Pakistani women’s writing

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.

My review essay of three recent novels by Pakistani women–Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin–has just been published in the latest print edition of Himal Southasian. This isn’t available online for free–although many other great articles are on the Himal website–but hard copy and digital issues can be purchased on the website.

The same issue also includes an excellent review of Kaushik Barua’s Windhorse, a novel about Tibet, written by my friend and ex-colleague, Scottish writer Ross Adkin. Ross’ fiction has featured in an earlier issue of Himal.

Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.
Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.

Below is an extract from my review. I have also reviewed two of these novels, Bhutto’s and Khan’s, on this blog.

“For a few years, Pakistani English literature has been on the verge of a ‘boom’; not quite an explosion, but what scholar of contemporary Pakistani literature Claire Chambers has called a ‘flowering’. While the hoped for (from the Pakistani side, at least) equation with the Indian English literature boom that began around 30 years ago may be far from materialising, Pakistani writers are consistently bringing out new works, particularly novels, in English. Internationally best-known among them are Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, and if we are to include a British author for Pakistan (India claims Salman Rushdie, so why not?), Nadeem Aslam. But, this boom-set is not limited to male writers. A small crop of successful and acclaimed Pakistani female writers are creating significant work, including Uzma Aslam Khan, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie.

With Shamsie’s latest novel, A God in Every Stone, having been published earlier in 2014, her inclusion in Granta’s 2013 collection of the top 20 British writers under 40, the release of Bhutto’s debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in late 2013, and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin nomination for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, now is a good time to take stock of this ‘growth’ in Pakistani women’s literature by looking at three recently published novels: Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, and Khan’s Thinner than Skin.”

Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.
Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.

Lascar by Shahida Rahman (2012)

'Lascar' by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.
Lascar by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.

Cambridge author Shahida Rahman’s Lascar is an ambitious historical novel about a character from a specific section of the colonial-era underclass, Lascars. As Rahman explains in the brief introduction:

“Borne out of a rich and unique aspect of world history, the word ‘Lascar’ originally referred to a sailor from South Asia, East Africa, Arabia, South Asia [sic], Malaysia or China. Over time, the term has evolved to mean any servile non-European who toiled aboard British sea vessels.” (p. 11)

I found this very educational, because despite my background in South Asian history and literature, I had never come across this term before. Seafaring life of the past has a tendency to be Romanticised, unjustifiably, and Rahman, through the protagonist Ayan–a young Muslim Bengali man–demonstrates how Lascars were little more than slaves.

I had trouble, however, with how this novel had been edited. The numerous typos and incorrect word usage were one thing–I recognise that not all readers are bothered by such things as I am–but I felt that the plot progression, character development and nuances really needed more work throughout, and would have benefited from a couple more rounds of thorough editing. Time jumps forward rapidly at several points in the novel, leaving the reader quite confused about what happened in the intervening years. The characters–including Ayan, who does learn and develop somewhat as the novel progresses–are very one-dimensional, being either entirely good or entirely bad, morally. The language with which Ayan and his Bengali friends referring to white British people–and the way that the white British refer to him in turn–is overtly racist, as might be expected of the day, but is again very stark in its brutality, with little room for nuance. I recognise that the author was attempting to reflect the attitudes of the time, but there was something crude in the lack of grey areas. I also found it completely implausible that Ayan and his friends encounter a young, female Italian beggar in London who is fluent in Bengali. She serves a function in the plot–initiating them into British life at a time when they spoke no English–but she did not strike me as a historically plausible character.

Rahman clearly has a knack for plot, with so many events shaping the life of her protagonist, who has little choice but to be the object of fate. It is a shame that these were not edited into a more convincing whole, as there was the beginnings of something interesting in Lascar.

An extract from the novel can be found on Shahida Rahman’s website.

Concern for the Destiny of the Country

I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)

TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.

Update: 3 Quarks Daily reposted my article last week, a lovely and unexpected stamp of approval 🙂

The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.

“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”


Year of Reading Women

(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!

This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh (2013)

My review of This Side, That Side has just been published in Kitaab.


This is an ambitious and innovative production but, perhaps ironically for a collection clearly based around a single theme, lacking in clarity and purpose, says Elen Turner.

