Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 33, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

Current Pakistani fiction

Alamgir Hashmi

Four Pakistani works of fiction published in 1990 may be considered as appropriate additions to the post-colonial work of the 1980s.1 The books to be considered as such are by Hanif Kureishi, Tariq Ali, Adam Zameenzad, and Athar Tahir. They generally portray a bleak social landscape both relieved and illuminated by the spot-light of satire and humour, role inversion, ideological revision and historical re-evaluation, as much as by narratives of displacement, allegorical or nightmare sequences, and an effort to find the right words for the situation.

Hanif Kureishi's first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia,2 follows on from his several plays and short stories,3 showing to advantage the stagecraft and spoken language as well as the themes used in earlier works. Adolescent Karim Amir growing into manhood learns about himself and the world around him and discovers the operative rules of family, work, institutions, society, and culture. As it is not the usual bildungsroman, Haroon, his father, is also rediscovering himself in his love for Eva and in the effort on his own and others' behalf "to reach [your] full potential as human beings" (p.13). He is the latter-day lecturing (contrary) Buddha, a traditional image recast in the suburbs of South London, who walks out of his marriage for another woman, himself believing and declaring to his son "We're growing up together, we are" (p.22). Karim Amir's own schooling and affairs with Eleanor, Jamila, etc., lead him out to much excitement and learning, away from the gloomy family home and boring suburban living. He finds himself a place in the theatre world and interesting people to base his characters on. The experience also leads to a mature self, the artist's conscience:

If I defied Changez, if I started work on a character based on him, if I used the bastard, it meant that I was untrustworthy, a liar. But if I didn't use him it meant I had fuck-all to take to the group after the 'me-as-Anwar' fiasco. As I sat there I began to recognize that this was one of the first times in my life I'd been aware of having a moral dilemma. Before, I'd done exactly what I wanted; desire was my guide and I was inhibited by nothing but fear. But now, at the beginning of my twenties, something was growing in me. Just as my body had changed at puberty, now I was developing a sense of guilt, a sense not only of how I appeared to others, but of how I appeared to myself, especially in violating self-imposed restrictions. Perhaps no one would know I'd based my character in the play on Changez; perhaps, later, Changez himself wouldn't mind, would be flattered. But I would always know what I had done, that I had chosen to be a liar, to deceive a friend, to use someone. What should I do? I had no idea. I ran over it again and again and could find no way out. (pp.186-7)

As the theatrical itself assumes a dimension of life, playing moves the plot, and searching for a character becomes both a structural and a symbolic device, the first-person narrative develops from the point of view of "a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories" (p.3), adding to its already colourful, lower-middle-class plinth and parlance which is the best cure for the latter-day Raj and Daj fiction of the Minerva Press variety. As the past and the present begin to be defined, Karim Amir places himself at a distance from his father and takes a decision to construct time in the only personal and valid terms possible:

I felt ashamed and incomplete at the same time, as if half of me were missing, and as it I'd been colluding with my enemies... [Dad] was always honest about this: he preferred England in every way. Things worked; it wasn't hot; you didn't see terrible things on the street that you could do nothing about. He wasn't proud of his past, but he wasn't unproud of it either; it just existed, and there wasn't any point in fetishizing it, as some liberals and Asian radicals liked to do. So if I wanted an additional personality bonus [of an Asian past], I would have to create it. (pp.212-213)

While England is spoken of as a "Kingdom of Prejudice"Ñwith its routine racist and fascist marches and Asian and West Indian lives imperiled beyond help, in his personal life Karim Amir finds something to sustain him: "I'd grown up with kids who taught me that sex was disgusting. It was smells, smut, embarrassment and horse laughs. But love was too powerful for me. Love swam right into the body, into the valves, muscles and bloodstream..." (p.188). His father remarries; Mum and Jimmy become friends; Anwar dies, helpfully; Jamila and Changez try to sort out their marriage; he himself leaves America after a visit and knows that there is hardly an Asia to turn back to. But the entire experience has been worth the emotional and intellectual effort:

I could think about the past and what I'd been through as I'd struggled to locate myself and learn what the heart is. (pp.283-4)

