This edition of Granta looks at interesting new writing from Pakistan, shattering the stereotype of the country as a haven for terrorists.
Vibrant colour and Pakistan never go hand-in-hand; at least not in the mainstream narrative of the post 9/11 decade. So, at the outset itself, Granta – the magazine for new writing – ought to be hailed for telling the world that Pakistan is not just about safe havens for terrorists, blood and gore, or fundamentalism.
Samples of art
Anyone who has been to Pakistan or has looked beyond the obvious dished out by mass media will immediately identify the cover of Granta's issue on Pakistan for what it is: A sample of the nation's truck art – where trucks, buses and all kinds of public transport are decked up like a sub-continental bride in her full finery — that never fails to lift spirits; however despondent. So much so that the extremely high brow Serena Hotel in Islamabad – the most favoured hotel of foreigners for the security drill it offers – also seems to have borrowed from truck art to liven up its golf cart-like buggies that ferry guests from the driveway to the lobby.
While the 18 featured pieces – reportage, memoirs, poetry and fiction -- in this Granta package on Pakistan reflects the violence that is rampant in the country's social and political fabric, the art that has been included is testimony to the creative expression that has managed to survive the odds. According to Adnan Rehmat, an avid follower of literature, this collection shows Pakistan starting to assert itself in defining itself; rejecting the more stereotyped image of the country.
“It shows how the world needs to take a look at the deeper reality of Pakistan that isn't all tortured and tired as portrayed by the world's media but a country that has ordinary people grappling with extraordinary problems and that the outcome of this struggle will change the world for better or for worse although there's a strong underlying message of hope running through Granta,'' offers Rehmat by way of an insider's view on the magazine.
This is the ninth time since its re-launch in 1979 that Granta has focused on one country. On why Pakistan now, editor John Freeman told The Hindu: “We put together these issues when there's a collision of interesting times and a new generation of writers, which there clearly is in Pakistan now. The country has this great tradition of storytellers, but there's a wave of new writers who are tackling the big themes and we wanted to showcase that in this issue.''
Eager to avoid duplication of the western view of Pakistan, no parameters were set for the authors commissioned to write for this issue. “We wanted to know what Pakistani writers – and the people who know Pakistan best – most wanted to say. Obviously, we wanted a kind of balance between memoir and fiction and reportage, but outside of that it was open game on subjects.
A couple of Indian-origin writers have also found their way into this collection: Hari Kunzru looks at some of the art – paintings, installations and photographs – coming out of Pakistan and Basharat Peer reports from the Indian side of Kashmir.
On what they are doing in a platform for Pakistani writing, Freeman's answer was: “Kunzru is very good at looking at art and Basharat I turned to because I wanted a piece on Kashmir, since Pakistan's involvement in that state is significant. No one has written as well on Kashmir as he has recently. In broader terms, I was not against having Indian writers in the issue because they are in dialogue constantly with Pakistani writers and many of them have lived in or have family in and intellectual purchase on Pakistan.”
Undoubtedly, what most of these writers have articulated fits the general impression the world has about Pakistan – a patriarchal society where religion is part of the national identity and violence a constant – but, more importantly, the literary meanderings mirror the disquiet felt by most Pakistanis. Most are not comfortable with what is happening in their country but neither can they swallow the over-simplified mainstream narrative that seeks to see everything in black-and-white; completely ignoring the fact that reality exists somewhere in between.
As Rehmat sums it up: “The Pakistan of Granta is where women are still killed in the name of honour but it's also one where they don't stop falling in love and marry in defiance of diktat and where they often run way in pursuit of dreams. The stories told here go beyond the global sound byte of generals taking over the country once every 20 years for about 10 years. It's a Pakistan where the ordinary men and women refuse to vote for test tube parties in the name of religion and where they cherish their politics to always back either secular or centrist parties.”
In short, Pakistan has retained much of its sub-continental identity in the face of well-funded and oiled machinery – sustained through different regimes of both civilian and martial incarnates — that would like the country to surrender its linguistic and cultural diversity to a uniform way of life.
Pakistan; Granta: Magazine for New Writing; Ed. John Freeman; £12.99