Granta: Pakistan through a literary lens

The latest Granta edition had enormous value for those interested in Pakistan's multi-faceted society.

Sumit Ganguly October 20, 2010
The latest issue of the noted British literary journal, Granta, was devoted to writings both on and from Pakistan. At a time when the country has been swept up in a spate of bad news, ranging from tensions with the United States, drone attacks and the devastating floods, to the distressing allegations of match fixing by the national cricket team, this collection of essays, poems, vignettes and even artwork is a welcome reprieve.

The collection is true to Granta’s justly-famed reputation and does not serve up an anodyne collection of writing. Instead, several of the essays are quite provocative, the shorts stories disturbing and the artwork intriguing.  That said, not all the contributions are uniformly thoughtful or laden with literary or intellectual significance. Also, it might have been helpful if the editors had chosen to provide even a slender introduction to this volume, to provide it with a semblance of a leitmotif. However, these criticisms seem churlish in light of the obvious value of this collection for those interested in the many facets of Pakistan’s complex society and its tortured politics.

An array of perspectives

Jane Perlez’s essay on Jinnah’s portrait is a deft introduction to the peculiar evolution of the Pakistani state. Jinnah, its founding father, may not have had time to develop a clear-cut blueprint for the governance of this hard-fought state. However, it can be inferred from his writings and pronouncements, especially after his realisation of Pakistan, that he had no desire to set up a religious state. Sadly, some of his successors, most notably the secular politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, for reasons of political exigency, ended up unleashing the forces of religious intolerance. Today, Pakistan is paying a terrible price for their political myopia.

Declan Walsh’s travelogue through Pakistan’s Pashtun territories provides one with a vivid sense of not just local color and lore, but the sanguinary features of contemporary politics in the region. Sadly, despite his obvious knowledge of the region and his nimble historical and literary allusions, he does seem unaware of a critical piece of Pashtun history, namely the now lost legacy of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the great Pashtun leader, whose Khudai Khidmatgars both preached and practiced non-violent civil disobedience. His life and work may be of little significance to the contemporary politics of the region in particular and Pakistan in general. Nevertheless, reminding lay readers of this extraordinary figure might have served a critical political purpose: namely, that the subcontinent offered the world a model of non-violent resistance, on the part of a prominent Muslim leader. Such a message is hardly trivial, given the tragic association in the Western popular imagination of contemporary Islam with political violence and terror.

No volume on contemporary Pakistan would be complete without some discussion of the vexed question of the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir. Fortunately, Basharat Peer’s essay is mostly a fair-minded and gripping account of the insurgency in the Indian-controlled part of the state. It is a pity that the editors chose not to include a companion essay on society and politics in what Pakistanis refer to as “Azad Kashmir,” since few in the west are even aware of its existence.

Courage and charm

There are some utterly chilling, painfully honest and downright courageous essays and stories on other aspects of Pakistan’s political life in this volume. To that end, look no further than Intizar Husaain’s ‘The House By The Gallows,” which traces the coarsening of everyday life thanks to the legacy of General Zia-ul-Haq; or, for that matter, the depiction of the terrifying account of antiquated tribal codes of honor in Jamil Ahmad’s “The Sins of the Mother”. Finally, there is Fatima Bhutto’s essay, “Mango Pir” a deeply felt and disturbingly gritty account of the plight of a miniscule minority, the Sheedi, who eke out a hapless existence in Karachi’s slums.

Yet, it would be misleading to suggest that this collection dwells entirely upon the bloody, tragic and distressing. Sarfraz Manzoor’s marvelous vignette of growing up as a Pakistani Briton and his quest for love and belonging in “White Girls” can induce one to both tears and laughter in equal measure. Aamer Hussein’s “Restless”, written in a similar vein, also neatly captures the travails of a new life as a relatively affluent immigrant in London.

This timely volume, while not overlooking the many unpleasant features of society and politics in contemporary Pakistan, nevertheless offers a fascinating array of perspectives on the country’s current state and elements of its diaspora. Such reflective discussions are a welcome addition to much of the current reportage on Pakistan.
Sumit Ganguly A professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is currently serving as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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