"To locate myself and learn what the heart is"Ñthis suburban wisdom, however, is evidently shared by more than one Buddha by the end of the book, even if, except for Karim Amir and his father, the other characters remain shadowy figures portrayed in half tones. Margaret, the mother, is a very sympathetic if 'unfinished' character; and Eva, Eleanor, Charlie, and Pyke, etc., are interesting but remain one-dimensional; the younger brother, Amar, "who called himself Allie to avoid racial trouble" (p.19), remains a name only. The black-and-white aspect of the social reality literally reduces them to certain roles which, however they may modify them, they cannot reject or transcend.4 Nor is there any motivation, it appears, to conceive of such a society without its brown gurus, breaking-down white spouses, profligate sons, radical Asian daughters, self-indulgent Buddhas, third-worlding white social-workers to help or comfort the blacks, and perverse though brilliant theatre directors. Karim Amir meets them squarely, sometimes treats them roundly, and takes all life's possibilities in a stride, maintaining his sense of humour and detachment.

The Buddha of Suburbia is a gripping story, a contemporary socio-cultural reference which at least skims the surface, and a concern with human relationships and happiness that dominates all else. Kureishi's energetic style is catchy; the quality of humour, particularly the sarcasm, is distinctly Pakistani; and the plebeian manner is worn with a panache that only a literary culture with a working-class tradition such as Britain's can make possible.

Fiction is no stranger to fact and can indeed thrive on it, romancing today's newspaper, say, into a brown study of our mother Eve's elopement with Adam, or of the increase in Shakespeare's laundry bills due to the peculiar eating habits of Lady Macbeth's spoiled children. Trotskyism has had such an intellectual aspect to its political endeavour and Tariq Ali, an Old Ravian and a past President of the Oxford Union, has been a good exponent of it; from social activism, polemics, and history and play writing to the present bawdy book. This, his first novel, is a weekend treat as it releases energies that his other forms (of expression) could not use.

Tariq Ali comes to fiction from a respectable writing career in politics, history, biography, film-making and, most recently, stage drama with a sharp focus on the contemporary world.5 Redemption6 is his first novel and draws on the author's experience and earlier work in various genres. On Christmas eve, 1989, in Paris, as the seventy-year-old Trotskyist patriarch Ezra Einstein watches on TV a Ceausescu executioner make the sign of the cross, he seems even to forget the bliss of his late married lifeÑhe whose "fingers had rested more often on the keys and body of his antique writing aid ("his fifty-five-year-old-typewriter") than on the more intimate sections of the female anatomy" (p.4). He issues a letter forthwith to convene a congress to discuss the world situation following the collapse of the Eastern European regimes and the changes in the Soviet Union. As the oppressed classes have generally failed to be responsive to their programme, the brigade considers changing its methods. Ezra himself proposes "that we go into these religions and fight to establish a connection between Heaven and Earth" (p.216) because "one of the weaknesses of Marxism and all other isms descended from it has been a lack of understanding of ethics, morality, and, dare I say it, spirituality" (p.217).

The possibility of redemption, however, is always considered tongue-in-cheek and the gloom caused by the collapse of the Alternative System is beaten out with wit and banter. Although the new challenges include the formation of a new goulash religion called Chrislamasonism, or moving into the Catholic Church itself, the world congress falls short of evolving any workable theme or strategy. But there is a plenitude of jokes born of an earthy realism as most matters are thought worthy of being "sorted out through friendly negotiations under the quilt" (p.150).

