September 28, 2015

Of Pakistani art and literature: Granta 112 surprises

Back in 2013, Kamila Shamsie, her of Kartography fame, suddenly drew attention from among the Pakistani literati by being named in a magazine among a list of 20 young British novelists as ‘Names to Watch Out For in the Future’. Suddenly a whole batch of Pakistani readers had exposure to Granta, a literary magazine from the UK which had published the aforementioned list in Issue # 81. Along with this exposure came the news of the Pakistan-centric issue that Granta had produced in 2010 as a compilation of different versions of Pakistani art: fiction, poetry, memoirs and journalistic pieces all carefully arranged amongst works by Pakistani visual artists.

Granta 112, with its eye-catching cover design reminiscent of truck art, urges the reader to pick it up and flip through the pages. Drawn by Islam Gull, a truck and bus artist from Karachi, the cover is adorned with sketches of blooming flowers, of birds and tigers and a sketch of a valley with mountains looming in the background. All this arranged artfully around a curved 3D design of the word PAKISTAN, the final arrangement is striking and does its job of getting one to flip the book open, willing to give it a try.

The first entry, Nadeem Aslam’s short story Leila in the Wilderness, is a brilliant piece: a tale that flits between magic realism, romance and horror all at once. The story winds around the lives of multiple characters: Leila, the young bride ostracized for repeatedly bearing daughters instead of sons; Timur, an opportunistic landlord who parades a fake mosque on his neighbour’s island as holy to claim profit from the religious; Wamaq and Qes, two vagabond brothers searching through the country not only for jobs but also for a lost love. The story is pure genius both in its telling and its plot, a 45-page stamp of approval for the rest of the pieces to follow.

Among other pieces of fiction are A Beheading by Mohsin Hamid, a 3-page story about a writer suffering the consequences of writing about something he shouldn’t have. Told from a first person perspective, it shows Mohsin Hamid at his best, using short sentences to effectively create a disturbing look at one man’s last moments, from the moment he realizes what is happening to the very brutal end. A Beheading works well in comparison with Leila in the Wilderness in proving that word length has nothing to do with the effectiveness of a tale, and both a 45-page and a 3-page story may overwhelm the reader equally.

The issue doesn’t deter in its usage of known and established names in the industry. Placed among the fiction and memoirs is poetry by some of Pakistan’s finest writers. The first poem PK 754, translated by Waqas Khwaja (who has written three collections of original English poetry, worked on three anthologies of Pakistani literature and has had his work appear in numerous journals), was originally written by Yasmeen Hameed, an Urdu poet with five books of poetry to her name. Other poems in the issue include those by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Trying Tripe), whose compilation of short stories titled In Other Rooms, Other Wonders won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in South Asia and Europe (2010). Third in the list is another published author Hasina Gul (Life and Time, translated by Sher Zaman Taizi, himself a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize Certificate in 1981 and the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in Literature in 2009) who is the author of two collections of Urdu poetry and eight books in Pushto. Such heavyweight names lend the issue a touch of credibility in its representation of various forms of Pakistani art, although one could question why, with the amount of amazing Pakistan poetry that is present and thriving, only so few were given space. Be that as it may, this reviewer will abstain on commenting on the poems themselves, having internalized the ideal that those who fully embrace their inability to understand or analyze poetry shouldn’t bother. But if one had to admit the truth, it is true that these poems feel more like afterthoughts, added on after all the fiction and memoirs have taken their due space. In future anthologies, editors would do well to keep in mind that Pakistani poetry is as relevant and thriving an art form as any other. 

It is not only in poetry that we find translations. Intizar Hussain, one of the most well-known figures in the ranks of Urdu literature, also has an entry titled The House by the Gallows (translated by Basharat Peer) which takes on the era of General Zia, Pakistan’s most religion-obsessed military dictator to date. Intizar Hussain’s prose is convincing, easy; the kind of writing where one reads without remembering that one is reading. It is effortless writing on the writer’s part, hinting at no calculation and yet controlling the reader’s reaction to produce a certain effect. Intizar Hussain writes about the media and government and politics and religion all together, introducing these variables without losing track of what goes where.

One also encounters non-fiction periodically in the issue, but only in some cases does it shine through. Unfortunately, it is in the non-Pakistani writers that it shines the brightest. The New York Times Correspondent Declan Walsh, who was working with The Guardian back in 2010, has written an illuminating piece titled Arithmetic on the Frontier on the life of politician, lawyer and quasi-warlord Anwar Kamal, on the politics of Lakki Marwat, one of the Southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and on Pakistan’s strife-marked tribal belt. Walsh’s writing does what journalistic endeavours should do best: take on a larger, meatier topic and wash it down to the facts, presenting a view to the reader that is honest, factual and gripping. His characters remain multi-dimensional and contradictory without getting completely lost in the maze of politics, traditions and customs that is so often a key component of life in Pakistan.

While Declan Walsh has tackled the country’s more recent history, Jane Perlez, New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, has taken on Jinnah, Pakistan’s most venerable and quite often controversial leader. Considered the father of the nation, Jinnah evokes passion and opposition in equal measure, both in terms of his what he did and what he said during the time of the country’s creation, and Jane Perlez blends historical fact and opinions with remarkable deft in her piece The Portrait of Jinnah. If one reaches no conclusion at the end of the piece about the subject matter, that is the fault of the complexity that Jinnah evokes rather than in the hands of Perlez.

