlike a full-length novel, the short story collection is a form that allows writers to explore a variety of different things, changing their characters and endings at will, all in the same book. It also allows for a level of creative fulfilment without the larger investment required in plotting out a longer novel.

Comprising of 10 stories, Usmani uses the form to try her hand at incorporating real-life figures and events into her writing, melding fact and fiction together in interesting ways. The very first tale—after which the collection is named—shows a child’s perspective of the political scenario during the reign of Pakistan’s first elected leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. With a father who is a staunch supporter of Bhutto, our protagonist is too young to express her own political opinions, but is affected nonetheless by administrative decisions taken under him, such as when she’s forced to study Sindhi. These small-scale ripple effects of government diktats on everyday life are very well represented for a debut story, culminating in a horrifying scene where anti-Bhutto extremists force the father to call Bhutto a dog as they burn tyres and block roads to protest against a political leader whom our heroine’s parents hold so dear. Post Bhutto’s execution, the heroine finds herself facing the same man who once held a burning branch to her father’s face, with a sudden twist ending that one doesn’t see coming.

Unexpected endings crop up quite regularly in the collection. The second story, 15 Seconds of Fame, features an MBA student failing spectacularly in the job market. When offered an interview by a professor who catches him cleaning tables, our protagonist feels hope for the first time in ages, but his day takes a turn for the worse very quickly. Caught on camera as he climbs a ledge to escape a burning building, he becomes a spectacle for the gossip-hungry masses glued to their television screens. As with all her stories, Usmani writes an ending that is both poignant and unpleasant, pointing out the realities of our lives while also showing how very cruel our lives have become. The author uses the unpredictable ending again to great effect in Fifty Shades of Grief, a tale which features a funeral and the murderer lurking right there amongst the mourners. While the idea of changing the reader’s perspective at the last moment is a particularly favourite trick of a number of writers, few can carry it off with aplomb.

The fact that the writing stays focused on the characters rather than on the plot plays out well for certain tales where ‘what’ our protagonist is doing is of the utmost importance. Giving characters a significant amount of agency is always a good risk to take, because it ensures that we’re dependent on the character to keep the narrative flowing. However, sometimes a little outside intervention is also necessary for stories to have some weight besides the internal monologue of people in whom—because of the short narrative—we don’t have enough time to feel truly invested. For instance, in High Tide and Maestro, two stories which talk more about missed opportunities and regrets than about a significant event in time, the writing fumbles, unable to deliver enough of the depth required to truly pull the reader in.

Some stories feel weak and could do with some revising, such as Home Sweet Home, written from the point of view of a bureaucrat whose wife’s expenditure on their home after his retirement verges on the absurd. While the story is a quick, painless read, it isn’t clear what the author aims to gain out of her writing. This sort of meandering in the plot, without a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, can be found in other tales in the collection as well, such as the ironically titled City of Lights, which discusses that most basic of all Pakistani experiences: electricity woes. But sometimes even when there is no point to the story itself—such as in Small Change, a bittersweet reminiscing about a larger-than-life friend to whom the protagonist is making her way back, only for us to find out that maybe the friend is not in this world anymore—such stories, while not heavy on action, manage to retain a sentimental sense of nostalgia.

It is the last story that is the most hard-hitting, featuring a flashback in which a woman recounts her own experience of sexual abuse. With heated global conversations ongoing about trigger warnings and whether they should be used or not, it is stories like Usmani’s Baby which will ensure that there is space in Pakistan for these discussions as well. Whether the story is extremely well-written or extremely discomforting remains to the reader to decide; what is important is that Usmani treats the subject matter with a nuanced dignity, managing to make the act seem creepy and invasive without coming across as titillating or controversial for the sake of controversy. In a collection full of interesting tales, this is a strong ending.

Almost all the stories in the collection, from the one about Bhutto to the one about load shedding, seem to have some basis in the reality of living in Pakistan. In fact, there is a strong sense that particular scenes within the stories themselves are the starting point around which the rest of the plot and the characters are drawn. This isn’t to say that there are singular points of intense description and plot movement in the tales, but rather that the author seems to have found inspiration in a particular moment in time, maybe even a personal experience of her own, which then finds expression in her stories.

