Gems of Pakistani English Fiction

Gems of Pakistani English Fiction
By M. Awais Aftab

Indian writers of English fiction began to grow huge internationally in the '80s and the '90s, but Pakistani writers have begun to do the same only in the last decade. While there have been many brilliant novels with international recognition, let us examine these four which are probably the best of the lot.

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid (2000)

"The alienation is so thick you can cut it with a knife," writes Peter Gorden, describing the atmosphere of Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke. With the richness of historical symbolism, the novel describes the decline of Darashikoh, a person on the fringes of upper-class elite in a Pakistan suffering from economic crises after the 1998 nuclear explosions. Daru’s deterioration is best described by Hamid’s own metaphor: a moth spiraling around the candle, seduced by its flame, revolving, falling, until it makes contact with the fire… the moment of union, and… the moth has been reduced to smoke and ash. The novel explores Daru’s obsession with drugs after losing his job in a bank, his affair with his best friend’s wife and finally his entry into the world of crime. "The book explores the idea of how you arrive at truth with conflicting narratives, which is what you do in law," said Hamid in an interview, and these multiple narratives are one of the best features of this novel. Hamid talks of arriving at truth, but the reader, he doesn’t find a single truth anywhere… he just uncovers different versions of the truth. Is truth just the totality of these versions? The novel begins with a trial, and you are the judge, and the novel ends without a sentence, because it is you who have to decide whether Daru is guilty or not. And unless you are a 'fundo’ (a word oft employed in the novel), you would not be able to answer this question of innocence. The life which Hamid describes is dark and gloomy, but his style, with which he does so, is charming and gripping. The novel was a winner of Betty Trask Award, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book of The Year.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007)

'Some books are acts of courage... Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something extraordinary with this novel.’ This is how The Washington Post praises Mohsin Hamid on his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. With exceptional skill, Hamid makes use of a gripping, fast-paced monologue about a young Pakistani’s experience in America to unsettle the pre-existing assumptions in the reader’s mind and induces a fresh dialogue on the topic, equipped with the psychological experience of the novel’s protagonist. At a cafĂ© in Lahore, Changez narrates his story to a mysterious American stranger. He is a Princeton-graduate, an employee at a top-notch firm, earning a lot of money, apparently living the American dream, but then September 11 happens, and it forces Changez to think about who he is, and where he belongs. Simultaneously, there is an on-going love story, which serves perhaps more to give the novel an allegorical touch, of Changez being involved with a pretty, neurotic and damaged girl. But why is Changez narrating all this to the unknown, nervous American? Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist too has a very fluid, ambiguous and surprising end; an ending that reflects the reader’s own view of the world back at him. The novel was short listed for the 2007 Booker Prize. It also won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, among many others.

The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan (2008)

"Elegant, sensuous and fiercely intelligent, The Geometry of God takes an argument that is in danger of becoming stale - that of fundamentalism vs free thinking among Muslims - and animates it in a wonderfully inventive story that pits science against politics and the freedom of women against the insecurities of men." Kamila Shamsie reviews the most recent novel by Uzma Aslam Khan which made quite a name for itself in literary circles this year. The novel explores a controversial issue in a controversial era: the Zia rule in Pakistan, and the massacre of science in the name of Islam. The story is about a paleontologist Zahoor who is doing research on evolution and fossils while Zia is Islamizing knowledge in the country. During a fossil-dig in Salt Range, Zahoor’s grand-daughter Amal discovers a fossil of the oldest known primitive whale. At the same time, Amal’s baby-sister Mehwish goes blind and it falls to Amal to take care of her. And then there is Nouman, the neurotic, confused character whose father is a minister in the Party of Creation, which attempts to create a pure Islamic science. Nouman encounters Zahoor and can’t help being drawn to him. The relationship of Nouman, Zahoor, Amal and Mehwish creates a parallelogram that is the central crux of this multiple narrative, and tells the spectacular story of love and friendship amidst an ideological war.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (2008)

Who killed General Zia-ul-Haq in the mysterious plane crash of 1988? Mohammed Hanif, it seems, is not satisfied with just one answer. In this brilliant novel, he imagines how and why Zia-ul-Haq was killed, and as many as half a dozen possible suspects emerge in the novel and gradually converge at the moment of the final show down. The conspiracy soup thickens as the novel proceeds, and the suspense becomes murderous. The narrative is made more literary by the use of techniques of magical realism and absurdist military comedy. The central character in the novel is a young military officer named Ali Shigri, who is being investigated about his friend Obaid 'Baby O’ who has gone AWOL. But Shigri seems to have a plan of his own, which will unfold with time. Hanif brings in the character of Zia himself, exploring the psychology of this dictator as Hanif imagines it, which adds a strong comic touch to the story. Other characters keep popping up: General Akhtar, the ambitious 2nd in command; Major Kiyani; a communist sweeper in military captivation; a blind rape victim in jail; Bannon, a CIA officer posing as a drill instructor; even Osama Bin Laden makes a cameo appearance. And the potential assassins of Zia do not include just people, but also creatures like a crow carrying a curse and an army of tapeworms. Long-listed for the Booker Prize, this novel has many more awards coming its way.

Published in Us Magazine


Tazeen said…
ummm exploding mangoes and reluctant fundamentalist were good books but anything written by Uzam Khan is crap. I dont know how she gets anyone to publish her shit
Vasudha said…
reluctant fundamentalist was quite enjoyable -- haven't read the other three, though.

nice post.
Dur-e-Aziz Amna said…
Excellent...Good work! :)