The tackling of controversial Pakistani figures by non-Pakistani writers continues in The Trials of Faisal Shahzad. Written by NYC’s Lorraine Adams, author of two novels, this piece has been written in collaboration with Pakistani journalist Aysha Nasir and revolves around the story of Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad’s failed attempt at bombing New York City’s Times Square in 2010. Adams and Nasir have dug into the details of Shahzad’s life, interviewing everyone possible in order to make a picture of Shahzad which will help explain how and when, and most importantly, why he did what he did. Or tried to do. Their questioning of various people like Shahzad’s neighbour, who remembers Shahzad as good father, or of Ajani Marwat, an officer in NYPD’s intelligence division, helps us see the story from multiple angles, seeking to understand, along with the writers, what led to Faisal’s arrest.

The only Pakistani name in the journalistic endeavours is that of Fatima Bhutto, who takes on the Sheedi community in Mangho Pir. Written as a crossover between a memoir and a feature, Bhutto takes on a section of Pakistani life experienced by only a few. While eye-opening in the way that a piece about a minority community can be only to someone who has enjoyed the privilege of being in a  majority, the writing tries to cram too much detail into too short a space. Even though the details are interesting, the attempt lacks connection from one page to another, and loses its reader. At the very least, it is an attempt that encourages motivation for writing about something few people read it, and even fewer know about.

Compared to Fatima Bhutto’s reportage, Kamila Shamsie’s Pop Idols is a memoir that is by far one of the gems of the issue. Talking in detail about the music scene in Pakistan during the 80’s and 90’s, she writes from a refreshingly personal perspective about concerts during her teen years, General Zia’s ban on music and the emergence of Vital Signs as a vital cultural phenomenon. While the rest of the pieces deal with death, destruction or destitution in one form or another, Shamsie’s piece takes a tangent and deals with the art aspect of our culture. Although unable to completely break free from mentions of politics and religion – indeed, a force from which stories of Pakistan can never be fully removed – the piece manages to retain its charm in its less-than-formal writing style and whimsically reminiscent attitude towards the past.

Where Kamila Shamsie manages to charm with her memoir, Aamer Hussain’s Restless and Sarfraz Manzoor’s White Girls fails to impress. Both are written as a chronicle of the authors’ earlier days, and Manzoor just barely manages to entertain slightly more than Hussain’s attempt at a tale of migration, teenage angst and the confusion of identity. As inclusions in Granta go, it is still unclear whether they are stand-alone pieces or extracts from their novels. In any case, excerpts found in Granta sadly prove to be an uninspired lot, with Mohammad Hanif’s Butt and Bhatti, taken from his 2010 novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, as equally insipid as Uzma Aslam Khan’s Ice, Mating from her 2012 novel Thinner than Skin. While it is possible that one would need to read the complete novels to enjoy the affect, one could question the inclusion of these particular passages in the first place. Surely Mohammad Hanif with his long and prolific writing career or Uzma Aslam Khan who has been nominated for a number of awards have produced writing of more worth than the blandness present in these excerpts.

The singular exception to this disappointing insertion of passages is Basharat Peer’s Kashmir’s Forever War. Born in Kashmir in 1977, Peer talks from the point of view of one intimately acquainted with the streets and people of that area, and it is this quality of connection that lends the piece its authenticity. His 2009 memoir about growing up in Kashmir, Curfewed Night, and his articles in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and various other publications attest to his close associations with the Kashmiri lifestyle; a fact that shows in his writings.

Thankfully, the issue ends on a high note, with Jamil Ahmad’s short story The Sins of the Mother (extracted from his 2011 novel The Wandering Falcon) bringing the issue to a triumphant literary end. As the only unknown writer in Granta back in 2010, (his anthology The Wandering Falcon was published in 2011 to great critical acclaim, winning the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and being nominated for a number of awards) Ahmad was discovered when he responded to a radio announcement about the Life’s Too Short short story prize. His story, the tale of a runaway couple chased across Balochistan by the woman’s clan, is both well-written and intriguing, the perfect mixture for the format. Unfortunately, Jamil Ahmad’s death in 2014 will leave a gap in what could have been a major contribution in Pakistan’s English literature.

Upon its release, the issue drew forth mixed reactions from its intended audience. While pitched as a first-of-its-kind attempt at international recognition for Pakistani artists (The issue’s online page, terms Pakistan as ‘one of the most dynamic places in the world today’. A blurb on Amazon calls the issue a watershed moment), the overall response fluctuated from the encouraging to the disgruntled. One reviewer heaped praise on the careful arrangement of texts and pictures in the volume, while another called it the must-read book of the season. Others labelled it as a mostly successful attempt, with a few choosing to remain cautiously hopeful about the collection. A few others, however, expressed outright disappointment, claiming the presence of cliched themes or Granta's obviously-targetted audience as the problem. One may view these reactions as subjective and arbitrary, and it remains to be seen whether this issue will remain relevant as we move past the 5-year mark, but it’s still a positive marker in Pakistani literature’s steps towards gaining an international audience.