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Facts about their fiction

The idea that Pakistan is the new India, at least in its output of award-winning and bestselling fiction in English in recent years, is not new. Sunil Sethi writes.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2011 22:54 IST
Sunil Sethi

The idea that Pakistan is the new India, at least in its output of award-winning and bestselling fiction in English in recent years, is not new. But this was bolstered last month during the Jaipur Literature Festival by the $50,000 DSC South Asian Literature Award going to 36-year-old Karachi-based Husain M Naqvi for his debut novel Home Boy.

Naqvi, together with his beautiful wife Aliya (a niece of Indian filmmaker Muzaffar Ali) who is a Harvard graduate working on a PhD on Abul Fazal, the leading light of Akbar's court, are the toast of their home town at the second Karachi Literature Festival. Naqvi is hard at work on his next novel. And given the literary noise they make, his fellow writers should have new novels out this year.

Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, the satiric account of General Zia-ul-Haq's years in power, has just submitted the manuscript of his new novel which centres on the persecution of a Christian woman. But Daniyal Mueenuddin, the half-American, half-Pakistani author of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, has abandoned his Pakistani novel to complete an all-American story set in New York.

A marwari's legacy in Karachi
There's something more appealingly noise-worthy happening in Karachi (apart from occasional bombs and outbursts of street fighting). And it's the vigour and innovation of contemporary Pakistani art that is currently getting its biggest outing in the fabulous Mohatta Palace, one of the city's grand heritage buildings, now restored as a public museum.

Perched on an eminence in the city's wealthy neighbourhood of Clifton, the 1920s palace of carved sandstone, built in the Rajasthani colonial style, was once the summer residence of Seth Shiv Rattan Mohatta, a Marwari shipbuilding tycoon.

Local legend has it that in 1947, the influential Seth Mohatta stormed into Jinnah's office to protest that the new district commissioner had an eye on taking over his mansion. When Jinnah refused to intervene, Seth Mohatta left for India and his two-storeyed palace became the home of the newly-established Pakistani foreign office.

When the ministry moved to the Islamabad, Fatima Jinnah installed its vast halls and chambers with painted ceilings and elaborate tiled floors and lived there until her death in 1967. In 1995, the Sindh government bought it and handed it over to an independent board of trustees to save the building. It restored the mansion and its lush gardens to their former glory. Today, it is a major exhibition space.

Cover the whole canvas
The Rising Tide: New Directions in Art from Pakistan 1990-2010 is the name of the superbly mounted show at the Mohatta Palace, with works by 42 emerging and established artists from Pakistan and its diaspora. There are conventional canvases, post-modern miniatures, sculptural installations and video art, in photographic and other digital media. Each, in one way or another, takes the up the theme of the city as an urban landscape of migration, displacement, political, social and economic upheaval.

Among the more spectacular works is a huge mirrored cube by Rashid Rana (Pakistan's answer to Subodh Gupta) that appears to portray towering urban skyscrapers. But viewed closely, the high-rises are composed of thousands of small embedded photographs of old Lahore houses. Movingly, it is called Desperately Seeking Paradise. In fact many of the art works have poetically evocative names like Ek Shahar Jo Udaas Hai (A City That Is Sad) and Ghosts in the Turret.

Sunil Sethi is the host of Just Books on NDTV