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from the June 2009 issue


Yesterday afternoon in a Lahore hospital I met a young policeman who could neither talk to me nor see me. He was lying patiently on a bed in Gangaram Hospital's Intensive Care Unit. He had just shown up for work when a car bomb exploded outside his office, just off the city's main artery, the Mall Road. The building collapsed and shards of shrapnel pierced his eyes and tore away his lips. Doctors had stitched up his lips and his right eye. His other eye was hidden behind layers of bandages. The car bomb had killed more than twenty people and injured scores of others.

Pakistan has of late become synonymous with such acts of violence by terrorists and with stories of military gunships pounding distant villages as they hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Hundreds of civilians have lost their lives and around two million have been displaced in the latest, ongoing phase of fighting in the Swat valley.

At such a critical moment in the history of Pakistan, when people are clutching hard to hope and few are finding it easy to speak of this country of 170 million with a degree of nuance, I found it a real education to be the guest editor for the Pakistani fiction issue of Words without Borders. I have visited Pakistan only a few times, but I have lived next door most of my life, in the disputed Kashmir region in the Indian-controlled part and thought a lot about it. Pakistani literature is a sum of the literatures written in its various languages: Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, and English.

In the past few years, a wave of brilliant Pakistani short-story writers and novelists writing in English have earned great acclaim across the world, telling the stories of their land and people in different genres and voices. Daniyal Moeenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is an exquisite collection of short stories, bringing to life feudal Pakistan, its seductions and struggles; Mohammad Hanif's Case of Exploding Mangoes is a savage satire on life in the military and on the late dictator General Zia-ul-Haq; Mohsin Hameed's Moth Smoke gave us the subcultures of the young, upper-middle class Lahore and his Reluctant Fundamentalist grappled with questions of terror, suspicion, and fundamentalism.

But there are writers who have inspired and paved the way for the young Pakistanis writing in English, writers whose work in Urdu, the official and most-spoken language in Pakistan (it is also spoken widely throughout northern India and Kashmir), brought alive a Pakistan that has been invisible to those who don't read Urdu. I studied most of those writers growing up in Kashmir, at college in northern India, and in a sixth-floor library stack in Columbia's Butler library. And many doors opened.

My very first choice was an essay by the greatest living Urdu short-story writer, Intizaar Hussain, who has spent most of his life deciphering the meaning of the partition of British India into the nation states of India and Pakistan. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Republic of Pakistan in 1997, Hussain wrote an essay, "The First Morning" about his moment of arrival in Pakistan as a refugee from India in 1947, wherein he look backs at his journey from a small town in northern India to Lahore.

The engagement with a past which goes beyond contemporary national boundaries comes alive in Ashraf Sabuhi's story His Majesty, set in the Delhi of his ancestors, evoking a now-extinct way of life, filled with leisure, romance, and honor.

As in life, humor and pathos share space on the bookshelves. Urdu has a great tradition of satirists, and one of the funniest and most wicked of them all, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, had to be chosen here for his story "The Monthly Ulloo."

And we return to the real with the work of Fahmida Riaz in her short story "Pink Pigeons—Was it They Who Won?" translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, who has done more to bring Urdu literature to an international readership than any single human being. Among Memon's other exquisite translations are The Essence of Camphor and The Snake Catcher, both by Naiyer Masud. We also include Altaf Fatima's poignant and humorous reminiscences in her "Do You Suppose It's the East Wind" and Asad Muhammad Khan's whirlwind Pathan family epic "The Man with Three Names," also in Memon's commanding translations.

My selections are a very small segment of the corpus of Pakistani literature. And reading such masterly work has allowed me to see Pakistan as a place and society far more complex and layered than the news headlines make us believe.

Read more from the June 2009 issue
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