Fiction and War
Looking for Pakistan's Looking-Glass
Uzma Aslam Khan
Jinnah and Gandhi
(Continued from last week)
After the summer of the nuclear tests, my need to know the currency with which I'd inherited the past became an ache. I had to walk the land, see it for myself. I trusted no written account of it. I explored it as much as I could. One day, while travelling through a village near Mianwali, I was asked by the villagers to name my tribe. I was stumped. Five men hunkered around a clay oven in which an old man was refining sugar. The atmosphere was congenial, but I felt I was being tested. My travelling companions were a closet American and a closet Ahmadi. I looked at both and quickly answered, 'Muslim!' As the men chuckled, I remembered a childhood conversation still floating around in the tissues of my engram, and hurriedly added, 'Rajput!' That generated much discussion and some relief, as if it's better to be a Rajput and know it than be a Rajput and not know it. (Not know that I am more Prithvi than Ghauri). My tribal allegiance settled, conversation turned to Partition. When had my family come to Pakistan, and to which city or village?
Unfortunately, I didn't know much about this either. What I knew was that my father's family arrived from a village near Amritsar during the Partition riots; both his grandparents were murdered; they received no land in the new homeland; they started from virtually nothing as they settled in Lahore. I knew even less about my mother's family, who migrated from Hyderabad Deccan after Partition. I shared fragments of these fragments with the villagers, who were deeply unimpressed by my poor sense of personal history. Almost in sympathy, the old man offered us sugar, and we parted.
Later, I filled in some blanks. My father's parents and siblings moved to Lahore in 1945. The rest of his family stayed in Indian Punjab. When they arrived during the 1947 Partition riots, my father's home became their shelter. If they related stories of their journey, I don't know them. What I know is public history: trains full of corpses, arson, rape and murder; friends turning against each other; women committing 'honourable' suicide; families divided. If my father's identification of the land and people his family left behind was of the Enemy, in opposition to whom a new Self must be made, if he struggled against that Other, it was not apparent to me. I didn't inherit that narrative. He wanted me to grow up looking forward, not back.
Even after 60 years of the bloody separation political violence continues to haunt the subcontinent.
Only recently did I learn from him the details of his grandparents' murder. I'd thought they were murdered on a train to Pakistan but in fact it happened in a place called Muktesar, in my great-grandfather's shop. He was a hakim. When the war started, a group of his own Sikh patients stabbed him and his wife to death. My grandmother was very attached to my father and would talk to him frequently about her loss. But early in his life he resolved not to pass their grief on to his children, when he had them.
My mother moved to Lahore in 1949, two years after Partition, from the city where she was born, Hyderabad Deccan. She speaks with warmth of her Indian childhood, as well as her journey to Pakistan, but only when asked. Unlike my father, she retains no painful memories of that time, and she, like me, grew up in a home where neither parent spoke of Partition.
My parents' families adjusted differently to the 'new' land. My mother's father was from Lucknow, and she says that though he lived in Hyderabad Deccan for twenty years, as an Urdu-speaker, he never felt accepted by local Hyderabadis. After moving to Pakistan, he felt equally unaccepted in Lahore. He only felt settled in Karachi, where most other Urdu speakers were settling.
In contrast, most of my father's family has never left Lahore. When they first arrived, they adapted quickly, despite getting no land compensation and being poor. Like many Punjabi muhajirs (unlike Urdu-speaking migrants, they no longer call themselves 'muhajir'), they assimilated easily in their new urban environment because they shared the language and culture of the Punjab.
Both my parents say religion was not the prime factor in helping their families feel connected with their new homes.
The legacy of militarisation.
Since my encounter with the villagers near Mianwali, I travel in the rural areas with more knowledge of my past. And with questions ready to pose. Unlike in urban Punjab, many migrants in rural Punjab still speak of their home as being in India, not Pakistan. The new homeland has not lived up to its promise. The past is forever. The present is temporary. Nostalgia and despair have erased faith in tomorrow.
What bears stressing is that there is not one Pakistani history but many. If my parents recall their Pakistani beginnings differently, so do we all. Factors such as the urban-rural divide, gender (in rural Punjab, women will speak more warmly of their departed Hindu or Sikh neighbours than the men), ethnicity, class and language, all come in, but so do individual differences. And religion is but one element. That is what the oral tales will tell but the textbooks won't. Our official history may be Arabized, but our unofficial histories run in the millions. As Susan Sontag wrote, 'All memory is individual, unreproducible it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened …'
So, can memory be measured? No, because it is stored in blood, and you cannot put a fence around blood. It will find a way out. You can neither count nor contain it. And you have to accept that it is thicker than a national consensus.
