At a time when Raj Thackeray has called for a ban on Pakistani artists, Kamila Shamsie’s just-released novel, Burnt Shadows, has a section set in pre-partition Delhi.
Its more than an irony-ridden coincidence. “I feel close ties to India, because much of my family and good friends live there or are from there. Writing about Delhi in Burnt Shadows made me feel even closer to it because I was spending so much time imagining an earlier version of it,” says Shamsie.She adds, "I feel a mix of sadness, anger and disgust [when I hear about the ban]. These days, more than ever, both nations need to be reminded of the complexity and humanity that exist across the border — novels, music and films serve as those reminders."
The literary worlds of India and Pakistan, much like the countries politics and history, are intertwined. Pakistani writers, and the resonance their works have in India, are testimony to this relationship. Moni Mohsin’s 2008 novel, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, with its scathingly witty depictions of Pakistani high society, is one that captures the commonalities between the two countries tellingly. “The Butterfly’s desire to befriend society ladies in Delhi and her frequent references to India indicate that women of a certain class have very similar preoccupations in both, India and Pakistan. She knows that visa restrictions and the frequent outbreak of hostilities notwithstanding, they are kindred spirits,” says Mohsin, adding that the ban is “deeply regrettable.” So similar are we, she says, that within days of the publication of her book in India, “A Sikh gentleman in Delhi who had read excerpts of my book in a newspaper, instantly recognised the Butterfly as a familiar figure in Delhi society. He had gone out and bought 10 copies — one for himself and nine for distribution among the said Butterflies!”Bapsi Sidhwa, author of books like The Crow Eaters and Cracking India (originally published as Ice Candy Man in 1988), on which the movie Earth is based, feels she has as much claim to Indian soil as she does to that of Pakistan. "I feel I belong to both countries simultaneously," says the author, who has lived in Mumbai as well as Lahore. Although she currently resides in the US, Sidhwa says, "I love to be read by desis because they appreciate my work at a very intimate level and understand the cultural nuances."
Her reaction to the ban too, is a mix of sadness and regret. “What purpose does it serve? Writers of fiction try to depict their own cultures as truthfully as they are able to, and in that sense are bridge builders. On a recent visit to Lahore I found the book shops filled with books by Indian authors. Writers tend to transcend nationality and in that respect are citizens of several countries at the same time — a much-needed glue in our strife-torn world,” she states.
Indian readers, especially women, often find greater resonance with authors of Pakistani origin, than with their Western counterparts.
“I’m impressed by the number of women who have read and liked my work in India. The last time I visited, I was invited to book readings at various schools and bookstores and the attention made me feel like a star — especially in Delhi and Mumbai. I loved it,” recalls Sidhwa.London-based Shamsie too feels strongly about Indo-Pak literary ties. "I’ve always been very touched to find Indian readers who talk about finding resonance with my work (and it does tend to be far more women than men who say that). India and Pakistan are in the strange situation of being so close — more than just geographically — yet also being filled with misconceptions and stereotypes about each other, so there’s a particular pleasure when fiction starts to dismantle some of those stereotypes," she says.
Shamsie, however, is wary of the oneness equated with both countries. “I dont even believe all Indians or all Pakistanis are one people. What makes a farmer in Nagaland and an industrialist in Mumbai one? India and Pakistan have very close and deep historical and cultural links, but the further you get from the border, the more tenuous those links become. While you find great resonance, Pakistani fiction and Indian fiction remain distinct entities, because of our different history,” she maintains unequivocally.
At the same time, she says, “We really do want to know each other better — away from the rhetoric of our political leaders.” Just as Mohsin hopes that in her lifetime, travel restrictions between the two countries will be lifted. “I hope I will be able to visit India with the ease with which the Germans and British visit each other now, she says, adding, “Should such an eventuality ever come to pass, I know that my inner Butterfly will soar to new heights.”