South Asian Reading Challenge: Bina Shah’s List

Author Bina Shah has signed up to the South Asia Reading Challenge. Here is her list

  1. Granta Pakistan
  2. The Scorpion’s Tale by Zahid Hussein
  3. The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein
  4. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmed
  5. Claire Chambers’s book on British Muslims (I don’t know the title as it isn’t published yet)
  6. Footprints in Time: Reminiscences of a Sindhi Matriarch by Ghulam Fatima Shaikh.

And first review:

Granta Pakistan

Given the media attention on Pakistan due to its continued significance in world affairs, combined with the “literary boom” that four or five Pakistani writers seem to have managed to create in the last two or three years, Granta decided to publish a special edition on Pakistan in the fall of 2011.  John Freeman, Granta’s editor, said in an interview with the Hindustan Times that they “simply wanted the best of writing from and about Pakistan”; the end result stirred up quite a bit of controversy amongst the literary community of Pakistan for being a skewed reflection of the country and its literary aspirations.

The edition opens with a fifty-page novella from Nadeem Aslam, award-winning author of Maps for Lost Lovers.  “Leila in the Wilderness” traces the uncertain fate of lovers Laila and Qes, and draws upon the folk legend of the Punjab via Persia, Leila and Majnoon, in which the couple cannot marry, driving Majnoon to madness. In Aslam’s retelling of the story, Leila is a village girl married into a rich, cruel family, and Qes and his brother search high and low to find and rescue her from her prison. Aslam has set the story in modern times, juxtaposing the old themes of love, separation and longing, within a country where mobile phones and satellite dishes exist side by side with a particular South Asian brand of cruelty to women. Aslam’s prose becomes overwrought at times, and the violence at the end of the story threatens to turn into caricature, but the descriptions of the Pakistani countryside and the sincerity of emotion within the characters remain strong points of the piece.

Other prose offerings from Mohammed Hanif (“But and Bhatti”) and Uzma Aslam Khan (“Ice, Mating”) offer lively portraits of relationships within contemporary Pakistan, while Mohsin Hamid’s “A Beheading” trots out a story of terrorism and violence that seemed fresh in The Reluctant Fundamentalist but by now has become the tired old trope of Pakistani literature.  Jamil Ahmed’s “The Sins of the Mother”, on the other hand, revisits the theme of honor killings but portrays one such incident in Baluchistan with such starkness and lack of sentimentality that the story, stripped and naked, becomes as harshly beautiful as the unforgiving black mountains in which it is set.

Two personal memoirs stand out in the collection: “Restless”, in which master storyteller Aamer Hussein recounts his days as a young student in London of the Seventies and Eighties, remarkable for its ability to evoke a time of personal change and turmoil set against a backdrop of geographical transition as he moves from a childhood in the Subcontinent to adolescence and early adulthood in the West.  Sarfraz Manzoor’s “White Girls” is a humorous personal recollection of his upbringing in Luton, with his family’s injunction that he stay away from white girls and his own fatal attraction to the same species., which ends on an unexpectedly sweet note of hope and optimism amidst the comical fretting of the hormonal protagonist.

But it’s the journalists who grab the spotlight in this collection: Declan Walsh’s “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, an incisive look at a Pashtun politician’s life in Lakki Marwat is a tour de force that describes not just a man but an entire way of life, endangered by the War on Terror and the forces that are battling for control of the entire region.  Jane Perlez’s “Portrait of Jinnah” is a subtle examination of the nation’s vision of Pakistan’s founder and how Jinnah himself was willing to “run with the hare and hunt with the hound” when it came to utilizing the power of Islam to help create Pakistan, while maintaining a secular, Westernized lifestyle in his private domain.  “The Trials of Faisal Shahzad” reports on one of Pakistan’s most demonized sons, yet portrays him as confused and misled, but does not compromise on addressing the heinousness of his crime. It is the complexity of these journalistic pieces, the layering of good and evil, the observation and perspective that is free of judgment, which most strongly draws and captivates the reader to this section of the journal.

While the editors of Granta Pakistan have saluted Intizar Hussein by including a translation of his classic essay “The House by the Gallows”, they have committed a grave error by omitting writing by Bapsi Sidhwa, the grande dame of Pakistani literature.   There is a “love it or hate it” reaction to the art in the issue as well, with Green Cardamom, a London-based visual arts organization contributing a photographic essay called “High Noon”, which avoids a pedestrian focus on the geographical beauty of Pakistan’s terrain or the comeliness of its children, concentrating instead on avant-garde photography and visual art from contemporary Pakistani artists.  The poetry, by Hasina Gul, Yasmeen Hameed, and Hasina Gul, almost seem like afterthoughts; Pakistani poetry deserves a greater highlight than the one given in this collection.  These flaws give Granta Pakistan a choppy feel, in which the consistency of the edition as a whole is endangered by the weak links in an otherwise strong chain.

Critics have noted that the issue is overrun with violence and terrorism, possibly because that is currently what is “sexy” to Western readers.  John Freeman would call this a “refraction” rather than a “reflection” of Pakistan’s current state, and it’s hard to disagree that these themes of hatred and violence are foremost on contemporary Pakistani writers’ minds these days. But at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore that Granta Pakistan is full of hatred and violence’s polar opposite, love, perhaps as a counterbalance to the tensions and conflicts that grip the country so completely.  Perhaps the most telling statement of the journal’s success is the fact that it has topped the Indian bestseller list for months since its publication.  This proves that Granta Pakistan has achieved what it set out to do – stimulate, provoke, and draw attention to the conundrum that is Pakistan, a rough diamond with fundamental flaws that prevent it from shining with the brilliance for which it was originally destined.

