THE LATEST edition of the prestigious Granta Magazine encourages readers to look to Pakistan for more than violence, religious extremism and abject desolation. It chooses to do this with a collection dominated by pieces about violence, religious extremism and abject desolation.” Thus began Faiza S Khan’s superbly caustic review of Granta 112: Pakistan, published in November 2010. Khan, with collaborator Aysha Raja, has since brought out her answer to Granta: The Life’s Too Short Literary Review 01. Published in Pakistan by Raja and Khan’s Siren Publications, the volume available from Hachette India (in “slightly altered form”, it says mysteriously) contains 14 contributions. The juiciest is Mohammad Hanif’s translation of an excerpt from Challawa, a serialised Urdu fiction featuring a lesbian detective called Sabiha Bano. Though barely four- and- a- half pages, it makes clear why Bano’s exploits were so popular in 1970s Pakistan (and frankly, why Jaipur Literature Festival organiser Namita Gokhale baulked at Khan reading it aloud at a festival gathering that included schoolchildren). Here is Bano eyeing the possibilities on a bus: “…the daughter — about 12 or 13 — was still too young for purdah. I looked at her small breasts and could feel the taste of guavas on my tongue, a taste I hate. I prefer oranges, fresh, round oranges.”
The rest of the volume, sadly, contains nothing half as steamy as Challawa. But there are many fine stories by talented new writers. Sadaf Halai’s marvellously understated Lucky People deftly evokes a milieu of hunter beef sandwiches and maths tuitions and its distance from the world of spinach quiche. A much grimmer urban world emerges from Sarwat Azeem’s tale of a doll’s wedding. Childhood and the loss of innocence are also the subject of Aziz A Sheikh’s consummate The Six- Fingered Man, set in a strife-torn but still magical Kashmir. Despite the editors’ understandable (and nearly successful) effort to avoid self-conscious takes on the ‘big issues’, violence hovers often in the background. In To Live, a couple on a romantic assignation is shaken up by a bomb blast, while in Madiha Sattar’sRuth and Richard (perhaps my favourite), an ageing Pakistan columnist watches another blast unfold on a Manhattan television screen. Even so, it can only be described as deeply ironic that a long New York Times piece about Khan’s discovery of Challawa and its publication in this book is filed not under Books, or even Travel, but in NYT’s ‘At War’ blog.
TWO SUGGESTIONS: Ahmad Rafay Alam’s The Last Moghul of Shalimar is a superb piece of writing, spare yet atmospheric, which makes one wish there was more non-fiction here. And could the next volume contain more translations?