On Pakistani fiction, Granta and Daniyal Mueenuddin
We all loved Granta’s issue on Pakistan, published last year. The colorful cover, inspired by truck art, speaks loads about the hidden –or not so hidden– kitsch spirit of a country overwhelmed by clichés and its struggle to find a more or less stable identity. It seems, at least, a more exciting door in order to open the realm of Pakistan than the thousands of analysis about the Army, militancy and Islam that (we) foreigners read to understand the mindset of a population that has little idea about all this stuff. One is not calling for a lighter intellectual approach, but there is no harm on exploring, although superficially, the aesthetic intentions of a civilization.
But let us start with a little deconstruction. The British magazine of new writing is openly and honestly showing us only the crème of the Pakistani writers in English: the so-called Pakistani boom, led by Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid. Aside from the fact that they are writing in English and the crisis of identity inherent to it, they don’t have much in common, from a literary perspective, to be called a generation. There is not a meaningful dialogue, I think, between the powerful images and lyricism of Aslam (do read his story in Granta’s issue) and the precise social investigation of Mueenuddin or the political conspiracy unveiled by Hanif in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. We are all talking about a boom but this might only mean that there is a political or social need for it. We are just thirsty for it, but the fact is that the literary scenario in Pakistan is rather appalling –a weak book industry and a scant support for literature. And let us not forget about the past: it would be unfair to say that some of these writers are exploring the limits of, let us say, sex in Pakistani literature –after Manto we won’t probably go much further.
Granta’s issue is very interesting because it highlights the problem of reception. Of course, we don’t find literature written in Urdu, Pashto or Baluchi –we can’t pretend there is no walls to intellectual communication between the East and the West. But we do have a collage of the new Pakistani literary stars and other outstanding pieces such as the one written by Declan Walsh, correspondent with British newspaper The Guardian. I have to say I would have liked more risk, more poetry –and less fiction or reporting. But others might think otherwise. There has been much discussion and this just shows how influential this Granta’s issue is going to be. Truth is, from the Western perspective, this will be a landmark in the cultural understanding of Pakistan.
One of the most acclaimed authors of this so-called boom is Daniyal Mueenuddin, born in 1963. Let us just look at him as what he is: an intelligent writer, regardless of his origin or belonging to a literary generation. His book In Other Rooms, Other Wonders came as a surprise for Western criticism –eight short stories or, in his own words, “a big house with people living in the basement, on the top floor, in the garden, rich and poor, master and servant”. This was his literary debut. He is now writing a novel, set in America. Hopefully, we won’t be looking for a sociological explanation of the United States in his new book (as we did with Pakistan and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) –but just for a good piece of literature.
Question: One of the things you write about is this feudal world fading and this new world emerging…
Answer: That’s right. Partly it’s because I have a connection to that group, I’m a farmer, my father was a farmer and therefore this is a world I understand. One of the first rules for an author is to write what you know. But also it’s one of the really interesting movements in Pakistani society. Pakistan is a country that is undergoing a rapid transformation. This is happening in numerous ways, but clearly in the countryside, one of the most significant things that’s happening is that the power structures have changed, power structures that had been pretty stable since the beginning of the 20th century have been blown away in the past twenty years. There are still numerous feudal politicians who exercise power, but they exercise it in a different way. The feudals who have succeeded in making the transition are generally corrupt and often violent, but also they’re pragmatic and hungry in ways entirely unlike their fathers and grandfathers. Feudal politicians and officials of my father’s generation played according to principles and rules that the present generation would regard as being laughably naïve and ineffective. One of the things I describe in the book is the way my father’s generation, their values and principles and ideals, have been eliminated and replaced by this ruthlessness. In politics today in Pakistan, the rule of jungle prevails; and there are some very ugly beasts that sit on top of the food chain.
The servants are very important in your book. Why?
I’m certainly not as prolific as he is, but Balzac in the Comédie humaine makes a complete picture in which he’s got low and high, and rich and poor, and corrupt and uncorrupt; and this is a project that I would like to reproduce. I love that idea of making a big, complete picture. At the same time, I am able to do this, to describe a wide range of personalities and types, people from all levels of the social ladder. I have spent as much as time with servants and peasants and farm managers and small businessmen as with people from the cities, the wealthy and Westernized. As a small businessman myself, I’ve rubbed shoulders and been engaged with all sorts of people out in the countryside; and these are the people I write about.
