Where to Begin
Following on from our How to Write About Pakistan feature yesterday, Nadeem Aslam, whose novella Leila in the Wilderness opens our Pakistan issue, reflects on the same questions with a focus on his own work.
Imagine an area of darkness. We don’t know the time, we don’t know the place. It could be the year of Aeschylus’s birth in Greece, or it could be 19 November 1942 in the town of Drohobycz, or the day after tomorrow in Lahore. Now imagine a circle of light within this darkness and a middle-aged woman standing in it. Her race, her class, nationality or religion are unknown to us. The dead body of a young man appears in her arms now – and let me tell you that it is her son.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that as artists, as writers, as thinkers, and as human beings, we can all fill a number of pages about what that woman is going through. All this without knowing anything about her except that single fact: she is the mother of a dead son. We don’t even know yet how he died. Whether he was a thief or a school teacher, wicked or just. Let’s assume that the number of pages we have filled up is four.
Now if I light up that area of darkness and show you that we are in Pakistan, that the young man was an innocent bystander who died in a CIA drone attack in Bajaur, we will begin to add to the woman’s grief with that information in mind: pages five, six and seven could have her raging at the Americans, at the West, at the Pakistani government that allowed the attacks to take place, perhaps even – and I know someone who witnessed this in Bajaur in 2008 – at the al Qaeda leaders who were hiding in Bajaur and at whom the American missile was directed. Or the young man could be a union leader in a textile factory in Faisalabad whom the factory owner has had killed as a ‘troublemaker’. Pages five, six and seven will now have her lamenting the cruelty of the factory owners. But none of this new information will alter the first four pages. Pages five, six and seven make her into a Pakistani, but for the first four pages she is nothing but a human being. In my writing I wish to make sure that I have filled those first four pages before getting to the other – no less important – pages. We fail as fiction writers when we begin with pages five, six and seven – giving the reader reams of information about union rules in Pakistani textile factories, or about how drones work, or, for that matter, about the day to day workings of an insurance firm in, say, Exeter, England – but forgetting to tell the reader how all that information is connected to a flesh and blood human being. The book fails because the people are not real, the first four pages about each of the characters are missing.
How to write fiction about Pakistan ? I try to get those initial pages in place.
Pakistanis are as complex as any other people on the planet. I think of a beam of light entering a prism and emerging on the other side split into seven colours. What you see depends on which side of the prism you are standing on: on one side the light is uniform, of a single colour. On the other, it’s violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. I am on the coloured side. I have encountered good as well as bad in a Pakistani person, love as well as hatred, virtue as well as vice. In real life, and in my writing, I can’t pretend that all Pakistanis are angels any more than I can pretend that all Pakistanis are deceitful. (When they hear the name of the English town Tipton, most people will think of the Tipton Three – the three young men who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. I do too. But I also think of a mosque in Tipton where a mullah was sexually abusing the children who came to learn the Koran from him: when one of the parents found out about it and decided to go to the police, the members of the mosque organisation pulled a gun on the father.) As to the question of what to put into a book, and what to leave out: a good deal is said about the ‘clichés’ that are to be found in sub-continental writing – the mangoes, the monsoon and the spices, the verandahs and the mosquito nets and the extended families. But I would not wish ever to be told that these things are out of bounds to me. Who will tell Derek Walcott that the blue of the Caribbean Sea is a bit of tourist-board cliché? The palm trees, the warm sands, the beauty of the black women and the beauty of the black men: every page the great man has ever written is full of these things. ‘Verandahs, where the pages of the sea / are a book left open by an absent master …’
This is not to say that these are not tourist clichés – but they must remain available to the artist as well as the non-artist. The genuine artists will bring human warmth and longing and complexity to what is two-dimensional in other, lesser hands. So one answer to ‘How to write about Pakistan?’ is: Any way you wish. On one level, it’s all Pakistani: every literary tradition I have encountered in the West has been utilised by great Urdu writers of the past. As a boy in my early teens I discovered and fell in love with Intizar Hussain’s work. (Today I consider him to be the greatest living writer in the world. His 1120 page Collected Stories is always on my desk as I write.) When I moved to Britain and found the work of the great Bruno Schulz, Italo Calvino, García Márquez, my response wasn’t that Intizar Hussain writes like Calvino-Schulz-Márquez. It was that Calvino-Schulz-Márquez write like Intizar Hussain.
