Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Anonymity and Assumptions, on Pak Literature: Filter Coffee Column in Kindle This Month

I love Pakistani literature. I have always believed that there must be something in the soil and air of a country in deep conflict that gives birth to the best of literature, the best of the arts. Maybe that is a lazy assumption. This month's Kindle magazine is a Pakistan special. I wrote on their literature, among other thoughts. See the column here or read the unedited version below.

Illustration: Abhishek Das/Kindle

(pr) That which is nameless.

Is being without a name freedom? Or is it unsavory for the freedom it allows others to make interpretations, derive names by themselves and thus assign identities? I haven’t made up my mind. A name is identity, and by extension a range of other assumptions, correct or otherwise, that builds up to an image predetermined by politics, culture or the news.

To go beyond the name, beyond the restriction of established images, that must be liberating. For a writer operating in a regime that barely pretends to tolerate criticism, let alone open dissent, this small measure must offer a window to breathe through. They thus take recourse in un-naming their characters, their cities. Dis-allow their own names on the covers and the story could well be conducted anywhere in a South Asian country.

Perhaps I make such assumptions myself, but indulge me.

The troika of Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin are, being personal favourites apart, seekers, in my mind, of these identities within (sometimes) anonymous people, cities, time lines. The lives of all three have followed similar trajectories. They have been born into privileged families – the ones that conduct their lives and businesses in ways we never hear about in the news – they move abroad as students, live and work in the metropolises of the world, and return to Pakistan to write best-selling books, columns perhaps for Dawn and commentaries for the world media on the mischief that Pakistani generals often get up to. If their characters are assigned names and places at all, they are allowed the restraint of details and the subtlety of words to let the reader place their own imagery, their own identities and often, their own assumptions upon the stories. 

In Hamid’s Moth Smoke, you get a voyeuristic view into Darashikoh’s world. An outsider to the rich world of lush parties, SUV cars and recreational drugs by virtue of being not-rich, Daru is also the insider, for having rich friends with whom to practice this lifestyle of privilege with. Changez, the reluctant fundamentalist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, loved America and an American woman, until, in the aftermath of 9/11, he grew a beard and eventually moved back to Lahore. K K Harouni, in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is, mostly, satisfied with his farm and the status within class hierarchy that it earns him. Privileged people, a rich, Punjabi-by-nature Lahore and Karachi.

The duality of the Pakistani society is never far away though. Here is our hero buying expensive drugs for tonight’s party, knowing that somewhere in the course of the night, his rich friends will bribe the khaki man on the roads. Alice’s charms are irresistible to Teddy Butt, in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, they get married later on. But this follows the harassment Alice bears through, for being a woman, for being a Christian in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

These writers, apart from others like Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and Fathima Bhutto are never far in their narratives from the conflict that colours their lives, their country and what it does to their characters. The texts are urgent and rooted firmly in the contradictions and tensions that dominate Pakistani society today. This urgency, the narrative that derives from a tortured process is what makes this literature memorable.

To have un-sympathy this side of the gate.

Autocratic regimes all over the world, from Cuba to Iran, have led to the creation of some of the most interesting cultural pieces in history. There must be something in the air of restriction, censorship and the thought processes of a government not sympathetic to the arts that segues into music, film, literature that bares the soul of its time and the people it reflects. It is when you are denied ‘it’ that you begin to risk everything, from your personal freedom to your mind to touch ‘it’. Perhaps a government that habitually makes journalists, writers, its critics ‘disappear’ – physically or intellectually – is a government that ironically encourages these artists to push limits, their own and their arts’. Conflict literature, conflict cinema, conflict music, they seem somehow to have more soul than those created in more peaceful settings. Selfish though it feels to say so, sitting in this country, even if now there is a government with high potential for autocracy.

I might ask for a revolution now. Maybe we will all then write the next best story, sing the revolution song along the unpaved roads.

Would we? Would being nameless help? Like the American-returnees, could we, in this cesspool of both great tolerance and great intolerance, hope to be in more than personal conflicts? When do we get to wring our histories and make beautiful, tortured creations?

Questions. Might a potentially autocratic political force have answers?

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