From Kamila Shamsie to Salman Rushdie, and some names still unfamiliar to English readers, here is some of the best fiction about a nation set to turn 70 this year
A while ago I emailed a Pakistani news editor, introducing myself and pitching a column. He replied promptly saying that while we hadn’t met, he was well acquainted with my work. In fact, when his Australian girlfriend had asked him to recommend a book to help her understand Pakistani society better, he’d handed her my comic satire, The Diary of a Social Butterfly. The relationship, he wrote, had ended soon after. He neglected to mention whether he deemed my book culpable but, for the record, he did not offer me that column.
I had better luck with my Indian editor. Travelling with her American boyfriend, she gave him my second novel Duty Free as a useful guide to the lives and loves of desi society. He spent a good part of the holiday, she recounted, reading my novel and chuckling to himself. They are now happily married. I cannot claim that my book played a decisive role in sealing that relationship but let me just say I was invited to their wedding.
Suggesting a work of fiction by way of an introduction to a country or society is always going to be a subjective business. But on the eve of the first ever Karachi literary festival in London, I’ve drawn up my highly personal list of 10 works of fiction about Pakistan.
1. Mottled Dawn By Saadat Hasan Manto
When, in August 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned, millions of Hindus and Sikhs left their ancestral homes in what had become Pakistan and trudged toward India, while Muslims made the opposite journey. The partition was scarred by an eruption of unspeakable sectarian violence. Hindus and Muslims, amicable neighbours for centuries, fell upon each other in an orgy of rape and bloodletting. Manto, then an urbane scriptwriter in cosmopolitan Bombay, saw the savagery up close. Migrating to Lahore in 1948, he channelled his rage and despair into a stream of Urdu short stories that are among the finest ever written in any language. On the 70th anniversary of Pakistan’s cataclysmic birth, there can be no more important or sobering read.
2. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmed
The eponymous “falcon” is Tor Baz, the love child of a chieftain’s daughter and her father’s servant, who witnesses the brutal murder of his parents for daring to infringe tribal laws. Set in the region that forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – today’s “Af-Pak”, in US state department speak – these interconnected stories chart the uncompromising code of honour that shape the lives of the tribes who have inhabited this harsh land for centuries. Once a civil servant, Ahmed served here for in the 1950s and his spare, unsentimental stories have the unmistakable ring of truth.
3. Shame by Salman Rushdie
Sandwiched between his two most famous books, Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Shame is a neglected gem. Depicting a country that Rushdie says “is and is not Pakistan”, it charts the fateful clash between its democratically elected leader and his obsequious, pious general and eventual hangman. It is an astute, gleeful, political tale in which Rushdie dazzles with his prodigious gift for satire.
4. The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa
Freddy Junglewallah, an ambitious, quick witted Indian villager, bundles his wife, infant daughter and mother-in-law into a bullock cart and – in quest of fame and fortune – heads for cosmopolitan Lahore. Once there, Freddy’s rise to prosperity and prominence is swift. His ambitions for his children, however, come a cropper. Bawdy, poignant and funny, this is a charming saga of a Parsi family.
5. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
In August 1988, General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator and loyal American ally, met an abrupt end when his plane exploded in mid-air. Conspiracy theories abound, but the cause of the crash remains a mystery. In his 2008 satire, Hanif offers an explanation. It involves Ali Shigri, an air-force pilot who is seeking revenge for his father’s murder, it also features smooth CIA spooks, saturnine generals, blind prisoners – and a tender love story between two cadets. So convincing is Hanif on detail – he is a former air-force pilot – that retired army officers have often taken him aside and whispered: “Son, who are your sources?”
6. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Attended to by his domestic staff, the elderly KK Harouni, retired civil servant and landowner, has withdrawn into his decaying mansion in Lahore. Meanwhile, income from his extensive, once profitable landholdings slowly declines under the management of a corrupt overseer. In these haunting stories of the characters that people Harouni’s world – his land agent, his mistress, wealthy relatives, servants, farmhands – Mueenuddin skilfully examines the intersections of class and power and the destruction of a feudal order by forces of modernity.
7. Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is known for addressing urgent global issues in his fiction. But Moth Smoke, his debut novel, is rooted in his native soil and focuses on ordinary Pakistanis. Dara and Ozi, though divided by a gulf of wealth and privilege, are old friends. When Dara loses his job, experiments with hard drugs and starts a disastrous love affair with Ozi’s wife, his life spirals out of control. Sexual love, friendship and betrayal are played out in a criminally unequal society where the rich feel entitled to trample the poor.
8. Meatless Days by Sara Suleri
A memoir in a list of fiction, Meatless Days demands inclusion through its virtuosity of style and depth of enquiry. In nine, elegiac stories that grapple with memory, love and loss, Suleri sketches an intimate portrait of her family – her Pakistani father, the noted journalist ZA Suleri, Welsh mother and five siblings – against the backdrop of Pakistan’s turbulent history. The sections about her gorgeous elder sister, Ifat, who died tragically young, are searing in their intensity. This is a book that resonates long after the last page has been turned.
9. Home Boy by HM Naqvi
Narrated with great verve by Chuck (real name Shehzad), a Pakistani immigrant and graduate of NYU, this novel unfolds not in Pakistan but in cosmopolitan New York. In the wake of 9/11, three young friends – flamboyant, confident, swaggering – embark on an innocent, high-spirited caper. When it goes disastrously wrong they discover the folly of their optimistic assumptions about their adopted homeland. A deft exploration of “otherness”.
10. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie grapples with the changed realities of a post-9/11 world in this vast novel, which spans continents, generations and two cataclysmic upheavals that have defined recent history. Opening in Nagasaki on 6 August 1945 with Hiroko, a Japanese woman, slipping on a silk kimono, this confident, intricately plotted novel ends in Guantánamo Bay with her naked son, Raza, about to don that notorious orange jumpsuit.
- Moni Mohsin will take part in the Karachi literature festival which comes to the UK as part of Southbank Centre’s Alchemy on Saturday 20 May. For full programme information, click here.
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