VIEW: Literary legacies —Saleem H Ali
Even though I was a science student and later majored in chemistry and environmental studies during my university years abroad, the value of what I learned in my literature classes has never diminished because they gave me the most useful insights into human nature
In times of crisis, literature flourishes as writers find catharsis in the flow of words. Poetry and prose alike are being produced with fervour by young Pakistanis at home and abroad and are finding traction with book agents and literary magazines. Only recently, I read a fictional essay by a Pakistani author in the famed literary magazine The New Yorker, with the unlikely title of “Nawabdin Electrician”. The author, Daniyal Mueenuddin, poignantly portrayed the challenges in the life of a rural technician contending with class structures in society and stratification within his own family. The piece stood out for me, partly because most other contemporary Pakistani English writers have tended to focus on the elite experience that is so distant from the lives of most Pakistanis.
Let’s take the example of Mohsin Hamid, perhaps the most successful Pakistani author this year in terms of book sales. Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is more polished in prose and stylistic maturity than his first one (Moth Smoke). Using the retrospective monologue as his narrative medium, Hamid has crafted a post-9/11 reflection of a young Pakistani male torn between his adopted identity in America and his ethnic lineage. However, like the protagonist of Moth Smoke, the Reluctant Fundamentalist is also part of the Pakistani elite and must therefore be considered as a minor representation of culture and society in Pakistan. Indeed, even among the expatriate community, the character of Changez, as a debonair management consultant transformed by workplace woes in New York, is highly rarefied.
The smart play on the word “fundamentalist” that Hamid employs compares Wall Street “fundamentals” and “bottom-line” culture with the simplistic linear reasoning of the religious fundamentalists. But here is where we find the most significant missed opportunity of the novel: absent from the narrative is any cogent reflection of theological underpinnings of fundamentalists cultures, apart from Changez’s decision to grow a beard. Perhaps because of Hamid’s own secular persuasion, he has conflated anti-imperialist sentiments of many secular Pakistani youth with “fundamentalist culture”. The result is a rather misleading narrative about the contemporary problems of fanaticism that have far more to do with a vacuum of political identity and influence than with a pretentious crisis of conscience.
Instead of such self-indulgent prose, we need more writers to capture the experience of Pakistani society in its most elemental arenas — from within the walled city of Lahore, the bazaars of Peshawar or the slums of Korangi. This would certainly be more challenging for Anglophone Pakistani writers who tend to live rather isolated lives, and view such places from tinted windows of air-conditioned cars or the perches of fashionable restaurants like Cuckoo’s Den. How then will we convey authenticity of Pakistani life to a Western audience?
One possibility would be for all elite Pakistani schools to require their students to perform community service in the more impoverished parts of the city in which they reside or in rural areas. The students could be asked to subsequently write reflective essays on their transformative experiences of helping to build latrines in a village or installing a simple filtration system for drinking water faucets in a slum.
Some of the best writings from students in America emerge after they have spent time in harsh conditions overseas — such as the Peace Corps programme that was initiated by President Kennedy more than four decades ago. Through such immersion experiences, writers are endowed with empathy rather than sympathy, which is undoubtedly the best recipe for effective communication.
Yet even if we are able to get such experiential education and community service, there is another problem for the future of good literature in Pakistan. People are spending less time reading literature for pleasure or as part of the curriculum. Almost twenty years ago when I was a student at Aitchison College in Lahore, English literature was offered as a regular subject at “O” and “A” levels along with Urdu literature. Now most schools, including Aitchison, have dispensed with offering English literature as a separate class (only offering English language and comprehension) and the syllabus in Urdu literature has also been greatly reduced, with many students opting to take the easier versions of the syndicate offerings to avoid poetry and more challenging literary works.
Even though I was a science student and later majored in chemistry and environmental studies during my university years abroad, the value of what I learned in my literature classes has never diminished because they gave me the most useful insights into human nature. The most effective scientists are always those who can understand our most basic human impulses and communicate effectively — Carl Sagan, Sherwin Nuland or Jared Diamond to name a few.
There was also a tradition among notable politicians to read literature as a routine and consider writing their memoirs as a literary legacy at the twilight of their careers. While President Musharraf has admirably followed some of that tradition by authoring a book (perhaps prematurely), the goals and quality of the work are not meant to be of literary value such as those of Winston Churchill. Even the ghost writers of books are no longer trained in literary appreciation and the output is thus rather turgid and terse reading.
It is high time we consider literature as not just a preoccupation of arty intellectuals but a fundamental attribute of good education. After all, complex communication in oral and written form is what differentiates us most singularly as “advanced animals”.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: email@example.com