Beyond The Headlines: Finding Humanity in Pakistani Fiction

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I’m not the only one who can’t forget Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s award-winning, 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

That brilliant tale (recently made into a movie by director Mira Nair) sketches the life of a Princeton-educated, corporate hotshot in New York City with pretty much everything most young people could want. He finds himself and the world around him so changed in the months after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center that he ultimately quits his high-flying life in the U.S. to move back to his native Pakistan.

The novel generated major hype. Reviews differed, but most agreed that the book stood out then—and still does now—as one of the best post-9/11 stories. It offered a starkly different viewpoint of the tragedy that affected us all … and in particular the impact 9/11 had on Pakistanis across the globe.

I remember The Reluctant Fundamentalist as an angry book. Ominous and murky. Suspenseful. It left me with the feeling that Something Else would come. What? I couldn’t say, but maybe it would be even worse than what had already transpired.

Years have passed. The world is what it is today. Pakistan has been through a lot since 9/11, and perhaps because of that, the Something Else expected from Hamid wasn’t exactly his most recent novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. This book, I have to say, both surprised and (at the outset, anyway) even disappointed me slightly. It arrived with a softer, more gentle tone. I found a different kind of story than The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

But writers change. Stories change. A good writer can and does write different stories—good stories, that through plot, style, tone, and characters create empathy that goes beyond place and time and the daily news reel. Stories that touch a reader at the core.

How To Become Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, this quiet, poetic, lyrical, rags-to-riches-and-beyond tale (written, incidentally, with in the Bright Lights, Big City second-person YOU—and, believe me, it really works), succeeds brilliantly. It makes clear that today’s fiction from Pakistan goes beyond the news and the preconceived notions of a country and its people (even its writers). It delivers deeply universal human experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes (long-listed for the 2008 Booker prize and short-listed for both the Guardian first book award and the Commonwealth literary prize) also succeeded with the more recent Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. Karachi-based H.M. Naqvi unspooled Homeboy, a dark, yet humorous, take on Pakistani “homies” in New York post-9/11. Naqvi won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for this book.

The Pakistani canon goes even deeper. Nadeem Aslam wrote, among other works, Maps for Lost Lovers, which won the Encore and Kiriyama awards. Pakistani-American author Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Of Kamila Shamsie’s five novels, two have been short-listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

Some argue that Pakistani writing in English (it’s been going on for a long time) came into the spotlight with 9/11. True, 9/11 was a seminal event, says Rosie Dastgir, author of the 2012 novel A Small Fortune. “To ignore it would seem almost disingenuous because 9/11 didn’t just affect America. Some of the people most affected by it are Pakistanis.”

Yet Dastgir’s novel isn’t specifically about 9/11 at all. She writes a book that, she says, “I think of as a British story” (she’s half Pakistani, born and raised in the U.K.). It concerns an extended Pakistani family in England and a man deciding which family member should receive a sum of money from a divorce settlement.

“I wasn’t trying to write about Pakistan, I was trying to write about a very specific experience of the Pakistani diaspora,” Dastgir says. “If 9/11 came out as a theme, then it came out organically from the characters.”

“I can’t speak for others but I just happened to be in the States at that time,” says Naqvi of Homeboy. “If I had been in Karachi, I would have written another novel, a different novel—possibly, a big, bad, bawdy comic epic.”

[Author’s note: H.M., I’m waiting for it.]

Talk with other Pakistani writers du jour (I spoke with several for this article) and they’ll tell you the same thing: Whatever they write, influenced by 9/11 and its aftermath or not, first and foremost concerns human beings. Characters may be affected in different ways by Pakistani history, politics, ongoing regional violence, warfare, religious fundamentalism, intolerance and all else, but today’s Pakistani writers set out to strike a chord with audiences everywhere on a human level.

“A story may be set in a particular place,” says Hanif. “But if a reader in Pakistan, in Norway or even in Zimbabwe can relate to it at a human level, then you’ve told a good story.”

Bilal Tanweer feels the same way. Tanweer teaches creative writing at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and his first novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great, publishes in the U.S. next year. He sets his story in Karachi; characters and their experiences are local. Still, he says, “I was elated after doing book readings in the U.S. to hear Midwestern white Americans tell me that this story wasn’t particularly Pakistani, that it could have taken place in Mexico, or anywhere in the world.”

