Sunday, 2 January 2011

“Pakistan” published by Granta: A Book Review

This collection consists of a number of articles, short stories, poems and even photographs of Pakistan. I got a free copy of this book when I attended a Pakistan themed Granta event a few months ago in London, but managed to finish reading it only now.

“Leila in the Wilderness” is a short story by Nadeem Aslam which shows the extremes to which human cruelty and capriciousness can be stretched on account of a deadly mix of religion, ignorance and feudalism. In this case, the villains are a landlord husband and his mother and the main victim is child bride Leila who is subjected to sadistic violence on account of her inability to bear a son. It’s fine writing by Aslam, though Aslam has taken his share of the fiction writer’s licence.

“Portrait of Jinnah” is an excellent sketch of Jinnah by Jane Perlez, Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the New York Times, who has covered Pakistan for the last three years. Perlez’s 9 page article does a better job of sketching Jinnah than Jaswant Singh’s 669-page tome on Jinnah. In particular, Perlez gets closer (than Jaswant Singh) to answering the following questions: Did Jinnah really want partition or was he merely bargaining for greater autonomy and concessions for the sub-continent’s Muslims? Could partition have been avoided if the Congress and Nehru had pushed back harder and conceded more? Did Jinnah envisage a Muslim majority Pakistan where all minorities would be free to practice their religions or did he want a theocracy? Please read this excellent article to reach within guessing range for the answers to these questions.

“Kashmir’s Forever War” by Basharat Peer (author of Curfewed Night, a memoir of the Kashmir Conflict and a fellow of the Open Society Institute in New York) is a reasonably fair and even handed account of the agitation in the Kashmir valley, as seen through the eyes of a Kashmiri. In addition to tracing the history of the violence in Kashmir, Peer tries to explain why teenagers have launched a Palestinian-intifada style stone-throwing agitation in the valley.

“Ice, Mating” by Uzma Aslam Khan, is one of those modern stories, set in various parts of the globe, which, though very well written, wasn’t exactly to my liking. “Butt and Bhatti” by Mohammed Hanif (author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes) on the other hand, is a modern story (with a story) which was to my liking. I’ll leave it to you to read these stories and decide for yourselves whether they are any good.

“The House by the Gallows” by Intizar Hussain is an excellent piece on how Zia-ul-Haq introduced fundamentalist thought and values into Pakistan. For those who don’t know (with apologies to those who do and who will be offended by this basic introduction) Intizar Hussain was born in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1923 and migrated to Pakistan after Partition. He is the recipient of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s third highest civilian honour. Hussain writes in Urdu and his piece has been translated into English by Bhasharat Peer. I once read a collection of short stories by Hussain and his writing reminded me of Vaikom Mohammad Basheer’s.

In addition to articles and short stories, there are poems galore. “Trying Tripe”, a poem by Daniyal Mueenuddin, (author of In other rooms, Other Wonders) is the best of the lot. “Life and Time” is a very thought provoking poem by Hasina Gul, almost equally good. “PK 754” by Yasmeen Hameed didn’t impress me as much as the other two.

Bang in the middle of this book, are a number of excellent photographs provided by Green Cardamom, a London based not-for-profit organisation, which specialises in international contemporary art viewed from the sub-continent’s perspective. Titled “High Noon”, these pictures are preceded by a thought provoking foreword by Hari Kunzru.

“Arithmetic on the Frontier” by Declan Walsh (Guardian’s correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan) is an exciting narration of how Pashtuns live, feud, fight and die in Lakki Marwat, an impoverished district in Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan. The focus is on Anwar Kamal, a lawmaker who hails from Lakki Marwat and belongs to the Marwat tribe, The Marwats are hardcore Pashtuns, but they have elected to not to toe the Taliban’s line. As a consequence, Walsh explains how on 1 January 2009, a suicide bomber detonated himself during a volleyball match causing 97 deaths among the Marwats. As this report shows, such attacks continue to take place in Laki Marwat even now.

“A Beheading” is a very gripping and very short story by Mohsin Hamid (author of the Reluctant Fundamentalist). It is about, ahem, ahem…… a beheading. Do read it, unless you are the squeamish sort, you know what I mean?

“Pop Idols” by Kamila Shamsie is an article about how Islamic fundamentalism has affected music, especially pop music in Pakistan, Interesting stuff, it is.

“Restless” by Aamer Hussein (author of Insomnia and Another Gulmohar Tree, lives in London) is about the author’s restlessness when he moved from Pakistan to London as a teenager in the 1970s.

“Mangho Pir” is an excellent account of the Sheedi (Siddhi in India) community by Fatima Bhutto. Yes, Pakistan is racist towards black people, even if they are Muslims. I do know for a fact that this community faces similar issues in India.

“White Girls” by Sarfraz Manzoor is an account of the narrator’s search for a companion. The narrator lives in the UK and has been brought up to believe that white girls can only bring misery to a man of Pakistani origin. Surely he cannot fall for one?

On 1 May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen of Pakistani origin tried to detonate a car bomb at Times Square. He failed. But why on earth did he want to do that? Shahzad was the son of a very senior Pakistani Air Force officer, who was liberal. Lorraine Adams and Ayesha Nasir examine this incident and its background in the “The Trials of Faisal Shahzad”. An incisive piece for sure.

“The Sins of the Mother” by Jamil Ahmad (a civil servant who has served in the Pak embassy in Kabul) is the last piece and the best short story in this collection. Like the current state of affairs in Pakistan, it ends on a very depressing note.

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