What is Pakistani writing? Whatever it might be, it seems to have taken up newsprint lately. Things have been changing quickly and irrevocably over the last seven or eight years: a great symbol of American capitalism was destroyed by two aeroplanes; this was followed, some years later, by a crash in the market no less resounding and sudden; in South Asia, Pakistan (marginalised and nearly abandoned by post-Cold War politics) has been veering between being a frail democracy and becoming a basket case. In no obvious way connected to all this, a handful of Anglophone writers has recently been emerging from that country. Most of them are young, and have written one or two or three books; some, like Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, have successful careers and lives elsewhere. Their work is not part of the long 20th century; they are not a necessary component of a post-colonial efflorescence, as Indian Anglophone writing appeared to be in the 1980s; they are not in any clear way a part of a national literature; they do not bring with them the promise of offering to the reader the ?sights and sounds? of what used to be, in Kipling?s time, North-West India. They are a 21st-century phenomenon, appearing at a time when the new supposed fundamentals of this century ? free-market dominance, the end of history, the clash of civilisations ? suddenly seem frayed and ephemeral. Pakistani writers are interestingly poised: implicated in both the unfolding and the unravelling of our age.
Who, or what, are the antecedents of this present lot: Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Moni Mohsin, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie? The answer ? given the multilingualism of South Asia, its histories and enmities, its experiences of modernity and colonisation ? has to be a complex one. [...]
If we were to make a case for a Pakistani aesthetic, in the way that a case for an Indian aesthetic was once made by people like the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, and then reformulated in postcolonial terms after Midnight?s Children, we?d have to use different rhetoric from the sort that has haunted a certain view of the Indian arts for a century. Salman Rushdie has been an iconic figure to at least some of the writers I?ve mentioned (and some have been blurbed by him), but they treat their cultural inheritance in a different way. For one thing, they?re largely, and enigmatically, silent about that inheritance and aesthetic; for another, their work ? heterogeneous though it is ? doesn?t send out the message, as Rushdie?s did (through markers in the writing that sought to establish continuities with carefully chosen texts like the Ramayana and The Thousand and One Nights), that the impulse towards the epic dominates South Asian storytelling. If anything, the miniaturist?s impulse, with its attendant craftsmanship ? which has as valid a lineage (some would argue a richer one) in Indian aesthetics as the epic ? determines the texture of many of these new works. But even to begin to make a case based on cultural characteristics would be disingenuous, partly because the works themselves resist such an argument, as does the culture itself, with its own tradition of eclecticism and contradictory borrowings.