Englished diaspora

A Dragonfly in the Sun

May 8, 1998

The 50th anniversary of Indian independence was marked by several publications - and the controversy created by an anthology put together by Salman Rushdie entitled "Indian Writing 1947-97", by which was meant writing done almost exclusively in English because Rushdie considered this to be a "stronger and more important body of work" than the writing done in the "vernacular languages" (Hindi, Bengali etc). So it is a pleasure to find the same has been done for writing in Pakistan - minus the controversy, the editor Muneeza Shamsie having explicitly restricted herself in the title of her book to writing done in English. It is also with pleased surprise that one discovers what a substantial body of work there is, even without the lively and influential literature written in Urdu and Pakistan's other languages. It must be said at the outset, though, that the anthology suffers from unevenness: some of the pieces, such as the extract from Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, set a high standard that others do not always meet; but the editor's intention was clearly historical as much as literary.

As in India, English in Pakistan has proved tenacious and resilient: despite reservations about using it, and the pressure to abandon it, poets and novelists have continued to employ English in larger numbers and with greater confidence than before. If this carries a stigma, it is not evident. Naturally, in the earlier part of the century, the writing was much more derivative, and much poetry - in particular - was written under the influence of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (rather than of great Urdu poets like Ghalib and Faiz). More unexpectedly still, until one remembers the geographical proximity of the Silk Route to China, poet after poet used the Chinese model as disclosed by Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley: While Bo-ho, more learned than those

Who after travail

And many attempts at suicide

Have passed the civil service

Pares his scholarly nails,

Thinking of holy Flan-si talking to a ghost

Of mourning o'er Chiao Chung Ching's faithful wife.

(Shahid Suhrawardy)

For speaking the truth

They put me in prison.

I sleep on a handful of straw

And feed on cabbage leaves.

The cell is cold as the Emperor's heart.

(Ahmed Ali)

This was followed by a period, beginning in 1948, when Mumtaz Shahnawaz wrote the first novel, The Heart Divided, to deal with Partition and the creation of Pakistan, when writers engaged themselves with the forging of a Pakistani identity - eg Ahmed Ali, abandoning poetry, wrote about the decay of the erstwhile Mughal capital in Twilight in Delhi, which Shamsie calls "the first major Muslim novel to emerge from the subcontinent".

What is unexpected is that, except for a few poems, stories and novels concerned only with Pakistani life and experience - such as Sorayya Y. Khan's In the Shadows of the Margalla Hills and Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah's extraordinarily outspoken and courageous tale of the taboo subjects of lust and sexuality, "The Bull and the She Devil" - the larger body of work represented here continues to display a dual imagination that draws upon the greater Islamic world. Zulfikar Ghose, whose themes (very similar to Rushdie's) are "the loss of India", migration and exile, in an extract from The Triple Mirror of the Self ventures into other cultures and histories (most frequently, Latin American) and finds in these multiple worlds strange, sometimes comic and sometimes surrealistic juxtapositions: the book begins and ends, for instance, with mirror images of the snowy Andes and the Hindu Kush mountains - and his characters too display multiple selves, eg Roshan becomes Shimmers becomes Shimomura and travels from India to London to the south-west of the US to Brazil. Adam Zameenzad's Cyrus, Cyrus in many ways follows the adventures of Rushdie's Saleem from Midnight's Children, as in the episode set in the surrealistic jungles of East Pakistan during the 1971 war of independence.

Such similarities can make an Indian reader feel as if one has entered a cave of resounding echoes, or of dazzling mirror images, which spread and expand till they swallow continents and centuries. Aamer Hussein, for instance, uses both prose and poetry in his ambitious "The Lost Cantos of the Silken Tiger", to weave together, alluringly, strands of Persia's oral traditions and tales told by a circle of exiles in London. Tariq Ali's novel Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, published in 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the fall of Granada, is set in the 16th century and follows the fortunes of a Moorish clan during and after the Inquisition: he employs the traditional Moorish names for cities that now bear Spanish names and follows the history of a Moorish clan during and after the Inquisition. One cannot avoid the conclusion that the imagination of the Muslim writer in Pakistan is linked by Islam to a wider world of ideas, historical and artistic, and that there really is no parallel to this in the Hindu writer's situation in India, far more confined to the subcontinent which contains its entire history and tradition.

Where the parallel with India re-emerges is in the writing that comes out of the recent diaspora of people from the subcontinent in the West; and a great deal of what is represented here is set in England and the US, where so many of the writers have been educated or are now employed. An interesting duality is maintained, however, as in Moniza Alvi's poems and Ruksana Ahmed's short story "Confessions and Lullabies" which, we are told, was "inspired by a documentary film about the lace-makers of Narsapur'' and uses lace-making as a device to bring together the histories of a village in Pakistan and London's East End.

Not all the writers have found these cultural migrations comfortable:

...when she said

'Bright South Asians

Have always struck my sight

I've never been close to one

What are you doing tonight?'

I felt like an ethnic top

To be worn once and thrown away

A balti dish never tried before

From the newly-opened Indian


(Harris Khalique)

Some of the writers living outside Pakistan have established their reputations in the West - Bapsi Sidhwa with Ice-Candy Man, for instance, and Hanif Kureishi with My Beautiful Laundrette. About others, one wonders if they will ever forge an identity for themselves out of their many, challengingly incompatible experiences and influences.

It is of course the English language that has created - or at any rate made possible - such a diaspora, and the enormous variety of cultural influences and traditions displayed here. It is also the English language that has lifted it out of its Pakistani context and scattered it so far and wide. It would surely be enlightening to have available a companion anthology - one written in the regional languages of Pakistan - and one suspects it would be very different, far more rooted and specific to the land. The Muslim religion might provide the links to the Islamic world - but one doubts if western thought and modes would have been present to the degree we find in A Dragonfly in the Sun without the effect of the English language.

The two would be related of course - by history and a common fund of themes, motifs and imagery - but they would not be identical, rather like siblings who do, and do not, bear resemblance.

Anita Desai is professor of writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of a novel about Urdu literature, In Custody.

A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English

Author - Muneeza Shamsie
Editor - Muneeza Shamsie
ISBN - 019 57778 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - Rs1400.00
Pages - 599

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