March 23, 2016

On choosing an audience: for whom do Pakistani authors write?

There’s been a lot of time spent dedicated to discussing just whom exactly Pakistani authors using the English language as a medium are writing for. After all, writing in English means alienating a significant amount of the Pakistani population who doesn’t speak the language, much less the readers who can’t afford to buy the expensively published novels.

Even though the usual suspects – Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, etc - have been subjected to the usual scrutiny in this case, a number of other authors who have been paid less attention have taken liberties with their audience as well. A careful perusal of any of these books will show that even before the writing started there was a specific readership in mind. Case in point: Saad Shafqat’s Breath of Death and Haroon K. Ullah’s The Bargain from the Bazaar.

Writing in English means alienating a significant amount of the Pakistani population who doesn’t speak the language.

Both books have obvious surface similarities: they were written by men, in a genre that was relatively untried in Pakistan before (creative nonfiction by K. Ullah and medical thriller by Shafqat); both books are set in famous Pakistani cities (Karachi for Breath of Death and Lahore for The Bargain from the Bazaar); both use terrorism as a major plot point, both aim to represent the middle class, the ones caught between the politics of religion and class within Pakistan’s fractured citizens, and most importantly, both seem to be writing for a specifically western, non-Pakistani audience in mind.

K. Ullah does this in a number of obvious ways, while Shafqat tries to keep it more subtle. Within the pages of K. Ullah’s book you’ll read about the ‘progressive’ west, the ‘polite’ western societies. Even without the obvious pandering to a western reader, there’s other, more condemning stuff: most of the book’s non-fiction portion focuses on the history of the sub-continent and Pakistan’s eventual emergence. Even with the allowances made for the fact that non-fiction eventually involves dabbling in history in some form or another, most of the facts in this book border on the childish. The book tells us that Pakistan came into being in 1947, but which Pakistani doesn’t know this fact? Even a student in 3rd grade could attest to this fact without a second’s thought, which then lends the book the air of speaking to an outsider. On the flip side, Shafqat reveals his intended audience by his numerous references to things that are obviously American – a Nike ad, Carnegie Hall, McDonald’s - and can easily be understood by an audience in tune with the American culture. Even the argument that a number of characters in the book reside in America doesn’t dissuade one from the conviction that overall, this book is written for someone who has never set a foot on Pakistani soil.

Both these authors seem to be writing for a specifically western, non-Pakistani audience in mind.
This particular tone of addressing an outsider in terms of explanation of Pakistani habits, customs and laws finds it way in both the books. K. Ullah takes time within the narrative to explain exactly what lassi is: a yogurt-milk drink which tastes like a tangy milkshake. No Pakistani needs to know this; for us, lassi is a part of life. So whom does this explanation cater to? This is further exacerbated by obvious, baseline descriptions of traditions that are both Muslim and Pakistani in their nature: Shez wore the traditional red gown and Awais was in a white shalwar kameez, the traditional Muslim attire for special occasions. Such descriptions of the wedding dresses and the accompanying festivities are pointless pages of lines for any Pakistani reader.

In Shafqat’s book, these descriptions are more mundane; an unnecessary commentary which focuses too much on the telling and not enough on the showing. Shafqat interrupts a particularly telling scene in the story to explain to us that beggars are an infuriating nuisance in Karachi. Despite giving the appearance of absolute poverty, they attracted little sympathy. Most of them were professional alm-seekers, able-bodied men and women who had perfected the art of begging and faking physical handicap to the point where it had become a way of life. Who is the reader here who doesn’t know what the beggar culture in this country is like? Definitely a non-Pakistani one.

No Pakistani needs to know this; for us, lassi is a part of life. So whom does this explanation cater to? 

There is, in both the books, a sense of being on the defensive, of explaining to a curious and mostly antagonistic audience how Pakistan is ‘real’ and ‘complex’; while both the reality and complexity of Pakistanis is undeniable, a tone that verges on justification does both the story and the country a disservice. K. Ullah explains, a touch condescendingly, that it was what Pakistanis seemed to do best, coming back from the brink time and time again. Through tragedy and catastrophe, wars and floods, assassinations and police crackdowns, weak and corrupt leaders, the people of Pakistan knew only that they must keep marching on towards a better future. Not only does the notion of the country’s supposed ‘resilience’ seem to excuse everything wrong that happens in Pakistan, it also amounts to a sympathetic, almost pitiful way of looking at everything that’s wrong with the country. Shafqat’s book tackles this complexity by constantly trying to explain how Pakistanis feel about America: If the mightiest nation in the history of civilization had designs on you, surely that meant you were a pretty important nation yourself? Pakistanis would never openly claim theirs was a country of any importance; it made you sound naive and gullible, and your own compatriots would be the first people to hoot you down. An explanation of Pakistani sentiment in reaction to American policies takes up a significant portion of the story, not in a way that lends authenticity to the main plot or to character motivations, but as a way for the author to say ‘I belong to this country, and I know everything about it’.

There need to be more conversations about the audience for whom Pakistani writers are putting pen to paper. With an unhealthy Pakistani obsession with America and a colonial background that shows its influence on every novel ever written in English in this country, it is only through these conversations that we can decide whether these books provide a valuable service in their explanations, or if they in fact do us all a disservice.