Granta 112: Pakistan
R599 pp 288
If the most poignant image of the Partition of 1947 is sought in fiction, one will have to turn to Saadat Hasan Manto. Specifically to Bishen Singh, the “lunatic” Sikh in Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, who, failing to figure out whether his native village was in India or Pakistan, refuses to budge from the no-man’s-land between the two countries. We are now 63 years removed from that episode of blood and pain, and reading Granta’s latest Pakistan issue, a collection of short stories, essays, poems and images from mostly Pakistani writers and artists, one realises that the intellectual moorings have also shifted from a question of where-is-home to what-is-home.
That question of Pakistani identity is complicated not just because of its ethnic or cultural diversity, but also because the country thrives in popular perception through a series of negative associations. For India, it’s the arch adversary with whom it had to fight three wars; for America, it’s a cauldron of jihadi fanaticism that has suddenly intruded into the consciousness; for the rest, it’s a country whose democracy is periodically undermined by direct or proxy military intervention.
Granta’s collection — its ornate cover designed by artist Islam Gull with the same industrial paints used to decorate trucks — tries to represent some of the vibrant potency in contemporary Pakistani society, to sift through all the violence and anger and find some meaning or even traces of humanity in the chaos, to critique its own society while also shredding apart America’s foreign policy that has significantly contributed to the mess.
‘A Beheading’, Mohsin Hamid’s first-person narrative, the most brutal entry in the book, describes a man being kidnapped and beheaded, his final thoughts being, “I watch as I end before I am empty.” Women end up getting a raw deal, given the entrenched patriarchy and the vast swathes of the country where age-old tribal writs run. Leila is one of them, unable to bear sons in Nadeem Aslam’s Leila in the Wilderness, or Gul Bibi in Jamil Ahmad’s The Sins of the Mother, whose brief spell of domestic happiness with her lover is described with endearing engagement, even as the long shadow of her tribal kinsmen, whose code of honour she has defied, threatens her.
In ‘Kashmir's Forever War’, Basharat Peer comes home to Srinagar — “a medieval city dying in a modern war” — and meets the teenagers pelting stones on city streets. It’s a “blood sport” for the boys, says an Indian security official; “... the gun was from Pakistan,” says one of the boys, “but the stones are our own.” The setting is ripe for elements ranging from the comic to the absurd: Jane Perlez, a New York Times correspondent, discovers that the choice of Jinnah’s portrait, whether a secular lawyer or an austere, religious man, can say much about the person who has hung it; or when Intizar Hussein, in ‘The House by the Gallows’, writing on Zia ul-Haq’s soul-destroying censorship, mentions the time he had to abandon a radio discussion for mentioning that the Taj Mahal was one of the highest points in Islamic architecture (unacceptable, as the Taj is in India).
Elsewhere, Fatima Bhutto goes looking for legend among the Sheedi in Karachi in ‘Mangho Pir’, a community of African ethnicity where, during urs, women sing verses that are part Swahili and part Balochi, where deprivation is intense but people firmly believe that Pakistan is “tolerant and diverse and always has been”. In fact, it is not deprivation, finds out Lorraine Adams and Ayesha Nasir, but accounts of atrocities against Muslims on news TV that make radicals out of the likes of Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, who was a “proficient English speaker in designer sunglasses”.
The question of Pakistani identity now has geopolitical significance, says Hari Kunzru in his introduction to Pakistan’s Green Cardamom art project. It is for its people to figure out the balance between the Pashtunwali code that determines life, war and politics along the Afghan border, to resolve the contradictions inherent in an 80s pop artist-turned-proselytiser endorsing halal potato chips on TV, or like the artist Ayesha Jatoi, who sets out her washing to dry on a publicly-installed decommissioned aircraft, to engage with the immediate in order to subvert. Granta’s collection delves into one of the pressing issues of our time, making it a must-read book this season.