Moonlight’s children

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
By Mohsin Hamid
Hamish Hamilton £14.99, 192 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
By Mohammed Hanif
Jonathan Cape £12.99, 320 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39

The Wasted Vigil
By Nadeem Aslam
Faber £17.99, 384 pages
FT Bookshop price: £14.39

Burnt Shadows
By Kamila Shamsie
Bloomsbury. To be published in March 2009

Other Rooms, Other Wonders: Connected Stories
By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Bloomsbury. To be published in January 2009

At partition in 1947, the writers of India were, like everything else in south Asia, divided in two. The madness of the situation was wonderfully satirised by the Pakistani Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, in his short story “Toba Tek Singh”, which tells of a fictional plan by India and Pakistan to divide their Hindu, Sikh and Muslim lunatics between them. The story ends with a Sikh inmate of the Lahore asylum lying down between the border posts of the two divided countries: “On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

In the literary partition of those writing in the former colonial language of English, Nehruvian India got Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and RK Narayan. Jinnah’s Pakistan got the now little-known Ahmed Ali, whose great book of Muslim melancholy, Twilight in Delhi, is an unmatched portrait of the life of the mixed Hindu-Muslim culture of pre-partition Delhi: the pigeon flyers and the poets, the alchemists and the Sufis, the beggars and the tradesmen. The book electrified the Bloomsbury set, and, at the insistence of EM Forster and Virginia Woolf, was published by Hogarth Press in 1940. Ali’s pre-war fame was somewhat eclipsed, however, by the bombing of the Hogarth warehouse in the Blitz. He subsequently disappeared from the literary scene.

When I met him in Karachi in 1990, Ahmed Ali, by then in his eighties, was not a happy man. He had not wanted to come to Pakistan, he told me, and was now shunned by his foster-country: “They’ve never accepted me in Pakistan, damn it. They don’t publish my books. They have deleted my name.”

Ali’s lot was happier than that of Pakistan’s pre-eminent Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who spent the end of his life in Pakistani prisons, and whose two most remark-able works, Dast-e Saba and the Zindan-Nama were products of this period of imprisonment. He died in Lahore in 1984, shortly after being nominated for the Nobel prize.

The Pakistan establishment’s suspicion of writers, the atmosphere of military censorship, and the lack of support or encouragement for the arts had a numbing and stultifying effect on Pakistani writing. By the early 1980s, India’s literary scene was far more effervescent, in both south Asian languages and in English. The success of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and its Pakistan-set successor Shame highlighted the disparity: an Indian Muslim, some of whose family had migrated to Pakistan, was writing loving celebrations of India’s diversity, while satirising Pakistan as a land of mad generals and venal politicians.

The success of Midnight’s Children did more than liberate Indian writing in English from its colonial straightjacket. It also gave birth to a new voice: exuberantly magical, cosmopolitan and multicultural, but deeply rooted in Indian traditions of storytelling. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, followed four years later by Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things only added to this impression of extreme literary inequality between the two states. Rushdie’s prediction that “Indians were in a position to conquer English literature” seemed about to be vindicated.

In a famous 1997 New Yorker photograph of hot young writers from the subcontinent, there was not a single Pakistani in the group – and with good reason. Ahmed Ali, Manto and Faiz were all dead, and no new generation had replaced them. The only English-language Pakistani writer to meet with any real success in the 1980s, Bapsi Sidhwa, the Parsi author of The Crow Eaters and Ice Candy Man, had emigrated to Texas by the late 1990s. And Pakistan didn’t have the burgeoning bookshop chains and publishing houses which gave Indian writers a platform and means to finance themselves.

A decade on, however, something remarkable is happening in Pakistani writing. The irony is that the same jihadi outrages and military interventions that have held Pakistan back so badly in its political life, and which censored its early poets and novelists, have now provided an embarrassment of riches for its more recent writers, who, thanks to General Zia, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, have seen their nation become the very focus of world geopolitics.

Last year’s Man Booker shortlist contained a Pakistani writer for the first time: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was unquestionably one of the most accomplished novels of 2007. The story tells the parable of its hero’s post-9/11 radicalisation. As a Pakistani working as a management consultant on Wall Street, he finds himself caught between, on one hand, his love of New York and infatuation with an American girl, and on the other, his hatred of American ignorance and Islamophobia.