 

Bina Shah 

Given the media attention on Pakistan due to its continued significance in world affairs, combined
with the “literary boom” that four or five Pakistani writers seem to have managed to create in the
last two or three years, Granta decided to publish a special edition on Pakistan in the fall of 2011.
John Freeman, Granta’s editor, said in an interview with the Hindustan Times that they “simply
wanted the best of writing from and about Pakistan”; the end result stirred up quite a bit of
controversy amongst the literary community of Pakistan for being a skewed reflection of the country
and its literary aspirations.

The edition opens with a fifty-page novella from Nadeem Aslam, award-winning author of Maps for
Lost Lovers. “Leila in the Wilderness” traces the uncertain fate of lovers Laila and Qes, and draws
upon the folk legend of the Punjab via Persia, Leila and Majnoon, in which the couple cannot marry,
driving Majnoon to madness. In Aslam’s retelling of the story, Leila is a village girl married into a rich,
cruel family, and Qes and his brother search high and low to find and rescue her from her prison.
Aslam has set the story in modern times, juxtaposing the old themes of love, separation and longing,
within a country where mobile phones and satellite dishes exist side by side with a particular South
Asian brand of cruelty to women. Aslam’s prose becomes overwrought at times, and the violence
at the end of the story threatens to turn into caricature, but the descriptions of the Pakistani
countryside and the sincerity of emotion within the characters remain strong points of the piece.

Other prose offerings from Mohammed Hanif (“But and Bhatti”) and Uzma Aslam Khan (“Ice,
Mating”) offer lively portraits of relationships within contemporary Pakistan, while Mohsin
Hamid’s “A Beheading” trots out a story of terrorism and violence that seemed fresh in The
Reluctant Fundamentalist but by now has become the tired old trope of Pakistani literature. Jamil
Ahmed’s “The Sins of the Mother”, on the other hand, revisits the theme of honor killings but
portrays one such incident in Baluchistan with such starkness and lack of sentimentality that the
story, stripped and naked, becomes as harshly beautiful as the unforgiving black mountains in which
it is set.

Two personal memoirs stand out in the collection: “Restless”, in which master storyteller Aamer
Hussein recounts his days as a young student in London of the Seventies and Eighties, remarkable
for its ability to evoke a time of personal change and turmoil set against a backdrop of geographical
transition as he moves from a childhood in the Subcontinent to adolescence and early adulthood
in the West. Sarfraz Manzoor’s “White Girls” is a humorous personal recollection of his upbringing
in Luton, with his family’s injunction that he stay away from white girls and his own fatal attraction
to the same species., which ends on an unexpectedly sweet note of hope and optimism amidst the
comical fretting of the hormonal protagonist.

But it’s the journalists who grab the spotlight in this collection: Declan Walsh’s “Arithmetic on
the Frontier”, an incisive look at a Pashtun politician’s life in Lakki Marwat is a tour de force that
describes not just a man but an entire way of life, endangered by the War on Terror and the forces
that are battling for control of the entire region. Jane Perlez’s “Portrait of Jinnah” is a subtle
examination of the nation’s vision of Pakistan’s founder and how Jinnah himself was willing to “run
with the hare and hunt with the hound” when it came to utilizing the power of Islam to help create

Pakistan, while maintaining a secular, Westernized lifestyle in his private domain. “The Trials of
Faisal Shahzad” reports on one of Pakistan’s most demonized sons, yet portrays him as confused and
misled, but does not compromise on addressing the heinousness of his crime. It is the complexity of
these journalistic pieces, the layering of good and evil, the observation and perspective that is free
of judgment, which most strongly draws and captivates the reader to this section of the journal.

While the editors of Granta Pakistan have saluted Intizar Hussein by including a translation of his
classic essay “The House by the Gallows”, they have committed a grave error by omitting writing
by Bapsi Sidhwa, the grande dame of Pakistani literature. There is a “love it or hate it” reaction
to the art in the issue as well, with Green Cardamom, a London-based visual arts organization
contributing a photographic essay called “High Noon”, which avoids a pedestrian focus on the
geographical beauty of Pakistan’s terrain or the comeliness of its children, concentrating instead
on avant-garde photography and visual art from contemporary Pakistani artists. The poetry, by
Hasina Gul, Yasmeen Hameed, and Hasina Gul, almost seem like afterthoughts; Pakistani poetry
deserves a greater highlight than the one given in this collection. These flaws give Granta Pakistan a
choppy feel, in which the consistency of the edition as a whole is endangered by the weak links in an
otherwise strong chain.

Critics have noted that the issue is overrun with violence and terrorism, possibly because that is
currently what is “sexy” to Western readers. John Freeman would call this a “refraction” rather
than a “reflection” of Pakistan’s current state, and it’s hard to disagree that these themes of hatred
and violence are foremost on contemporary Pakistani writers’ minds these days. But at the same
time, it’s impossible to ignore that Granta Pakistan is full of hatred and violence’s polar opposite,
love, perhaps as a counterbalance to the tensions and conflicts that grip the country so completely.
Perhaps the most telling statement of the journal’s success is the fact that it has topped the Indian
bestseller list for months since its publication. This proves that Granta Pakistan has achieved what
it set out to do – stimulate, provoke, and draw attention to the conundrum that is Pakistan, a rough
diamond with fundamental flaws that prevent it from shining with the brilliance for which it was
originally destined.


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