While the larger issues of ideas and society are far from being resolved, solace and even blessedness (with a real halo over Ezra's infant daughter's head) are found in the formation of positive personal relations and private worlds. The novel itself is a detached commentary on the enterprise. Dissentient comrade Cathy Fox refuses to attend the congress, or join the excavation of Trotsky's grave in Mexico in search of some documents, but she views the dying ideological world with hope: "Something will be reborn...but how and when and in what shape it is impossible to predict. The whole world has to be remade" (p.159). The New Life Journal is cited as deriding Kundera's sexist and nihilistic attitudes and Maya, Ezra's wife, notes (in "The Chapter of Learning and Forgetting" - an obvious parody) her own reservations about the new cult-novelist. The entries cited from Encyclopedia Trotskyana and the narrator's comments together make up a hilarious text which is mock-learning and policework at the same time. This clever device also provides for a latter-day dramatic aside and a metafictional source of both fact and its factitious extensions. The lie about the existence of the Trotsky letters turns out to be a truth even if their contents are different from those expected and announced. Although the Movement and all its saints must be seen without their robes, and frequently without their undergarments, (prepared for by chapter titles like "The Congress Commences with a Little Foreplay", p.204), yet all the gains are in achieving true humanity of character, with Ezra preaching plain morals and finding his peace amidst his family, earnestlyÑif comicallyÑlactating and feeding Ho, his baby. He also has unreal adult conversations with the one-week-old child. The ending, with Maya reading Ezra's journal written for Ho's tenth birthday, contains a poem, an exhortation, ascribed to Goethe. Ezra's world congress concluded on a victorious vote for him but with a vague sense of the future. But Tariq Ali, with all his riotous energy and wit has found the right note with which to cure a cynical world:

Build it again,
Great Child of the Earth,
Build it again
With a finer worth
In thine own bosom build it on high!
Take up thy life once more:
Run the race again!
High and clear
Let a lovelier strain
Ring out than every before!

Beneath the poetic fancy, the narrative suggests screen adaptations and a simpler field-sequential of events. Surely, if Goethe and Trotsky gang up together in the "Bandung File" (BBC's Channel 4 programme which Tariq Ali produced for several years), a redemption will become inevitable.

In Cyrus Cyrus7 Zameenzad has chosen the story of the downtrodden, displaced, and dispossessed of the world to be his theme. His previous three novels explored ordinary existence and the human condition in Asian and African settings.8 The latest novel attempts to bring it all together, ranging over three continents (Asia, America, and Europe) and nearly six hundred pages with a protagonist who has an uncertain name, a socially overdefined but deeply fractured personal identity, and vicissitudes and funds of experience too overwhelming to be morally quite discernible.

Of lowly, "untouchable", "Choodah" origins in the sarcastically named town of "Chandan" (Moon) "under the shadow of the holiest of cities, Varanasi" (p.23), the disenfranchised protagonist comes to be known as Cyrus Cyrus, each part of his name echoing and reflecting the other rather than encoding the specifics of identity. His misfortunes through India, Pakistan (Bangladesh), and America keep him on the move. We may recall that the sweeper/janitor, protagonist, Bakha, in Mulk Raj Anands's novel Untouchable (1935), was tied down to a place and had a more certain identity, based on the certitudes of the colonial and communal structures then still functional. Cyrus's predicament competes in poignancy but Zameenzad's narrative scale, his sporadic lyrical and discursive energy, the determined subversion of the male text and sexuality, and wide contemporary reference have placed in our hands perhaps the most imposing untouchable epic; even as the character is brutalised beyond all common apprehension half a century down the Indian and global social drainpipe.

Cyrus was born in 1954 and he records everything concerning himself, his family, and his world since that date. In Britain, not enfranchised but convicted of murder of three children, Cyrus records "Zoetrope", his reflections and memories, a first-person narrative of extravagant emotion, sexual exploit, and carnage, sitting in prison. Religion, society, and justice are held to be responsible for all wrong, even though his three life sentences have been commuted somehow by some divine intervention to help him escape from Judge Parkinson's justice. The tapes binding his manuscript left behind emit a mysterious glow in the prison cell as he suddenly disappears. Going from country to country only lands him in hell finally; there he has only dull officialdom to exercise his wild brains with. The black humour and grotesquery, known in the earlier novels by Zameenzad but more pointed in the present story, come as a relief against the socio-spiritual mayhem of the one-dimensional world portrayed here.

The dimension chosen, however, has acquired deeper lines and sharper features, so that it demands constant attention. Instead of the plot, the concentration is on the illusion, states of mind, and ritual. The style, matching as it were hectic speedwriting to a resembling theme, mixes anecdote, confession, sermonizing, myth, dreams and songlines, meditation, proverb, poem, art illustrations, chant, and newspeak to create a monumental cosmic narrative, which resembles in certain ways Doris Lessing's later work. Except for "Zoetrope", which is Cyrus's own seven-part narrative, six out of the seven parts (Apologia, Disclaimer, Foreword, Zoetrope, Epiphenomena, Burial, Afterword) of Zameenzad's book are written in the presenter's voice. The subtitle of the "Epiphenomena" section lists the "ecumenic, ecclesiastic, realpolitik" as characteristics of the presenter's situation in time. These descriptions sum up the general tone, before the persona finally merges, with the author and other narrative voice, and frequent editorial reminders and scrutiny throughout the book. The wheel within sordid wheel of time present and time past revolves on the mystical axle of a star-crossed birth; and personal and social histories awry and evil enough to attract the mutual complicity of the East and the West and form an interminable post-colonial nightmare, one that Jean Genet might have blessed as a rebirth.

