Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pak Pack

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


Taken as a whole, Granta’s Pakistan-themed issue has  a packaged, carefully-assembled tone to it. Feudal attitudes? Check. Kashmir? Check. The wild NWFP? Check. Karachi cosmopolitanism? Check. Fundamentalism? Check. This imparts to it something of a neat, sanitized air. Taken individually, however, there is much to savour because of the considerable strengths of contemporary Pakistani writing in English. 

Two of the fiction narratives that stand out are Mohsin Hamid’s short, chilling A Beheading – possibly inspired by Daniel Pearl, and which could be said to complement Hanif Kureishi’s earlier Weddings and Beheadings – and Mohammed Hanif’s Butt and Bhatti, a sardonic, dark account of the love that a pistol-packing policeman feels for a more grounded medical assistant. Also haunting, if a tad over-determined, is an extract from 79-year-old Jamil Ahmad’s forthcoming debut novel, The Wandering Falcon, about forbidden love and its consequences that’s set on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In passing, it’s a pity there’s nothing here by H.M. Naqvi, author of the excellent Home Boy. (And the disappointment one feels upon realizing that Daniyal Mueennuddin has contributed not a short story but a poem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the poem itself reveals its linkages and emotional affect upon a few readings.)

What gives the collection its necessary spine are the pieces of non-fiction. Intezar Hussain speaks of negotiating an atmosphere of heightened religiosity and “unthinking nationalism” during the Zia regime, putting one in mind of Salman Rushdie’s personal recollections in Shame. Another fascinating piece that overlaps the same period is Kamila Shamsie’s Pop Idols, on Pakistani pop music, the emergence of the country’s Sufi rock, the experience of listening to bands such as Vital Signs and Junoon, and what Islamisation has done to some of the country’s most promising musicians.

Two Western journalists also have pieces here, one dealing with the past, the other with the present, each one again serving as a counterweight. Pulitzer Prize-winning Jane Perlez of The New York Times writes on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, mixing facts that are well-known with others that aren’t, bringing his secular credentials to the fore. And Guardian correspondent Declan Walsh travels among the Pashtun in north-west Pakistan to find “roasting hospitality, smouldering pride, cold and clinical revenge”. Then, there’s Basharat Peer’s piece on Kashmir which, like his Curfewed Night, is passionate, informed and mixes the personal and the political to telling effect.

A delightful change of tone comes in the form of Sarfraz Manzoor’s White Girls, detailing his hopeless infatuations over the years, his parents' admonitions to stay away from 'white girls' and of how he finally met the woman he was to marry. Clearly, the author of Greetings from Bury Park hasn’t lost his touch.

In his brief introduction to the pieces of art curated by Green Cardamom and featured in this volume, Hari Kunzru writes of “a particular urgency that exists as much in the desire to trace small, personal actions…as in overtly political gestures…” It is just such an urgency that animates the best pieces in this collection.

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