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  • 28 September 2010

How to write about Pakistan

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Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece from Granta 92, ‘How to Write About Africa’, is the most popular article on our website. When we were digitizing our archive, Binyavanga gave us permission to put his article up, but only on the condition that it remain free to read and not behind a paywall. ‘Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title’, it begins – and goes on to send up every imaginable cliché of writing about Africa.

An equivalent for Pakistan seemed only appropriate for our current issue. Below, four contributors to the issue – Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie – tell you, in case you’re thinking of starting out, How to Write About Pakistan.

I

1. Must have mangoes.
2. Must have maids who serve mangoes.
3. Maids must have affairs with man servants who should occasionally steal mangoes.
4. Masters must lecture on history of mangoes and forgive the thieving servant.
5. Calls to prayer must be rendered to capture the mood of a nation disappointed by the failing crop of mangoes.
6. The mango flavour must linger for a few paragraphs.
7. And turn into a flashback to Partition.
8. Characters originating in rural areas must fight to prove that their mango is bigger than yours.
9. Fundamentalist mangoes must have more texture; secular mangoes should have artificial flavouring.
10. Mangoes that ripen in creative writing workshops must be rushed to the market before they go bad.

If you are sick of mangoes then try reading:

Najam Hussain Syed
Afzal Ahmed Sayed
Hasan Dars

All poets? Poets who don’t write poetry in English? Not even in Urdu? You could get your maid or that genius mad uncle to translate little bits for you.

Or, if you like prose:

Ali Akbar Natiq
Asad Mohammed Khan
Shamsu Rehman Farouqi

All fiction writers, some available in English. Ask your Pakistani friends to translate bits for you. Your Pakistani friend can’t read Urdu? Surely she has a maid who can. Or is she too busy serving mangoes?

II

Pakistan is just like India, except when it’s just like Afghanistan. (Has anyone else noticed how we seem to have geographically shifted from being a side-thought of the subcontinent to a major player in the Greater Middle East? Is this progress?) It will become clear whether the Pakistan of our work is Indo-Pak or Af-Pak depending on whether the cover has paisley designs or bombs/minarets/menacing men in shalwar kameezes (there are no other kinds of men in shalwar kameezes.) If woman are on the cover, then the two possible Pakistans are expressed through choice of clothing: is it bridal wear or burkhas?

On the subject of women, they never have agency. Unless they break all the rules, in which case they’re going to end up dead. I don’t think there’s anything else to be said about them, is there?

III

Lying in my bed at 7.48 a.m., laptop on lap. Too much writing in this position over the years has given me neck-aches. I’d do yoga if it weren’t such a non-Pakistani sounding activity. For a Pakistani writer to do yoga feels like questioning the two-nation theory. So I complain, which brings enormous relief and a sense of oneness with my subject matter.

When it comes to Pakistani writing, I would encourage us all to remember the brand. We are custodians of brand Pakistan. And beneficiaries. The brand slaps an extra zero onto our advances, if not more. Branding can be the difference between a novel about brown people and a best-selling novel about brown people. It is our duty to maintain and build that brand.

I know I don’t need to reiterate here what brand Pakistan stands for, but since my future income-stream is tied up with what you all do with it, I’m going to do so anyway. Brand Pakistan is a horror brand. It’s like the Friday the 13th series. Or if you’re into humor, like Scary Movie. Or Jaws, if nature-writing is your thing.

Anyway, the point is that people from all over the world have come to know and love brand Pakistan for its ability to scare the shit out of them. Whatever you write, please respect this legacy. We’re providing a service here. We’re a twenty-storey straight-down vertical-dropping roller coaster for the mind. Yes, love etcetera is permissible. But bear in mind that Pakistan is a market-leader. The Most Dangerous Place in the WorldTM.

It took a lot of writing to get us here, miles of fiction and non-fiction in blood-drenched black and white. Please don’t undo it. Or at least please don’t undo it until I’ve cashed in a couple more times. Apartments abroad are expensive.

IV

Desi Masala

The banyan tree, the gulmahor,
and all mem-sahibs of Lahore –
I sing of you, for love and cash
(for poets need a place to crash,
in Islington, if not Mayfair –
Please God, not Newham is my prayer).
Lahore is fine in winter time,
but when the temp begins to climb
we brave the food on PIA
to pen our eclogues far away.
So, gentle reader, do not stray,
I promise you that same bouquet,
the one I sold you once before,
the spice and smells of old Lahore,
and chauffeured cars and so much more.

***

Nadeem Aslam has also reflected on these questions in his new article ‘Where to Begin’, in which he also traces some of the seeds of his novella Leila in the Wilderness, which opens our new issue. Read also... Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’, free in our archive.

Buy our Pakistan issue today by clicking here

~CONTRIBUTORS~

– Mohsin Hamid lives in Lahore and is the author of Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007. His story for Granta, ‘A Beheading’, is also free to read.

– Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara. A former head of the BBC Urdu Service, he is the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in 2009. He lives in Karachi.

– Daniyal Mueenuddin grew up in Pakistan and Wisconsin, and now lives on a farm in southern Pakistan. His first short-story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, won the Story Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

– Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi and now lives in London. She is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009. Her essay ‘Pop Idols’, about the pop music heartthrobs of her childhood during the Zia ul-Haq years, is free to read online.

***

Watch an animation inspired by the issue and its artwork here (by Caco Neves):

***

~

See also... ‘High Noon’ I, II & III, work by contemporary Pakistani artists from our print edition; or our cover for the issue, a special commission made to Karachi-based truck artist Islam Gull. Also recently published are a new translation of a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto, and ‘Power Failure’ – Bina Shah’s essay on the ongoing electricity crisis in Karachi.

***

Online from the print edition:

Pop Idols by Kamila Shamsie: boyband heartthrobs and the Zia years. Kashmir’s Forever War – the cost of conflict, by Basharat Peer. Life and Time, a poem by Hasina Gul; and A Beheading, a new story by Mohsin Hamid.

Front page image by W. A. Djatmiko

Comments (22)

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  1. Prasant

    Wed Sep 29 10:18:14 BST 2010

    This is a wonderful example of literary realism. I have been to Pakistan during the Indira Gandhi-Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto 'honeymoon' politics, that was in the eighties, and in reading the present essay and that sad piece of poetry, I am convinced that things have not changed across the border, and let me assure my Pakistani friends that it is ditto in good old India as well, or, is that Hindustan?!

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