You like Chekhov.
Definitely. For me, he’s the greatest of the short story writers. He makes it look so easy, has such a light touch.
I don’t know if there’s also some Manto in your stories…
Definitely. I admire Manto deeply. A couple of months ago I wrote an introduction to one of his collections that is going to come out in India, so I’ve been reading him.
Like him, you write about sex openly.
Sex is what drives us, all the unborn generations pressing themselves into being. Most fundamentally, that’s why we’re here: to reproduce, pass on our genes, and then die. Sex is obviously a) the most pressing appetite, other than physical hunger, b) something we all think about a lot and c) a subject that sells books. Any author who doesn’t directly or indirectly write about sex is missing the most important of all human subjects. And then, it’s fun to write about sex.
And in your book it is not limited to one social class…
Everybody fucks. I hope that my work is similar to Manto’s in this way, that it is raw, when it needs to be raw, and then refined when that is more suitable. Manto modulates his style to suit his subject; and is not afraid of the rank and the raunchy. For him there are no taboo subjects. I quite consciously try to modulate my style, something that he does extremely well. Some of my stories are much quieter and more restrained in their tone …
Yes, your style is sometimes restrained …
And then sometimes my diction and vocabulary and tone are much more unbuttoned, as for example in my story Nawabdin Electrician.
We talked before about corruption. Do you see that getting worse? Before it was all over, but now it’s even more pervading…
Much, much, much. Certainly in the countryside. Every vestige of restraint is long gone. For instance, consider the canal system, which provides the farmers’ lifeblood. In the last 25 years I have watched the irrigation system be progressively degraded. It started out with small things. The British planted trees along the canals, which grew into huge beautiful rosewood trees. Many, perhaps most of these, have been cut down illegally. There were well-maintained roads along the canals, those too have gone to seed. Now, in the final stage, the canal staff are selling the water, more and more brazenly. The upper riparians pay to have their outlets enlarged; the land at the end of the canals becomes fallow. The army has built illegal canals and illegal outlets, are stealing water to irrigate lands that officers have allotted to themselves in the desert. This same process of disintegration can be observed with almost all Pakistani systems, the justice system, the police, and on and on. The tendency is downward.
It’s an interesting subject for literature.
That’s true! See, there’s a silver lining in every cloud. Imagine if I lived in Switzerland – a story about that bureaucracy would be crushingly boring. Here there’s all this corruption, negotiation, pressurization, there’s so much going on. What’s so fascinating and frustrating about doing business in Pakistan is that every transaction is immensely complex, you can’t simply go out and pay a thousand rupees and get a thousand rupees worth of goods. It must be negotiated, examined. Is the product even real? Does the man selling it actually own it? Will he actually deliver it?
Can you explain the meaning of the title In Other Rooms, Other Wonders?
It comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, although I twisted her words slightly. This group of stories is sort of a big house with people living in the basement, on the top floor, in the garden, rich and poor, master and servant. The poem has as a refrain, And I shall sell you sell you / sell you, of course my dear, and you’ll sell me. That sums up a lot of the relationships in my stories.
I found the narrative structure very interesting. They are short stories, but it’s all like a tree…
Yeah, the stories are tied together.
Yes, it’s like a novel.
In America this is called a two-fer, as in, two for one. You get a novel, you get short stories: I should have charged twice as much. I enjoyed doing weaving all the stories together, seeing characters in one story reappear momentarily in another. It’s more complex. Each story works as a story, I hope, but they also work as a collection. It’s a richer book for it.
There’s no violence related to conflict or the Taliban in your stories.
Because the Taliban have nothing to do with my characters. The breakdown in Pakistan affects everybody, but the Taliban have an impact on the lives of very few. What affects people is the fact that there is no justice, no jobs, the educational system is dead in the water. These problems have not been caused by the Taliban. Furthermore, most of these stories are set before September 11, 2001, when the Taliban were only in Afghanistan, being babied by our ISI.
You are a Pakistani-American writer. Can we also see that you are between two worlds in your works?