And because these are well written, the whole story then gains a degree of authenticity that can be hard to evoke with a short word length. What also helps is how short the narrative remains. Almost all the stories wrap up within a few pages, allowing the reader to never get bored with any extended scenes. Overall a strong collection, one can only hope that Usmani’s writing will continue to improve, providing us with possibly great Pakistani literature in the future.


This review was originally published in Books and Authors on 19 May, 2019.

May 01, 2019

Of Asia and Ambition: Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Book Review)

This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning.

Mohsin Hamid is one of those writers who gets better at every re-read. I’m not really sure if that’s a compliment or not, given that not many people find themselves inclined to go back to books they didn’t love in the first place. The only reason I went back to Moth Smoke was because I hadn’t reviewed it the first time around, and it’s the same with this book. If I hadn’t had this compelling reason, I might never have opened any of Hamid’s works again, and might have missed the opportunity to enjoy it more fully. And while one could make an argument for there being too many books on our To-Read list to bother with ones we’ve already read and discarded, I’d say that some books get better as you get older, so that the things teenage-you didn’t enjoy suddenly become much more nuanced.

Written in twelve parts, this particular story is written as a self-help guide, where you, the reader, are also the protagonist. You travel from your father’s village to the metropolitan city, all the visual and auditory references clearly meant to mark it as an example of rural to urban migration in Pakistan. There you experience Pakistan’s ridiculous public education system, join a religious organization in your university, and eventually become a rich if corrupt owner of a shady water bottling company. Unfortunately, since the book is written at a distance, there’s none of the introspective questioning over morality that I wanted to read about. In fact, it feels like we experience a chunk of the story without actually establishing any emotional connection at all, which is one of the most major letdowns of the whole endeavor.

“The fruits of labor are delicious, but individually they’re not particularly fattening. So don’t share yours, and munch on those of others whenever you can.”

I’d be the first to point out that Hamid’s writing feels very contrived most of the times. With almost all his books, you are constantly aware of his form of writing and the trick he’s trying to play on the reader, which should detract from the experience, but somehow doesn’t. I’m not sure how this happens, since usually I prefer the writing to be effortless and for the writer to be almost absent from the page, so that all that’s alive to me are the characters. But while this book constantly makes you aware that you are being talked to, the plot and characters are strong enough to carry the momentum forward until you forget how pretentious you found this very form of storytelling at the beginning. 

I’ll also say one thing: Mohsin Hamid has a great editor. As someone who is both a reader as well as an editor, I’ll say this for sure: long sentences are tricky little buggers. But while this book indulges in them liberally, there was never any point where I felt the odd little hiccup that a misplaced comma or semi colon produces. It was clean, faultless writing, all smooth transition from one idea to the next. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my enjoyment of this book had less to do with the characters and plot and more with how well structured each sentence felt. Some sentences were even a whole paragraph long—a writing trick I’ve usually seen as not encouraged, and not usually well executed. But it’s clear that in the hands of those who know how to write, it can work well. 

I still didn’t love the book. I think it’s just a matter of Hamid writing stories whose complexity of text I can admire without caring about the characters at all. He doesn’t manage to make me awed enough to recommend the book to others, and also doesn’t create protagonists compelling enough to root for. So while it’s a good book, for a passably good enough experience, I can’t say much more than that. 

April 04, 2019

Of Weak Prose and Weaker Characters: Typically Tanya is the most pointless book ever (Book review)

I did not think it was possible for books to be this pointless, but I guess you learn something new every day. What fascinates me is that not only did the author write this and think ‘Ah yes, something worth publishing’, he must have then proceeded to show it to friends and family, the way one does, who also, for some absurd reason, said ‘Yes, this is a great book’. Then this book wound up in the hands of an editor, who also—and we’re approaching acute disbelief territory here—thought this could be salvaged. Then this book went out into the world, and people parted with their hard earned money for it. The only saving grace of this whole fiasco is the fact that I borrowed this book instead of buying it.

