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High or Hybrid

by Khaled Ahmed

Photograph by Tapu Javeri

Muneeza Shamsie has masterfully traced the rise of Pakistani literature in English

Nationalism at times curtails more than it adds to human society. In 2018, Pakistan saw Imran Khan win general elections because, among other things, he promised to “reform” the English-medium schools because they created “two nations.” Yet, the official legal constitutional text of the country is in the English language and most judges still write their judgments in English. The question to ask then becomes: why justice, requiring objectivity and dispassion, is still dispensed in English? The British Raj got us to read and write in the “language of subjugation,” which made Sir Syed Ahmad Khan do something dangerous: distilling rational thought into Urdu. Reacting to British essayist Joseph Addison’s discussion in The Spectator of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he wrote: “Honesty is possible without religion, but religion is not possible without honesty.”

Pakistani Urdu-medium schools during the 1960s taught English as a compulsory “remedial and functional idiom,” as if to limit its “dangerous” discourse to the “non-logical” and “non-sequential” to prevent it from trespassing on state ideology. It is still compulsory; so is the official text of the Constitution, which is in English. But language-learning ends up getting creative, first giving birth to verse, then descending to more controversial and demanding prose. This process of English discourse filtering down to the colonized mind happened in India and is today celebrated in South Asia as “literature” describing the regional civilization for the world. For those who feel endangered by the sort of “thinking” English gives rise to, Sir Syed is no longer a part of the Pakistani nationalist pantheon.

Muneeza Shamsie’s monumental Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English has brought to light the hidden and neglected “hybrid” talent of those who have and continue to write in English. She has unearthed the talent of Atiya Fyzee Rahamin (1877-1967), Samuel Fyzee Rahamin (1880-1964), Hasan Shaheed Suhrawardy (1890-1965), Ahmed Ali (1910-1994) and Mumtaz Shahnawaz (1912-1948), and made an assessment of their worth as commentators of their respective eras before delving into the more contemporary Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah (1915-2000), Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah (1921-2000), Zulfikar Ghose, Taufiq Rafat (1927-1998), Bapsi Sidhwa, Hanif Kureishi, and Sara Suleri.

Even lesser known writers have been briefly listed and commented on, rendering the book as a kind of directory of Pakistani authors. Just to test the level of detail I looked up the index and found Javaid Qazi mentioned with a full listing of his novels and short story collections. (Intriguingly, Fakir Syed Aijazuddin’s work in 18 unforgettable volumes could not find place in this remarkable treasury although his wife Shahnaz made it to the index with her book.)

Language as liberator?

Sake Dean Mahomed (1759-1851), a Muslim official in the East India Company settled in Ireland, was the first Indian to use English creatively. He wrote a memoir, The Travels of Dean Mahomet, “to explain India to his new friends in Britain.” Once used as a medium to cater to the local population of Britain, Pakistani writers are now explaining Pakistan to us in English. Unsurprisingly, the message differs from what we get from Urdu-language writers.

Is there a gulf of idioms that divides the writer himself? Does he transform himself according to the idiom he is writing in? Shamsie notes how Bankimchandra Chatterji (1838-94) first wrote in English the novel Rajmohan’s Wife, the story of a sad marriage and unrequited love among middle-class Bengalis. His follow-up, Anandmath, was written in Bengali and lit the communal fires with its inset song, “Vande Matram,” which the Indian government had to censor before inducting it as a national song. (Today, the BJP government wants to re-insert the anti-Muslim verses.)

The reverse can also happen. The logical-sequential discourse of English at times tilts into a kind of “globalism” Muslim communities simply can’t  accept, as happened with Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, first published in the United Kingdom in 1988. He, as a Muslim, was accused of blasphemy, and in 1989 Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill him. The implied message may appear to be that writing in English can get you killed; but this kind of reaction was also faced by Saadat Hasan Manto, whose realism in Urdu carried the unacceptable germs that a more weather-beaten English can pollute us with.

Lost lighthouse

Shamsie’s book contains especially fascinating details about the life of Atiya Fyzee Rahamin, who migrated to Pakistan in 1947. Her family belonged to the Suleimani Bohra community, which had migrated from Cambay to Bombay and acquired English as “the link language with the country’s new rulers.” They also learnt Urdu, which was considered the language of the Muslim elite and of the Muslim identity in India. Atiya Begum and her six siblings were born in Istanbul, but her mother returned to Bombay with her daughters Zehra, Nazli, and Atiya. Atiya became known in Pakistan as a friend of Allama Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet.

In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, she published her great classic Indian Music in English under the name of Shahinda (Begum Fyzee Rahamin), with a preface by the distinguished British musicologist, E. Gilbert Webb, and 12 exquisite illustrations by Jewish painter Samuel Rahamin, whom she was to marry later. The “enduring quality of Atiya Begum’s prose has long stood the test of time” and also graced the intimate letters she wrote to her friend Allama Iqbal. Her husband Samuel Fyzee Rahamin wrote his novel Gilded India in proof of his all-round genius.

