Does artistic expression actually grow in response to attempts at stifling it? Deepa Bhasthi comments on the flourishing contemporary Pakistani literature.
Is being without a name freedom? Is it the unsavory kind of freedom that allows others to make interpretations and derive names by themselves and thus assign identities to those without names? I haven’t made up my mind. A name is identity and by extension a range of other assumptions, correct or otherwise, that builds up to an image predetermined by politics, culture or the news.
It must be liberating to go beyond the name, beyond the restriction of established images. For writers operating in a regime that barely pretends to tolerate criticism, let alone open dissent, this small measure must offer a window to breathe through. They thus take recourse in un-naming their characters and their cities and disallow their own names on the covers and their stories could well be conducted anywhere in a South Asian country.
Perhaps I am making undue assumptions myself here, but indulge me.
The troika of Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin are, in my mind – apart from being personal favourites – seekers of these identities within (sometimes) anonymous people, cities, or timelines. The lives of the three have followed similar trajectories. They were born into privileged families – the ones that conduct their lives and businesses in ways we never hear about in the news – they move abroad as students, live and work in the metropolises of the world, and return to Pakistan to write best-selling books, columns – perhaps for Dawn – and commentaries for the world media on the mischief that Pakistani generals are often get up to. If their characters are assigned names and places at all, they are allowed the restraint of details and the subtlety of words to let the reader place their own imagery, their own identities and, often, their own assumptions upon the stories.
In Hamid’s Moth Smoke, you get a voyeuristic view into Darashikoh’s world. An outsider to the rich world of lush parties, SUVs and recreational drugs by virtue of being not-rich, Daru is also an insider, for having rich friends with whom to practice this lifestyle of privilege. Changez, the reluctant fundamentalist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, loved America and an American woman, until, in the aftermath of 9/11, he grew a beard and eventually moved back to Lahore. K. K. Harouni, in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is, mostly, satisfied with his farm and the status within class hierarchy that it earns him. These are stories of privileged people in a rich, Punjabi-by-nature Lahore and Karachi.
The duality of the Pakistani society is never far away, though. Here is our hero buying expensive drugs for tonight’s party, knowing that somewhere in the course of the night, his rich friends will bribe the khaki man on the roads. Alice’s charms are irresistible to Teddy Butt, in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti; they get married later on. But this follows the harassment Alice bears through, for being a woman and for being a Christian in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
These writers, and others of their kind, like Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and Fathima Bhutto, are never far in their narratives from the conflict that colours their lives, their country and what it does to their characters. The texts are urgent and rooted firmly in the contradictions and tensions that dominate Pakistani society today. This urgency and this narrative that derives from a tortured process is what makes this literature memorable.
It also contributes the ‘un-sympathy’ this side of the gate.
Autocratic regimes all over the world, from Cuba to Iran, have led to the creation of some of the most interesting cultural pieces in history. There must be something in the air of restriction, censorship and the thought processes of a government not sympathetic to the arts that segues into music, film, and literature that bares the soul of its time and the people it reflects. It is when you are denied ‘it’ that you begin to risk everything, from your personal freedom to your mind to touch ‘it’. Perhaps a government that habitually makes journalists, writers, its critics ‘disappear’ – physically or intellectually – is a government that ironically encourages these artists to push their own limits and those of their art. Conflict literature, conflict cinema, conflict music… they all seem somehow to have more soul than those created in more peaceful settings, though I feel selfish to say so, sitting in the relative safety of this country, even if now there is a government with high potential for autocracy.
I might ask for a revolution now. Maybe then we will all write the next best story or sing the revolution song along the unpaved roads.
Would we? Would being nameless help? Like the American-returnees, could we, in this cesspool of both great tolerance and great intolerance, hope to be in more than personal conflicts? When do we get to wring our histories and make beautiful, tortured creations?
Might a potentially autocratic political force have answers these questions?