I mean, I’ve read bad books before, but I’ve rarely read any which tried so very hard to be funny and relevant and failed so very spectacularly. Tanya, our eponymous heroine, is what I imagine the author wanted to write as a crossover between Bridget Jones and Saba Imtiaz’s heroine in Karachi You’re Killing Me! But while Helen Fielding got the humour and the cheesy shipping right, and Saba Imtiaz was spot on with her desi references, Kehar unfortunately got almost all of it wrong. 

Even the blurb is misleading. Tanya does, in fact, sleep with her best friend’s fiancĂ©, and her best friend does then get jilted at the alter because her man runs away with yet another woman, but none of that plays a significantly large enough role in the plot for it to be the focus of the blurb. In fact, after having read the book, it’s hard to see what the main plot was. Mainly it feels like a portion of a twenty-something woman’s diary through one random, uneventful portion of her life. Sure, things happen, but it’s hard to see how they are meant to make a cohesive whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Mostly this has to do with the characters themselves, who feel dreary and purposeless. Starting with the protagonist, who never once managed to make me laugh, to the whole cast of characters around her, all of whom I cared about not a whit, almost all the players in this story were too weakly drawn for us to care about. Tanya’s separated parents create a very limited depth of feeling in Tanya, and her mother is a caricature of an overprotective, nagging woman who regularly shrieks and is dramatic for no reason at all. Tanya also regularly jokes about sending her mother to a mental institution, in a joke that feels less like a realistic depiction of a child frustrated with their parent and more in the grey areas of inappropriate and politically incorrect. 

Political correctness is a thing that the author clearly cares about a lot, in that he seems to have the right ideas about what women can and cannot do. But unlike in Imtiaz’s novel, where her character smokes in the open to make a point without being didactic, Kehar’s writing comes off as moralizing. In fact, in almost all things that should have been seamlessly inserted into the narrative, there is an obvious attempt to include that particular event into the book. This is especially true for all the political events that Tanya and her friends refer to. Of course, it makes sense that a newspaper editor’s life would be dictated by the things happening in their city and country and in the world at large, and even Pakistanis unconnected to the reporting of news get affected by the politics of a country, but there is so obvious a gap in the natural flow of the story and the mention of these updates that they feel forced. I don’t want to see the author trying so hard and ultimately failing, because to me, as a reader, I end up suffering from second hand embarrassment. Effortlessness, I guess, is what I was looking for, and what I did not find. 

Usually when I review something I add quotes from the book itself, but with this title I was basically struggling to just end the torture. I checked how many pages were left at least fifty seven times after I reached the last quarter. That should give you some idea of how invested I was in what was going on in the story: mainly, not at all. Tanya’s on again off again love affair with her friend Hafeez (whom I kept confusing with her boss Hassan) and her weird, antagonistic friendships with the other women in her life feel too convoluted to care about. Tanya doesn’t seem to actually like any of the people in her life, casually backbiting or being disdainful about almost everyone she comes in contact with, which makes us care about them even less. Even when the author attempts to do something right, such as introduce a gay character into the narrative, he spends more time setting up the character to show what kind of person Tanya is in response to his gayness rather than create a complex, three dimensional character in Adam. 

Another thing I do when I write a review is trying to figure out exactly whom I would recommend the book to. Even if it’s a bad book, I consider the masochist, or the reader with nothing else to do. For this particular book though, I couldn’t think of a single person I’d recommend it to, because unlike other particularly horrible ones I could mention which were so bad so as to be a complete experience (Sara Naveed and H. M. Naqvi come to mind), this book is just boring and badly written. But then I realized that this book is perfect for the amateur author, because if crap like this can get published, than anything can. Which means we all have a very good chance! In fact, probably more than just a good chance, because of the aforementioned absolute crappiness of this book. 

So there you go, a positive note to end this review, and now I will proceed to eject all memories of the time I wasted reading this while sobbing about its mind-numbing atrociousness to my husband. At least there’s one person who was quite amused, and who enjoyed my periodical ranting about the whole thing.