To me Urdu is always the first point of reference. (Urdu literature attached itself to me at birth – I was named after the short story writer and poet Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi.) In Leila in the Wilderness, I write a two-page sentence, and recently after a reading a man came up to me and said, ‘Were you thinking of the cadences of David Foster Wallace when you wrote that long sentence?’ I admire Foster Wallace but I had to tell the man that I had obtained permission and courage to write that sentence not from Foster Wallace but from the great Pakistani poet Faiz – who, forty years ago, had written something like my very long sentence in a book named Sar-e-Wadi-e-Sina (‘From the Summit of Sinai’).
So it’s all our inheritance. You wish to be a comic writer? Shafiq-ur-Rahman and Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi do it as elegantly as anyone else. As for serious fun: this summer I made my way through the two-volume Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Nigarshaat in Lahore; and for the first time in my life I realized fully what is meant by the term ‘laughter in the dark’. Do you wish to leave the earth’s surface? In Ghulam Abbas’s Hotel Moenjodaro a Pakistani astronaut becomes the first man to land on the moon. He published it in 1967 – two years before Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface. Estrangement from the here and now? Afzal Ahmed Syed’s wonderful collected poems Mitti ki Kaan (The Earth Mine), published by Aaj Books in Karachi, is as full of heart-stopping moments and images as the best of Wislawa Szymborska, Ivan Lalic and Vasko Popa. Do you wish to leave politics out altogether and concentrate on domestic issues? Zamiruddin Ahmed’s Purvaii (‘The East Wind’) and Sookhay Saavan (‘Dry Rains’) are two of the greatest short stories ever written, in any language. Anwar Ali’s exquisite Punjabi-language novella Noori – translated into Urdu for issue 68 of the legendary Lahore journal Savera – has depth of characterisation to be found in works five times its length. We can be political and question the powerful. Growing up in Pakistan , I sometimes thought it was part of the job description for a writer to be frowned upon by those in power. Fiaz went to jail. Fehmida Riaz became an exile. Habib Jalib was beaten in the streets by policemen. When Perveen Shakir was summoned before a government official who warned her to mend her ways, she went away and wrote, ‘The leaders of this country think a writer is like an appendix. Sooner or later it will cause trouble. So it’s better to have an operation and have it removed.’ Of course we know ways of being indirectly political too.
JMG Le Clézio, in his Nobel Prize lecture, mentions a number of works of fiction that he considers to be seminal and essential. One of these is a novel named Aag ka Darya (published in English as River of Fire) by Qurratulain Hyder. For the people in Le Clézio’s immediate audience, he must have been referring to a ‘lost classic’. I am aware of the fact that not many people in the rest of the world have heard of River of Fire. But the important thing is that River of Fire was considered a masterpiece the month it appeared in Lahore in 1959. (The first publication was in Lahore; it was published in India later.) The culture and the society within which it appeared knew immediately that something new and important had occurred – both linguistically and in terms of the narrative. Not only that, it did what a reader like me, and a writer like me, wishes a work of art to be: this novel knew that literature is a public act, and it contributed to the debate that was occurring in Pakistan at the time. Here was a 12-year-old country in which the Islamic fundamentalists were insisting that we were all about Islam and the Islamic world; that Pakistan will have no connection with anything other than Islam; that it never did have a connection with anything other than Islam. And yet this was a novel which dared to trace the ancestry of its characters back to Pakistan’s Buddhist past, back to Hinduism! Things were made difficult for Qurratulain Hyder and she had to leave Pakistan as a result.
As I said, we don’t have to be political at all. In Leila in the Wilderness I wished to explore what would happen if politics and geopolitics disappeared from Pakistan tomorrow – what are the issues if there is no CIA or ISI, no al-Qaeda or Taliban? In the first paragraph of Leila we move from myth (‘In the beginning the great river …’) to geological time (‘The river was older than the Himalayas …’), to historical and political time (‘The Greeks … the Romans … The Chinese …’), then to one specific moment (‘One night …’) and then into the mind and body of a single human being (‘… and Leila was woken …’). Leaving behind those immensities, we arrive at a small, frail girl and see what happens to her beyond politics and geopolitics and the War on Terror and the Call to Jihad.
A huge set of problems still remains. One can never fully block out anything. Some beloved things will enter the writing without the writer being aware of it: and there are times I don’t wish to take them out when I revise. I made sure not to think about the Leila and Qes legend when writing my own novella, but it is in the blood: it enters my thinking automatically each time my heart beats and the blood is sent to my brain. In the current issue of n+1 magazine, Elif Batuman has written about being told the Leila and Qes legend by someone in Samarkand: she gives a brilliant summary of the legend in the last paragraphs of her essay (‘His heart falls to pieces like a pomegranate …’), and on seeing it I was astonished at just how much of the legend has gone into my novella without my knowing. Some of our subject matter is difficult but we must have the courage to deal with it. Leila in the Wilderness – a story about one family’s prejudice against female births – required that courage from me. I reminded myself that I personally know women who have had foetuses aborted because the ultrasound scan showed them to be female. It is my understanding that Pakistan is among those countries where the ratio of men and women is inconsistent with the rest of the world. In the rest of the world there are more women than men. In Pakistan, more men than women. Millions of women are not there.
