As elsewhere in South Asia, creative writing in the English language is not a new development in Pakistan. However, it has been largely over the last two decades that Pakistani literature in English has achieved prominence and has come firmly into the focus of world literary consciousness.
As a country, Pakistan has undergone a series of seismic changes through its history. Its literature has also seen many changes. I would like to focus here on the two main sets of changes. The first is the changing trend in choice of literary form, i.e. the rising preference for prose over poetry; the second relates to changes in literary content, as reflected in the growing predominance of political themes in Pakistan’s English language fiction.
Poetry was the dominant form of literary expression in the English language through the 60's and 70's and beyond. It is not that Pakistanis are not writing poetry any more. The outstanding poetic voices of Taufiq Rafat, Maki Kureishi, Kalim Omar and Daud Kamal have been silenced by mortality and other gifted, elder poets like Adrian Hussain, Farid uddin Riaz, Alamgir Hashmi and Salman Tarik Kureshi are still writing. And there is a whole raft of younger and yet younger poets, such as Shireen Haroun, Moin Faruqi, Ilona Yusuf, Sadaf Halai and Bilal Hamid, to name only a few. But the undeniable fact is that it is prose fiction that has come most prominently to the fore.
The growing prominence of English language prose fiction in Pakistan was something of a surprise. The earlier years produced occasional short stories, but no book-length work of any serious note. The first recognised novelist of high merit was Bapsi Sidhwa, who began to publish in the seventies. Zulfikar Ghose's The Murder Of Aziz Khan was another outstanding novel that is a text in some Pakistan universities.
Bapsi Sidhwa's novels enriched our lives with memorable new fictional characters – some comic, like Freddy Jangalwalla of The Crow Eaters, and some frightening, like the ice-candy man in Cracking India. In the Pakistani Diaspora, the already well known Tariq Ali turned his hand to prose fiction with his Andalus series. By the 1980's, Hanif Kureishi had become well known.
The closing of the twentieth century saw the first publications by two new writers: Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie. Aslam has explored such themes as identity, Islamic extremism and politics. Shamsie has similarly experimented with issues of identity, origins and, inevitably, politics. Pakistani literature of today is a product of the fractures, turbulence and discontinuities of its political history and the defining themes most explored by Pakistani writers are: identity and the complexity of the country’s new-old history; politics and the complexity of the country’s present situation. This is a radically changed situation from that described in Dr Tariq Rahman’s earlier work History Of Pakistani Literature in English, in which he had remarked on the absence of political content in Pakistani writing.
The careers of Aslam and Shamsie represent the arc of the nation’s literary history. Aslam moved on from his Punjabi village microcosm in Season of the Rainbirds, through an examination of the Muslim emigrant’s consciousness in Maps for Lost Lovers to the violence and complex political conundrums of his Blind Man’s Garden. This most recent of his works, set against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, avoids clichéd attitudes and presents a layered and nuanced perception of reality. Shamsie’s debut novel In the City By The Sea plunged straight into the topic of political dictatorship. She explored identity issues in her playful Salt And Saffron but returned to politics in Broken Verses. Kartography examined both politics and identity. Her magnum opus Burnt Shadows takes us from World War II Nagasaki to pre-Independence Delhi and modern Karachi and on to the violent tribal areas of Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan.
The other most significant writer in recent times has been Mohsin Hamid. Following his competently crafted Moth Smoke, his post-911 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist burst on to the literary scene as a defining event. Hamid’s uniquely high level of prose craftsmanship, along with his subtle use of ambivalence and suggestion, have created a disturbing piece of writing that deftly explores the issues of identity, violence and politics without offering any comforting conclusions. In his most recent book, How To Get Filthy Rich in South Asia, he has again employed his unique command of prose to craft the story of a life embedded in and growing with the civic, social and cultural realities of a city. In Hamid, we see a nuanced exploration of both politics and the human condition.
There are also numerous other fine writers whom one can see evolving in different ways. Mohammed Hanif’s A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, ostensibly dealing with the assassination of former President Ziaul Haq, was an instant sensation. The writer has moved on to magical realism to express his essentially political literary vision in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. Uzma Aslam Khan delved, literally, into the soil of the land, its paleontological strata, to develop her themes of origins and identities in The Geometry of God. Her recent Thinner Than Skin again evokes the theme of many identities and their complex interaction against the backdrop of Pakistan’s spectacular northern mountains. There are numerous other writers on the scene as well. Hussain Naqvi has won prestigious awards such as the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for Home Boy and then there are Jamil Ahmed, Bina Shah, Aqila Ismail, Nafisa Haji, Maniza Naqvi, to name only a few.