Today, I know what the looking-glass showed that summer of the nuclear tests. That my immediate corner of the globe called Pakistan-sixty-years-after-Partition is full of holes of floating images of Zia's shiny boots and thick moustache and Convent School and ethnic riots and tribal fidelity, and hundreds of years of historical gaps. And a possible Nuclear Holocaust which will be the largest suicide attack in world history, though we have so much to learn of our world's histories.
There is no fixed beginning for Pakistan's sense of itself, but as long as our identities are state-stipulated, there will be an aborted end.
The looking-glass has to be imagined, and better.
My personal history is patchy. My textbook history is not true. I need the truth in fiction, as made by others, and as I can make it.
But here I also run into a problem.
I write to live better, but I do it with a tool I'm meant to be ashamed of. The tool is English. I write in English, not my mother tongue Urdu or father tongue Punjabi. This is not a choice but an acceptance. And it is not an apology. I was educated in English, including in my own country. Yet, if I have inherited a legacy of militarisation, nuclearisation, 'Islamic' laws, and war, I have also inherited an explosive attitude to the English language. As a storyteller, I imagine my country in a tongue that is hated. And coveted.
In Pakistan, English is divided into two teacups. There is the clean cup: sip this English tea if you aspire to be a doctor, engineer, computer whiz kid, even a journalist. When these drinkers grow proficient in the tongue, they live quite comfortably and can enjoy travels in other English-speaking countries.
The other teacup contains a tainted brand of English tea. It is brewed by Pakistani fiction writers. Urdu-speaking drinkers of the first brand of English tea express scorn for the second because somehow, only the second is 'colonial' though Urdu is not an indigenous language of this soil either, and though they send their own children to English-medium schools (and colleges in English-speaking vatans), read English-language newspapers, and attend English-speaking to-dos.
English is accepted, even sought, as a tool for economic growth, but not for creative growth.
At a Pakistani Literature Conference in Germany last year, I was invited to speak on a panel beside an eminent Urdu-language Pakistani writer. The discussion had barely begun before the writer proceeded to call English 'an elitist language,' declaring that once you start writing in it, you create a fence between yourself and the rest of the country.
This is a little ridiculous, given that Pakistan lost half of itself only twenty-four years after its birth, because it imposed the Urdu language on a population that did not speak it. Was this not 'elitist'? And what about all the non-Urdu speaking people in Pakistan today? They are the majority. No, English should not be imposed on them, but Urdu already has been.
Accusing writers of belonging to the 'other' side, and not being 'one of us', is another aborted attempt at stipulating a single identity to Pakistan. It is an attempt at drawing national borders that cut right through the creative process. Us cannot be hammered down to either/or either Muslim or Not, Rajput or Arain, muhajir or Sindhi. How many more partitions do we need?
The second generation born in Pakistan is even more likely to write in English than my own, and their successors even more so. If Urdu writers fear losing Urdu to English, stifling expression in English is not going to keep Urdu alive. The answer is in a greater tolerance of all our languages, including English, which is becoming a Pakistani language. Even as we write it.
Without this tolerance, the number of English language Pakistani writers writing from outside this country can only increase. In the years I've lived in Lahore, I've seen the numbers grow. The more this happens, the more the complaints of the reactionary anti-English voices will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pakistanis who write about a contemporary Pakistan they have not been a part of will indeed write from an aesthetic and emotional place 'over there'. They will not have seen it for themselves. Their work will depend on hearsay and stilted textbooks. It will echo the same static, nostalgic lament still heard in rural Punjab for 'the lost homeland'. Or fall into the trap of recycling stereotypical Eastern icons (like spices, bangles and oppressed immigrants liberated by the West).
It will not offer a looking-glass for tomorrow, but be forever stuck in time.
*This is how I imagine our mirror: as a mosaic in fluid time, not a flat surface inhabited by ghosts. As preserving the past by debating it. As inviting us to look with fresh eyes.
In the looking-glass-mosaic, all memory is individual and every language tells a story. But equally, all winds toss explosions back at us. No life is expendable. Or immune.
Uzma Aslam Khan was born in Lahore in 1969, and grew up in Karachi. Her first novel, The Story of Noble Rot, was published by Penguin India in 2001. Her second novel, Trespassing, was published by Flamingo/HarperCollins UK in 2003, has been translated into 13 languages, and was nominated for the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia). She lives in Lahore, where she is currently at work on a third novel.
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