In an article that Hamid wrote after returning to Lahore after his own stint as a consultant in Manhattan, he hints at some of the reasons for this Pakistani literary renaissance. He was particularly struck by “the incredible new world of media that had sprung up”, he said. Musharraf’s opening of the media to private operators had resulted in an “unprecedented openness”.

Now, in this climate of greater openness, a raft of other Pakistani novels and short story collections are causing a stir in the publishing world.

This year’s most striking Pakistani debut is Mohammed Hanif’s Booker-longlisted A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The novel is something quite new in south Asian fiction: an entertaining and darkly comic political thriller which is also a satirical farce that attacks the brutality, stupidity and hypocrisy of Pakistan’s military dictators. Not surprisingly, it has yet to find a Pakistani publisher brave enough to take it on.

Rooted in Hanif’s own experiences, first as a Pakistani air force cadet, then as a political journalist – he was until recently the head of the BBC Urdu service – the book demonstrates some of the virtues which are coming to distinguish the new Pakistani writing. Like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which it in some way resembles, it is intelligent, witty and street-smart without being narrowly urban or elitist. And it shows an enviable lightness of touch without succumbing to the sub-magic realist tricksiness which blights so much new Indian fiction.

Exploding Mangoes revolves around the assassination of President Zia in August 1988. Two narrative threads are artfully interwoven: one involves the narrator, Captain Ali Shigri, a young air force officer who is arrested by the intelligence service after his roommate disappears in a stolen air force plane; the other follows a gloriously fictionalised General Zia. Hanif has great fun sketching the despot’s growing paranoia and superstition, his desperate search for guidance in random passages of the Koran, his dreams of winning the Nobel prize and problems with severe rectal itch. The book is especially remarkable for its dark wit, as Hanif recalls a period of history when America was doing all it could to support the jihadis in Afghanistan, and when the CIA thought that arming and training Zia’s mad Islamists was a brilliant strategy.

Indeed, the new Pakistani writing, like its political affairs, is anything but parochial. In The Wasted Vigil, out last month, Nadeem Aslam, an ethnic Pakistani now living in England, tells the stories of a diverse group of characters who gather at the house of an English widower living in Afghanistan. The interwoven lives collide in the memories of the ruined house. It is even more beautifully written than his much-acclaimed Maps for Lost Lovers.

The Wasted Vigil’s Afghan denouement is also shared by Kamila Shamsie’s forthcoming Burnt Shadows, published in March 2009. Shamsie’s is an ambitious narrative which moves its characters from Hiroshima to 9/11 via Partition and the creation of Pakistan, weaving themes of war and exile, “lost homelands and the impossibility of return”.

Next summer will also see the publication of Other Rooms, Other Wonders, an astonishing collection of tales by Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose short stories have already been included in Salman Rushdie’s Best American Short Stories. Mueenuddin’s wonderfully witty and moving New Yorker debut, “Nawabdin Electrician”, reveals a writer who seems to combine the intimate rural rootedness and gentle humour of RK Narayan with the literary sophistication and stylishness of Jhumpa Lahiri. Perhaps the strongest resemblance, however, is to late 19th-century Russia – Mueenuddin’s wry, humane and humorous appreciation of rural life, seen from a landlord’s viewpoint, depicts a world surprisingly familiar to Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country or Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, but with the action transposed from the Russian steppe to the Pakistani Punjab.

Like Turgenev, Mueenuddin creates a world peopled by wholly believable, ordinary rural folk, generously sketched with a wonderful freshness and lightness – Nawabdin with “his peculiar aviator glasses bent and smudged”, at home with his 12 daughters “jumping on him” his face “an expression of childish innocent joy, which contrasted strangely and even sadly with the heaviness of his face and its lines and stubble”, or at work on his “signature ability: a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters, so cunningly performed that his customers could specify to the rupee note the desired monthly savings”.

Mueenuddin’s Pakistan is visually beautiful – there are wonderful sketches of banyan trees and mango orchards, sugar cane fields and the sound of “water running through the reeds in the canal” – but it is also a land that is brutal and savage: men are killed, women are abducted and taken to the Karachi brothels, while the police beat the innocent and helpless, and the powerful trample on the poor.

Other Rooms, Other Wonders is quite unlike anything recently published on the Indian side of the border, and throws the gauntlet down to a new generation of Indian writers. For the first time in this part of Asia, there is serious competition out there.

William Dalrymple’s ‘The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857’ (Bloomsbury) was awarded the Duff Cooper prize for history and the Vodafone-Crossword Indian book of the year prize

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.