Atiya Fyzee met up with Allama Iqbal in London where he had gone for higher studies and become a toast of social gatherings for his learning and ready wit. He, marrying at 18, already had two children when he found in her “a true companion with whom he could have conversations and discuss literature, art, poetry, and music.” In 1947, shortly before Partition, Atiya published her famous English book Iqbal—a collection of memories and letters—which is one of the earliest examples of English language “life-writing” by a South Asian Muslim woman. It reveals “a very different Iqbal from the clever and carefree young man she knew in London and Heidelberg.” Author Shamsie gives us a comprehensive account of the works of both Atiya and husband Samuel.

Colonial verse or worse

The book takes special note of Bengali poet Hasan Shaheed Suhrawardy, whose 1937 Essays in Verse “broke away from the Orientalist traditions of Indo-Anglian poetry and its assertions of Indian-ness.” As a Pakistani in pre-revolutionary Moscow he could read Bartold in Russian when the great historian was not yet translated into English, and knew more about Russia’s “civilizational” advent into Central Asia than anyone else. He was found among the Pakistani-English poets in The First Voices (1965) featuring Taufiq Rafat, Kaleem Omar, etc, before writing his The Art of the Mussalmans of Spain when posted as ambassador there. Shamsie marshals all the facts about this early Bengali genius and tells a great story.

What English carried with ease was “realism,” and it came out first in Urdu with the collection Angaray (1932) and the leading light was Ahmed Ali who was to write his Twilight in Delhi in 1940, becoming the first major Indian Muslim novelist to write in English. It became clear by the widespread Muslim protest against Angaray that you couldn’t say in Urdu what was now being written in English. Manto was to face prosecution in the court of law for breaking the tyranny of the idiom. The book notes: “This fueled the raging post-Independence argument on the ‘relevance’ of using English, a colonial language, as a creative vehicle in the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan.” Ali’s translation of the holy Quran could be seen as an act of contrition but he was too much his own man to walk away from the alien discourse. Author Shamsie’s verdict: “Ahmed Ali’s linguistic strategy, his attempts to transpose the language of one culture into that of another, was both innovative and courageous.”

‘First voice to last

Zulfikar Ghose, whose poetry made its first appearance in First Voices, had arisen from Sialkot to become a novelist of great merit. The chapter devoted to him is riveting as it explains how Ghose’s universalism made him more a Commonwealth kind of writer like V.S. Naipaul—some of whose work the Indians don’t like—who moved away from the “nationalistic paradigm.” But the next chapter focuses on Taufiq Rafat, another Kashmiri like Ghose and Rushdie, and provides a much-needed assessment of his genius. Rafat was a poet of wisdom but he was essentially a pagan who celebrated nature. He was a prominent poet, even writing a play in verse, which was directed and staged in Lahore by Farrukh Nigar Aziz in 1969.

Rafat lived in his poems because he was strictly non-judgmental. He stayed close to the senses and let them give their verdict. He was not obsessed with transmitting a message of any kind because that would fall in the category of judgment. His lived a life without final conclusions, creating pathos and beauty by refraining from imposing on us any moral assessment of the object he was looking at. He accepted the flux of time but not the ideologies that tried to arrest it.

Rafat was rewarded for this impartiality of the soul by a freedom that few poets of our time have achieved. His nostalgia for the past was not based on any values that have been robbed by time; he simply noted the passage of a way of life that was no more. What moved him most about transition was death, the death of those he had known, of people who lived without bearing the doubtful burden of being acknowledged by society as great.

Shamsie finishes her best chapter by quoting Waqas Khwaja: “There are people today who have made somewhat of a name for themselves outside the country as poets, people like Moniza Alvi and Alamgir Hashmi. But Rafat started it all. He’s still the standard in many ways of what can be and what needed to be done in the area of English-language poetry in Pakistan to open up the way for succeeding generations of aspiring poets.”

Advocate extraordinaire

In 1962, Tariq Ali emerged as the student genius of his time at Government College Lahore, easily the era’s best debater, holding his own against his father Mazhar Ali Khan in Old vs Young Ravians debates, reaching his highwater mark with a protest march on The Mall against the murder of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba till his anti-American worldview became too much to stomach for General Ayub and he had to take off for the U.K. “for higher studies.” It was just as well because his classfellow Salmaan Taseer fell to Pakistan’s ideology many years later in 2011.

Ali was a Ravian product of a different order, becoming the founding editor of the newspaper The Black Dwarf, and the magazine, The Red Mole, in London. He went on to write historical novels, plays and accounts of his own Trotskyite faith, which put him at odds with the Soviet Union. Shamsie has done a great job digging up the most important milestones in the life of this extraordinary still-living genius whom Pakistan may never be intellectually able to understand. Connecting him to Atiya Fyzee Rahamin, Syed Ameer Ali, and Shaheed Suhrawardy, she quotes from his The Clash of Fundamentalism: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity (2002): “To fight tyranny and oppression by using tyrannical and oppressive means, to combat a single-minded and ruthless fanaticism by becoming equally fanatical and ruthless, will not further the cause of justice or bring about a meaningful democracy. It can only prolong the cycle of violence.”