Yeah, I suppose so. Because of the way I’ve been brought up, I can pass as an American, people there might say I have a little bit of an accent, but they won’t know where it is from; and similarly I can more or less pass in Pakistan. In terms of my mind, what happens is that I have two selves, the English-speaking self and the Pakistani self, and the two are quite unlike each other. I notice that even my tone of voice, when on my farm, is different. This is something that I’ve learned to negotiate over the years.
You think more about the Western reader than about the Pakistani?
Most of my readers are in the West. I do have Pakistani readers, but when I think about readers I think about readers abroad. I key my stories to readers who are not intimately familiar with Pakistan – for example, I translate all Urdu words.
So the book you are working now on is a novel?
It’s a novel, set in America, with no connection to Pakistan.
This will be the first one?
First novel, second book.
But I guess what you publish is 10 per cent of what you write.
Of course. But I began writing fiction very late, the first piece of fiction I wrote was in 2001, when I began this book. I’m in my forties, trying to create a body of work. I wish I had begun earlier! So I can’t afford to waste as much.
But it’s also beautiful…
That’s true. One of the great pleasures of my life has been reinventing myself, trying out radically different professions. I’ve been a farmer, a lawyer, and now am a writer, more or less.
There are six, seven Pakistani writers in English, I don’t know whether to call it a generation…
Yes, I think there are a number of reasons for this. One is that people are very interested in our part of the world now, and therefore it’s relatively easy to get published and to get noticed if you are a Pakistani writing more or less about a Pakistani subject. Second, because Pakistan is going through such a complicated transitional period, we live in a state of high stimulation. If you’re living in Switzerland and your father is a banker, your life is at least externally rather uneventful; whereas Pakistan is rollercoaster, crashing into things, a broken rollercoaster. Those of us who live here sit wide-eyed and trying not to blink, and saying to ourselves, wow, I have to fucking write this down. And then, to give a third reason: In the eighties and afterwards Pakistanis started going abroad in relatively large numbers. In the seventies I rarely met a Pakistani cab driver in New York; ten years to get into a cab there meant to meet one of my countrymen, and to have a good Punjabi chat. There’s been this tremendous diaspora of Pakistanis, and they went mostly to America or England, and so of course would write in English. There’s this whole generation of people now grown up, with a Pakistani connection and complicated feelings about their identity. We were grounded in Pakistan, but were given the tools to write about Pakistan for that Western audience.
Is also Pakistan going through a crisis of identity?
Yes, definitely. Pakistan is in danger of breaking apart, according to people much better informed than I am. The Pathans seem to wish for a divorce from the Punjabis, Baluchistan is in arms, the Sindhis are going their own way. Individual Pakistanis seem to be equally in crisis, torn between thinking of themselves as a conservative Muslims and at the same time, being fascinated by the opportunities and liberties of the West. I suspect that some of the mullahs screaming Death to the Great Satan would be delighted to have their sons receive U.S. green cards. Several years ago Google announced a ranking of porn searches performed in each country, and in this ranking Pakistan appeared as number one – that year we searched more porn per capita than any other country in the world. Pakistan’s press and people yelled bloody murder, and Google thereafter did not announce rankings. This is a repressed society, a supposedly religious society, and yet our young men and old are spending a significant portion of their free time searching the raunchiest possible websites, against the dictates of that religion. This furtive obsession breeds hypocrisy and self-loathing, a war within.
What about the role of women? There are some powerful female characters in your stories.
Repression doesn’t necessarily make repressed persons weak. As the adage says, what doesn’t break you builds you. Some of the strongest women I have met are Pakistani. Because the structures of power are organized against them, they have to learn to use all kinds of clever and indirect means to exercise power.
Some of your characters also seem to have an obsession with their economic position.
It’s a tremendously stratified society. Everybody is trying to move up, there is tremendous upwards pressure, and tremendous pressure from above to prevent those below from rising. Resources are scarce and therefore the struggle for them is brutal. This of course makes it rich material for a writer – fiction requires conflict.
What about religion? You tend not to focus on it in your stories.
I think many people overstate the role of religion in the average person’s life in Pakistan. The urban middle classes seem to be pious, or at least to pay lip service to piety, and make a show of their piety. The guys in the countryside where I live, most of them they don’t say their prayers daily. Their religion is bred into their bones, and they don’t much think about it.