In Athar Tihar's Other Seasons: Twenty-five Short Stories,9 however, a serious purpose, if not a definite formula, is at work; middle-class values are enforced with a vengeance and there is no escape from needing social approval. A dismal world is portrayed in which people are inadequate and aggressive; their motives are mean; the natural world is indifferent if not an accomplice in man's machinations; and the body and soul are like the sexes portrayed hereÑill at ease with each other. In dialogue, the stories mix the local (usually Punjabi) idiom with English; the lower-class characters are recognisable from their nativized speech while the story's point of view or the moral standard is enunciated in the correct language. Still, "A Colonial Octogenarian" and "Diamond Market" have quite successfully and sympathetically drawn characters because they speak in a non-standard language. "Broken Bangle" is perhaps the most psychologically ambitious story in the collection but has no use for speech. While there is a feel in some of these stories for the countryside as well as the sterile and phoney middle-class culture of the cities, it is a thing apart. Most of them rely on clever, freighted endings; the narratorial comment is heavy-handed; and the characters are rarely allowed to evolve. With all this, Tahir has made a bold effort for Pakistani (or Punjabi?) rural and urban fiction to have a credible setting and speech. However, there must be many forms of the successful short story. The approach, for instance, is different in Rukhsana Ahmad's stories,10 which do not address similar issues but allow the character and the situation to evolve from the inside.

With the exception of Athar Tahir, all others discussed here are expatriate Pakistani writers working in national or international contexts. They all deal with societies in the making, remaking, or unmaking, and with socio-political ideas that are sometimes glib, if witty, or simply put through a fractured frame against the tyranny of words barely rooted to form a sensible culture; such as might render them into coherent, integral stories. The fact that several of them (Hanif Kureishi, Tariq Ali, Rukhsana Ahmad) are also active in the dramatic form, which I shall discuss elsewhere, indicates a quality of engagement not quite familiar in the writing of the two decades immediately following Partition and the founding of Pakistan. The novel, in any case, has come to share the dramatic form and gesture with the stage and the screen, and has attained both a degree of immediacy and relevance.



1 See discussion of the 1980s fiction in Alamgir Hashmi, "The Postcolonial Pakistani Novel", Weekend Post (Lahore: 22 December, 1989), p.3. "Pakistani Literature in English 1987-1988" The Toronto South Asian Review 8:2 (Winter 1990), p.11-17. "Introduction", in the Pakistan section of the Annual Bibliography for 1989, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 25.2 (1990), p.152-159.

2 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).

3 Hanif Kureishi, Borderline (1982); Birds of Passage (1983); Outskirts, King and Me AND Tomorrow, Today (1983); My Beautiful Laundrette (1986); Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1988). "Esther", New Statesman and Society (London: 21 September, 1989), p.19-23.

4 On social determination as choice, see also my comments on the characters and language in "Hand on the Sun" (1983) Tariq Mehmood, World Literature Today 58:2 (1984), p.327-328.

5 Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali, Iranian Nights (1989); Moscow Gold (1990).

6 Tariq Ali, Redemption. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1990).

7 Adam Zameenzad, Cyrus Cyrus. (London: Fourth Estate, 1990).

8 Adam Zameenzad, The Thirteenth House (1987); My Friend Matt and Hena the Whore (1988); Love, Bones and Water (1989), (London: Fourth Estate).

9 Athar Tahir, Other Seasons: Twenty-five Short Stories. (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1990).

10 See Rukhsana Ahmad's short stories in Right of Way (London:The Women's Press, 1988) in The Inner Courtyard (London: Virago,1990) and in The Man who Loved Presents (London:The Women's Press, 1991).

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