So … How to Become Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, at once Pakistani and universal, could happen just about anywhere in modern Asia—anywhere wealth creation unwillingly catches people up in a cutthroat race to prosperity. Hamid sets the novel up as a self-help book that outlines various stages along the path to getting rich quick (although most every chapter begins with a wry comment on the pointlessness of self-help books). It offers glimpses into a country that we think could be Pakistan—water buffalo, power outages, dengue fever, references to a City by the Sea. (Karachi? Mumbai, the mega-metropolis of Pakistan’s neighbor and nemesis, India?)

Allusions to corruption, religious intolerance, and more obvious props (guns and drones) reflect very much the reality of Pakistan today. But the heart of How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia emerges as a love story between its protagonist (YOU!) and a “pretty girl” (we don’t know her name). The narrative dances its way through the years and lives of both characters, coming to fruition when “you” grows to be an old man and the “pretty girl” a cancer-ravaged old woman … no longer, perhaps, as pretty as she once was. Both characters reach a stage in life where material things really don’t matter anymore. The urge to be filthy rich, like looks and libido, passes. Hamid’s story meditates on life and death. Whatever happens between beginning and end turns out to be futile.

All of us are born, and all of us will die. From this point of view, Hamid’s novel—more than Pakistani, more than Asian, in a word universal—hits home.

Other Pakistani writers reach for the stars too.

In Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, mostly set in an overcrowded, underfunded Karachi hospital where scores of people mill about waiting for some kind of miracle to suddenly lift their lot in life, a young man fires a gun in the air for no apparent reason. (The shooter’s love interest rejects his advances). The bullet wounds a truck driver, creates pandemonium and sets off a series of riots in Karachi.

Gunshots, violence, bomb blasts, a city-wide standstill—newspapers carry these kinds of stories, all a very real part of life in Pakistan today. Weapons are commonplace; vigilantes from different factions can take the law into their hands. When you read Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, you get a good feel for life in Karachi today. (Similarly, Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes describes life under the terrifying tenure of General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s.)

Hanif’s protagonist, Alice Bhatti, lives in Karachi. She’s an honest nurse with odds stacked against her—her Christian religion, her gender, her poverty. She wants to work a solid job and get through life as best she can. Hanif allows us to feel her hopes, dreams and fears. His skill even helps us understand the motivations of that questionable young man who fires a gun into the air and sparks riots that bring a city to a standstill for three days. Is he nuts? Maybe. But each of us knows the bitter heart left behind when love turns sour.

That bitter heart and the young man’s own demons lead him to do much worse … but Hanif shows us that the young shooter once really did love someone, is capable of love. And someone actually considered him worthy to be loved in return, even briefly. With that love gone, the young man shows his despair to the world.

So does Alice’s father, Joseph Bhatti. He can cure ulcers and other ailments … but what can he do when facing tragedy in his own life? Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’s final passage—its tragic, ridiculous ending—fully comments on the loss of a loved one, but also on place and politics, on the relationships between men and women, on the power of wealth over poverty.

Today, Pakistan has a newly elected leader (re-elected actually; Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif served a previous term). The Pakistani stock market climbs higher and higher. Hope soars on many fronts, not least for closer ties with India. Still, drones circle the skies, religious fundamentalists poison minds, energy shortages persist, foreign-exchange reserves dwindle. Also, of course, Pakistan still shares a border with troubled Afghanistan.

In this larger context, people on the ground try their best to live everyday lives. What matters to Pakistanis are the ties that bind. In today’s Pakistani fiction, we share those people and their experiences, love, hopes, and dreams. It’s why How to Become Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and these other novels from excellent writers rising in this part of Asia, feel relevant to life in Pakistan … and anywhere else.

So may we say this? In a nation facing so much, where lives can unexpectedly end on any normal day with a bullet from a young man’s gun, a bomb set off in a car, or a missile fired from an overhead drone, does love become more vital than anything else?

Pakistani writers tell us that the sooner a “YOU” takes hold of love and safeguards it, protects it… the wealthier he or she may actually become.

Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a freelance writer based in State College, Pennsylvania. Her articles and essays have appeared in CNN.com, Vogue (Mumbai, India edition), Mint (India’s largest business daily) Business Week, and Spirituality & Health magazine. She co-authored “Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the New Consumer-Led Marketplace” (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and is currently working on a novel