English writing by Pakistani women | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 23, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 23, 2008

English writing by Pakistani women

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Pakistani writing in English is something we in Bangladesh are not generally aware of. There are several possible reasons for it. One is the troubled history between Bangladesh and Pakistan, which has over the decades seemingly hardened, tragically enough, a cultural divide that was the basis for the 1971 split, and has institutionalized a natural disinclination to enquire too closely at what Pakistani Anglophone writers are up to. Another reason is far more material: the simple unavailability of the works of Pakistani writers and authors--here one is talking about those Pakistani authors that are published in Pakistan itself. The odd work published outside Pakistan, in the UK and the USA, does make its appearance in our local markets, but even these have been available on so limited a basis that it has proved impossible to make an informed judgment or opinion on the quality of their English language output. Or even to acquire a general familiarity with them. The biggest reason of all undoubtedly may simply have been the overall domination of the Indians in the field of South Asian writing, whose forward momentum ever since the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has dwarfed and overshadowed, aside from some Sri Lankese authors, the output of writers from the other countries of the South Asian subcontinent.
Things are now changing with regard to Pakistani Anglophone writing. One recent reason has been the spectacular success of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for weeks and had been long-listed for the 2007 Booker Prize. Its success brought renewed attention to Pakistani writing in English and to authors who have been quietly toiling away in its vineyards during the last decade: the relatively prolific Kamila Shamsie, Uzma Aslam Khan, Aamer Hussein, Nadeem Aslam, Moni Mohsin, Imad Rehman--and now the latest sensation, Mohammed Hanif, the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Another reason for the recent surge of recognition is the increasing interest taken by Indian publishers, and readers, in the works of writers across the border, a development which has made for easier access to Pakistani writers. The volume under review--And The World Changed: contemporary stories by Pakistani women, brought out by Women Unlimited, Delhi, in 2005--is an early product of such an Indian interest in Pakistani writing. It has been edited by Muneeza Shamsie, whose signal contribution to Pakistani English writing was her 1997 collection titled A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English (Oxford University Press, both UK and Pakistan). That particular anthology has become an enduring guide to anyone interested in the broad contours of Pakistani English writing, of both prose and poems. The editor's Introduction in the opinion of many critics and reviewers is a classic tour d'horizon of Pakistani Anglophone writing, covering deftly the intertwined, thorny topics of the troubled heritage of English language in the subcontinent, Muslim writers in pre-Partition India (the Pakistanis claim both the poet and art critic Shahid Suhrawardy as well as Ahmed Ali, the author of Twilight in Delhi, as their own, but questions can be raised about the fullness of such claims), the history of English writing in Pakistan and the question of what exactly constitutes a ‘Pakistani’ writer (the connections with Pakistan of a Hanif Kureishi, or even a Zulfikar Ghosh, for example, can charitably be considered to be tenuous at best), and the state of contemporary English writing in Pakistan. Muneeza Shamsie in 2001 also brought out a second anthology of Pakistani English writing, Leaving Home: Towards A New Millennium: A Collection of English Prose by Pakistani Writers.
And The World Changed: contemporary stories by Pakistani women makes available the short stories of 24 women authors (including that of the editor, who is also a creative writer and literary journalist based in Karachi). Again, Muneeza Shamsie's expert and authoritative Introduction catches the reader's attention. Historically, English writing by Pakistani women began with Mumtaz Shahnawaz's (1912-1948) A Heart Divided, a narrative that “was permeated by a strong consciousness of herself as an educated Muslim woman and political activist”, who died tragically and prematurely in an air crash. It was followed by The Young Bride and Other Stories by Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah (1918-2000), who was also Pakistan's first woman columnist, who later started her own magazine The Mirror, which along with two other magazines Woman's World and She, provided a platform for Pakistani women's writing in the 1950s and 1960s.
The modern period of English fiction by Pakistani women writers, however, undeniably began with Bapsi Sidhwa's 1979 The Crow Eaters, published by Jonathan Cape in the UK. The book's earthy humour, providing an unmistakeable critique in tone and style of the Martial Law era of Ziaul Haq, written by a woman belonging to the minority Parsi community, guaranteed it widespread attention. Politics was the explicit spur in the next phase of Pakistani women's writing, when the Hudood Ordinance during the same period (which did not differentiate between rape and adultery) forced a spate of protest articles from Rukhsana Ahmad, a Pakistani expatriate in England. She also went on to translate Urdu feminist poetry and co-founded the Asian Women's Collective, a forum for British Asian women writers. From then on, the early 1980s, Pakistani women, mostly based in the US, began to write in a variety of genres, from Sara Suleri's academic and nonfiction writings to Hima Raza's and Fawzia Afzal Khan's blending of poetry and prose to the mining of myths and lore by Shahrukh Husain, whose Women Who Wear the Breeches “included 'Rubies for a Dog' a story based on 'The tale of Azad Bakht' from the great Urdu classic Bagh-O-Bahar by Mir Amman Delvi (1803)” to Talat Abbasi's intensely feminist preoccupations.
All of the above writers are present in this fascinating collection of stories, published as a deliberate counterweight to the fact that “despite individual successes, English language writing by Pakistani women as a body of work is not widely known”. Two strong patterns are discernable from this collection of “creative work in original English”, with the first being the persistent impact of the East-West encounter, of Western idioms and thought pressing upon Muslim identities and thought, and of an equally intense pressure back, stories which spring from the spaces that are carved out by such a clash within individual, female consciousness and minds. Traditional concepts of personal freedom, social roles, the divide between public and private spheres are implicitly worked out anew, where these by now familiar themes of women's writing are given fresh life by the expressive, strange and rare eloquence of fiction writing. One spectacular example of the latter is Soniah Kamal's 'Runaway Truck Ramp', whose alert, acrid and very funny short story probes diametrically opposed notions of freedom and 'maleness' through the sheer physicality of a one-night stand between an American woman and a Pakistani man: “Essence said I could walk into a room, take a survey, hone in, chat up, take the boy and dispose of him afterwards like well-chewed gum, we the women of the millennium, and that's what I did: Take Charge. That's the type I fell under in a Marie Claire quiz. No mooning around and pining for a guy for me, and so here was Sully, I found him attractive, and so why not, except I just couldn't do my routine--pull him over, fondle him or just say, 'Wanna fuck?'”
The other general pattern to be noted is that politics, both within Pakistan and outside of it (the problematic of an Islamic identity in a post 9/11 world, that 800-pound gorilla in the room), its conflicting dialectics, a rage against a political dispensation based on religious tenets that specifically discriminates against women, still acts as a vital spur to Pakistani women writing in English. Thus we get a tie between incipient communalism and military rule in the title story by Sabyn Javeri-Jillani, while Humera Afridi confronts a suddenly hostile atmosphere in New York City on 9/11. It is a continuous battle, and one gets the impression that the very choice of the language is in itself a part of the contention.
Whether one is interested in the particular development of Pakistani writing in English, or in the overall picture of South Asian writing, which by definition must include all the writers of all the countries of the subcontinent, where not just Indian but also Bangladeshi and Pakistani and Nepalese writing must be considered within the overall frame, Muneeza Shamsie's continuing efforts in giving us these anthologies and collections of writings are most noteworthy and valuable. The book, fittingly enough, is dedicated to Muneeza's mother, Begum Jahanara Habibullah (1915-2003) “who wrote her first book in her eighties and was 84 when it was first published.”

Khademul Islam is literary editor, The Daily Star.

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