Bapsi Sidhwa to Kamila Shamsie

Bapsi Sidhwa took English-reading Pakistan by storm with her unbuttoned novel The Crow Eaters (1979) about the Parsi community and she brought something new to the hybrid legacy of Ahmed Ali and Mumtaz Shahnawaz. She carried on the story of her community with Ice-Candy-Man (1988), adding a “strong feminist consciousness which portrays how the lives of women are circumscribed by social attitudes and ancient rules, regardless of class, country, and religion.” The Bride (1982), had portrayed the lives of Pakistan’s urban poor in contrast to those in the tribal areas, and her experience of the trauma of Partition, when she was only nine, became “the nucleus of the plot for Ice-Candy-Man and some of its characters.” Sidhwa’s fiction has to be included in the most significant works of Partition literature in South Asia today.

Shamsie left out her daughter’s fiction and other writings for Shobana Bhattarcharji to cover: “Kamila Shamsie belongs to a literary family, which includes the novelist Attia Hosain and Sahibzada Mahmuduzzafar Khan, co-author of Angarey and a co-founder of The Progressive Writers’ Movement. Her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and sister are also writers. Novelist, freelance journalist, reviewer, a creative writing teacher, Kamila has published five novels since 1998. They have been translated into many languages. Of these, Burnt Shadows received the 2010 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (U.S.) and was also short-listed for the 2009 Orange Fiction Prize (U.K.). In The City by the Sea, Kartography, and Broken Verses received awards from the Pakistan Academy of Letters and Broken Verses was also shortlisted for the 2005 LiBberaturpreis (Germany). In The City by the Sea, and Kartography were shortlisted in turn for the John Llewellyn Rhys Award. She is on the editorial board of Index on Censorship and has been a judge for several literary awards.”

Kureishis creative brood

Shamsie’s most fascinating story after Atiya Fyzee is that of Hanif Kureishi, the first British writer of Pakistani origin “to win major literary awards on both sides of the Atlantic.” His screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette got an Oscar nomination in 1984, before his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, won the 1990 Whitbread Award in 1991. These works focused on “the conflicts of, and pressures on, young Asians growing up in Britain.” Kureishi inserted himself in the novel My Son the Fanatic, which became a film of that name. His essays beat all rivals in the field in those days.

Born in 1954, Kureishi is the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother, brought up in Bromley, Kent, where his maternal grandfather owned three shops. His paternal grandfather was Colonel Kureishi, and thereby hangs a tale told by Shamsie with her usual ferreting skill. Col. Kureishi was in the Indian Medical Corps, an Anglophile, which decided the life trajectories of his brood. His son Rafiushan Kureishi, his creativity suppressed, migrated to Britain to study law and married Audrey Buss. Rafiushan could have become a writer on his own but life forced him to be a half-formed writer, a gap that his son Hanif was to fill so well. But here comes the rest of the story as revealed by author Shamsie: Rafiushan’s siblings didn’t think of going to Britain but moved to Pakistan at Partition like everyone else. Guess who these siblings were?

They included Omar Kureishi, his uncle, the great cricket commentator that Pakistan will never forget from the bygone days of radio; Bilquis Nasrullah, the fashion editor; civil servant Enver Kureishi, the husband of the more renowned poet Maki Kureishi, who appeared on the English poetic horizon of Pakistan with Taufiq Rafat; and Safdar Kureishi, a veteran of the Second World War who joined the Pakistan Air Force. Hanif Kureishi visited Pakistan for the first time in 1983 and said this: “Am completely fascinated by Pakistan. It has given me time to stop and think about my past, about my roots. Whereas once I thought my place in England could be worked out here, I now realize that it can only be worked out in relation to this country. Think it will also give another dimension to my work.”

Hybrid Tapestries is truly a monumental work, which only someone like Moneeza Shamsie could have accomplished. The book is truly a keepsake.

From our special LLF 2019 issue

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Waqar A. Khan February 26, 2019 - 12:55 pm

This rambling and back-patting review by an English columnist congratulates another English columnist on producing a “monumental” work, but it fails to describe what kind of work it is beyond the particular “story” it tells to indulge his taste. The English-Urdu contrasts are forced, and to imply that most work in Urdu (except Manto’s) is not “logical-sequential”, a trumped up premium itself, is fake news. More than two paragraphs devoted to Taufiq Rafat’s attitude to his material shed little light on the actual writing. The leading lights of modern poetry like Alamgir Hashmi and Moniza Alvi, whose achievement is absolutely unparalleled, are given short shrift, while fiction for your reviewer is a single author (Bapsi Sidhwa) form today. If you were to believe this reviewer, non-fiction also has just one author (Tariq Ali)! Hybrid Tapestries is certainly a more resourceful and less tired book than this review would suggest.

S. K. Imtiaz Ali February 26, 2019 - 2:10 pm

It would be fairer to say that fiction for your reviewer is a single author, plus one, form today (Bapsi Sidhwa, plus Shamsie’s daughter Shamsie).

DAYAL CHAKRABORTTY November 7, 2019 - 6:10 pm

Well…but the upholder of modern poetry like Moniza and Alamgir should have been given much space.


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