Top 10 novels about Pakistan
From Mohammed Hanif to Kamila Shamsie, and some names still unfamiliar to English readers, here is some of the best fiction about a nation set to turn 70 this year
A while ago I emailed a Pakistani news editor, introducing myself and pitching a column. He replied promptly saying that while we hadnt met, he was well acquainted with my work. In fact, when his Australian girlfriend had asked him to recommend a book to help her understand Pakistani society better, hed handed her my comic satire, The Diary of a Social Butterfly. The relationship, he wrote, had ended soon after. He neglected to mention whether he deemed my book culpable but, for the record, he did not offer me that column.
I had better luck with my Indian editor. Travelling with her American boyfriend, she gave him my second novel Duty Free as a useful guide to the lives and loves of desi society. He spent a good part of the holiday, she recounted, reading my novel and chuckling to himself. They are now happily married. I cannot claim that my book played a decisive role in sealing that relationship but let me just say I was invited to their wedding.
Suggesting a work of fiction by way of an introduction to a country or society is always going to be a subjective business. But on the eve of the first ever Karachi literary festival in London, Ive drawn up my highly personal list of 10 works of fiction about Pakistan.
1. Mottled Dawn By Saadat Hasan Manto
When, in August 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned, millions of Hindus and Sikhs left their ancestral homes in what had become Pakistan and trudged toward India, while Muslims made the opposite journey. The partition was scarred by an eruption of unspeakable sectarian violence. Hindus and Muslims, amicable neighbours for centuries, fell upon each other in an orgy of rape and bloodletting. Manto, then an urbane scriptwriter in cosmopolitan Bombay, saw the savagery up close. Migrating to Lahore in 1948, he channelled his rage and despair into a stream of Urdu short stories that are among the finest ever written in any language. On the 70th anniversary of Pakistans cataclysmic birth, there can be no more important or sobering read.
2. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmed
The eponymous falcon is Tor Baz, the love child of a chieftains daughter and her fathers servant, who witnesses the brutal murder of his parents for daring to infringe tribal laws. Set in the region that forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan todays Af-Pak, in US state department speak these interconnected stories chart the uncompromising code of honour that shape the lives of the tribes who have inhabited this harsh land for centuries. Once a civil servant, Ahmed served here for in the 1950s and his spare, unsentimental stories have the unmistakable ring of truth.
3. Shame by Salman Rushdie
Sandwiched between his two most famous books, Midnights Children and The Satanic Verses, Shame is a neglected gem. Depicting a country that Rushdie says is and is not Pakistan, it charts the fateful clash between its democratically elected leader and his obsequious, pious general and eventual hangman. It is an astute, gleeful, political tale in which Rushdie dazzles with his prodigious gift for satire.
4. The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa
Freddy Junglewallah, an ambitious, quick witted Indian villager, bundles his wife, infant daughter and mother-in-law into a bullock cart and in quest of fame and fortune heads for cosmopolitan Lahore. Once there, Freddys rise to prosperity and prominence is swift. His ambitions for his children, however, come a cropper. Bawdy, poignant and funny, this is a charming saga of a Parsi family.
5. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
In August 1988, General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistans dictator and loyal American ally, met an abrupt end when his plane exploded in mid-air. Conspiracy theories abound, but the cause of the crash remains a mystery. In his 2008 satire, Hanif offers an explanation. It involves Ali Shigri, an air-force pilot who is seeking revenge for his fathers murder, it also features smooth CIA spooks, saturnine generals, blind prisoners and a tender love story between two cadets. So convincing is Hanif on detail he is a former air-force pilot that retired army officers have often taken him aside and whispered: Son, who are your sources?