By: Rifat Raees Khan
I still remember the pleasant evening of the first day of my semester, when I was desperately waiting for the lecturer to come in the class to teach the course titled as ‘South Asian Literature in English’. As a novice in the mainstream Pakistani higher education, I was hoping that the course would be my strength. As I was and still am, an ardent reader of contemporary Pakistani fiction and poetry.
As the lecturer entered the class, I was the first one to greet her with all the enthusiasm I had reserved for the day. Finally, the class started and the first question posed was ‘Should there be a class of South Asian Literature in English?
I was about to answer when I realised that it was meant to be a rhetorical question thus responded by the lecturer herself. To my utter disappointment the lecturer enlightened or rather tangled us on this very topic for more than twenty minutes. During that time she stated her disdain for the South Asian and mainly contemporary Pakistani writers and their oeuvre. Later she taught that course really well, though.
Those introductory ten minutes rooted profoundly inside the feeble minds of the students. Throughout the semester I noticed a unanimous unsaid silent scorn for the writers I read, admired, and loved.
One needs to give credit when it is due. Pakistani poets and novelists from Ejaz Rahim, Hina Babar Ali, Waqas Ahmed Khwaja, Omar Tarin, Harris Khalique, Rafat Toufiq, Daud kamal, Maki Kureishi, Ilona Yusuf, Imtriaz Dharker, Moniza Alvi, Bapsi Sidhwa, Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Fatima Bhutto, Kmaila Shamsie, Ali Sethi and Uzma Aslam Khan, all these authors and many more which I could not mentioned in the brief list, have produced a great literary corpus. Their work deals with a range of themes that encompass politics, culture, gender, identity, formation of the country, the role of Islam, geopolitical developments, recurrent issues of governance and socio-economic disquisition.
Waqas Khawaja in his essay ‘The Marketplace of Voices’ describes the obstacles in the way of the Pakistani authors, which share the burden of colonised history, language, migration and complexity of identity:
And when the language of the former imperial masters is used to compose a work of literature, it is accessible fully neither to one side nor the other. For the reader immersed largely or wholly in indigenous culture and language, it is either opaque in parts or a subversive appropriation of what to itself is a rich and vital way of constructing the world with its sustaining mores and manners, its normalcies, contingencies, latitudes, and compulsions. For the reader from the imperial center, or one trained and grounded in its traditions and perspectives, the text with its “local” or “native” interpellations may appear queer and strange…’
Moniza Alvi an award winning contemporary Pakistani-born British poetess, who also deals with the issues of duality, partition, fractured identity and transformation in her poems which are considered by Maura Dooley as:
‘Vivid, witty and imbued with unexpected and delicious glimpses of the surreal – this poet’s third country.’
Alvi’s declaration of her fractured identity and an unfulfilled desire to grow up in her own country are voiced in many of her nostalgic poem for instance following lines from a poem titled Hindi Urdu Bol Chaal :
In Lahore there grows a language tree
its roots branching to an earlier time
its fruit ripe, ready to fall.
I hear the rustling of mango groves
my living and dead relatives
quarrelling together and I search
for a nugget of sound, the kernel
of language. I am enlarged
by what I cannot hear—
the village conferences, the crackling
of bonfires and the rap of gunfire.
Reda. A Shehata in her essay Moniza Alvi and Representations of the Body states Alvi’s dilemma of being insider and outsider at the same time in both countries:
Although Alvi never felt like an outsider in Britain because of her parents’ mixed background, she still shows concern with what home is and remains somewhat uncertain about her identity. Because of her link to one community with which her ‘associational identification’ is based on a lived experience, and her link to another, the experience of which is accessed at the beginning through imagination, the parents’ cultural practices, or, later, through actual visits, Alvi displays a diasporic consciousness.
Kamila Shamsie in an interview takes an optimistic instance on the future of young authors and says:
But through the ’80s, in Pakistan people would say, you know, you are from Pakistan, you want to write in English, no one’s going to be interested, it will never happen. No one can say that now to a young Pakistani who wants to be a writer. They look around, they see there are a number of us now who are being read, who are writing, who are doing well, and I think that’s really creating a sense that writing is viable, it’s something that can be done.
Pakistani writers of English literature are themselves aware of the impediments of writing in a language that is not exactly foreign to them but also is not their own. They explicitly illustrate their concern in their work of fiction and poetry. Rather than demanding endorsement from the colonial masters and foreign authorities to reward their talents, we need to embrace them.
As a nation I believe the decadence that we are facing in every walk of life, is the outcome of our habit of disregarding entities labelled ‘made in Pakistan’. Lack of appreciation for our culture, art, and products has been daunting us since the beginning and will keep on bringing down our morale as a nation in the future as well. We need to demonstrate the confidence that once American’s exhibited by celebrating Walt Whitman.
As well said by the author Daniyal Mueenuddin :
‘There’s an edginess to our writing, I believe, which is distinctive.’
Rejecting all this remarkable literary opus without even reading it closely is a sign of immaturity. It is also a rejection of our own separate identity. To shed off the shackles of colonial yoke we need to appreciate our artists and authors as they are the building blocks of Pakistani culture. In the end , I request all sincere readers, that before jumping to conclusions, they need to buy some books by these amazing authors, read them with an open mind and form an informed opinion about their work.