On the very first day of my visit to Pakistan a few years ago, I picked up the newspaper and saw an article about a woman who claimed soon after giving birth that the doctors and nurses had exchanged her male baby for a female one. When the exasperated doctors threatened to carry out a DNA test, she relented and said that, yes, the girl baby was hers after all. Her husband had threatened to throw her out if she gave birth to a girl again. (The incident appears in the novella.)
On the second day of that visit, I was introduced to a man – an educated man – who asked me whether I was married and had children. When I told him that I had no children and that I thought of my books as my children, he said, in utter seriousness, ‘Yes. Your successful novels will be your boys, and your unsuccessful ones your daughters.’ That was when I began to think seriously about writing the novella which I had been thinking of for more than a decade. Yes, it is painful – but I cannot help feeling that a work of art can be a powerful instrument against injustice. A necessary source of courage. If not in the present, then one day in the near or distant future. Think of a crucifixion scene painted by Giotto. A man is being tortured – that is bad enough, but it is happening not in a closed and hidden room but in public. He is dying and this dying is being witnessed not by strangers but by his mother and his friends! They are at the bottom of the cross, their own agony as visible as his. They are not hearing of his death second-hand, many days later – they are there watching it helplessly. And all of this is being watched by us. I ask myself if this is what a novel or a story can be – that the reader is locked in a space with the victim and the perpetrator and those who love the victim. Imagine if we were there at Abu Ghraib, in those terrible rooms and hallways, and imagine if the parents of the men being abused were there too, watching. But then it’s not ‘watching’. It’s ‘witnessing’.
Of course, there are things to celebrate too. One thing I feel I must not overlook in my writing – and must not fail to celebrate – is the amount of resistance that is offered in Pakistan to the various corruptions of society. In my novella, any number of people refuse to go along with the family that wants Leila to produce a baby boy. Whoever hears about the injustice tries to put an end to it: the servant girls (Muslim and Christian), Qes and Wamaq, the midwife, the schoolteacher, the NGO worker, the journalist at the end who witnesses the amputation of Leila’s wings. They are shot, beaten, abused – but they oppose the unjust. As one of them says, ‘There was nothing I could have done back then, but I should have done something.’ That is the real Pakistan for me. If I am critical of Pakistan in my writing then it is only of the power structures – the generals, the venal politicians, the unholy holy-men. (I love thinking about religion and how it attempts to put something other than money and sex at the centre of human discourse – it puts love there. As Borges said: ‘I give thanks…for love, which lets us see others as God sees them.’ But I must not blind myself to the corruptions that are practised in its name at times.) As a writer I have to be on the side of ordinary Pakistanis. The mosque at the centre of the story in Leila in the Wilderness is a sham, a fraudulent, covetous structure. But the people who come to it and the problems they bring are real and urgent and genuine. ‘[A]long the roads, the bridges, the streets, came the lepers and the terminally ill, the destitute and the helpless, the lame and the blind and the mute, asking the mosque to end their ordeals as they kissed its walls and floors for minutes at a time.’ We have all witnessed such scenes, and I myself have always been deeply moved by them, at times shaken to the last cell in my body. So this is how I feel.
I never think of a reader when I am writing. It’s not that I am not trying to connect with anyone. My writing is an exploration of my own life, the workings of my own consciousness and my place in the wider world. But I do always begin with the conviction that there is nothing extraordinary or special about me. I am one of billions of people on this planet. So if something is true of me, then there is every likelihood that it is true of billions of others. I must find what I have in common with others. Not what sets me apart. Some concerns are universal: What is love? What is this loneliness? What can I do with my grief? I made a mistake I don’t know how to correct. If, I as a writer, have thought about a subject honestly enough – from that position of humbleness, and with all of my intelligence and knowledge at hand – then the book will have a better chance of connecting with others. Keeping all this in mind, I wonder if I am wrong in saying that all good writing is writing on a mirror. When you are writing you see your own very ordinary ‘face’ behind the words. But when you finish and hand it to the reader, the reader sees his or her own ‘face’ behind the writing. I put the word face in speech marks because by it I mean those basic human concerns that I mentioned earlier. That is where the connection occurs. So how to write about Pakistan (or Iran, Spain, USA, Argentina or the UK )? Always begin with the conviction that there is nothing special or extraordinary about you.