This book represents an ambitious project: to tell stories of the Partition of India through graphic narratives. It contains twenty-eight short pieces on different aspects of the Partition in 1947, from various locations. Present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all represented, and while most of the texts were originally written in English, a number have been translated from Urdu, Hindi and Bangla. The majority of entries are collaborations between a writer and an illustrator/artist, often in different locations, particularly across national borders.

Read the rest of the review here.

Review of Return of a King by William Dalrymple (2013) in Himal Southasian 26.2

My review appears in the print edition of Himal Southasian, 26.2. Below is an extract:

History repeating?

Dalrymple’s detailed look at the first Anglo-Afghan war hypothesises parallels between then and now. But how many of these pass muster?

Return of a king

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842, William Dalrymple. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 567 + xl pages. ISBN: 978-1-4088-1830-5

William Dalrymple’s eagerly awaited Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842, is the third of the author’s major historical works that looks at the British colonialists in Southasia from a hybrid British-Southasian standpoint. It is the history of a war that the Afghans never forgot, that still lives in their collective and folk memory, but which Britain wilfully consigned to amnesia. And perhaps for good reason, from their perspective:

At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialised colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation.

The Great Game was at its height in 1839, and Britain was increasingly worried about the threat Russia posed to their imperial hegemony in Southasia. In response to faulty or misconstrued intelligence that Russia was taking an interest in Afghanistan, Britain invaded the latter with an army of some eighteen thousand. They deposed the ruling Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, a popular leader even in some contemporary British accounts, after he seemed to be becoming too friendly with the Russians. His defeat seemed remarkably simple. Shah Shuja, a deposed rival of Dost Muhammad’s who had been exiled in India for many years, was installed by the British as a puppet ruler. Entering the country proved easy, but staying and convincing the Afghans that they had a right to be there did not. The occupation was unpopular with the Afghan people, and resistance gathered behind Dost Muhammad and his cohort.

The rest of the article is available in Volume 26 No 2 of Himal Southasian, available to purchase here.

The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, 2011

The Good Muslim

Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim is her sequel to A Golden Age, which I reviewed in December 2011. But calling it a sequel doesn’t quite do it justice because it surpasses her earlier work in complexity and strength. And while it could be said that with A Golden Age the Bangladesh War of Independence of 1971 provided a ready setting to which the characters responded, in The Good Muslim, Anam had to create a setting with no prompt.

Anam returns to her central characters of A Golden Age, Maya and Sohail, thirteen years on, but prior knowledge of them is merely helpful, not essential, giving The Good Muslim stand-alone strength. One of Anam’s authorial skills is to make the reader empathise with unlikeable characters. Maya is headstrong to the point of arrogance; so independent that she shuts out those close to her; she is politically engaged, but so idealistic that it she actually reaches back around the corner to naivete. Sohail, in this novel, turns to religion as solace for the horrors of the war he was part of as a young man in 1971. He is the good Muslim of the title, but “good” refers to pious, devout, rather than other readings of the word, kind, generous, pleasant. His is a religion detached from this world. Maya, on the other hand, “had taught herself away from faith. She had unlearned the surahs her mother had recited aloud, forgotten the soft feather of air across her forehead when Ammoo whispered a prayer and blew the blessing out of her mouth. She had erased from her memory all knowledge of the sacred, returned her body to a time before it had been taught to kneel, to prostrate itself.” (pp. 205-6)

The Dhaka of 1984 is very different from that of 1971. Bangladesh is independent, but is at risk of losing much of what was fought for, as a dictator has taken over. Many people have chosen to wilfully forget the lessons of the war, but Maya is determined not to let this happen more than it already has:

“Thirteen. Her broken wishbone of a country was thirteen years old. Didn’t sound like very long, but in that time the nation had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees of Modhupur Forest. A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.” (p. 103)

The knowledge of something that has been so hard-won slipping away with the realities of corruption, identity politics, and disenfranchisement is perhaps something that many who have been involved in revolutionary or socially transformative movements can understand, especially in this part of the world. I can understand Maya’s plight, intellectually and theoretically, but on a personal level, the level on which I reach her character, I cannot help but see her idealism as foolish. But perhaps this cynicism comes from never having been involved in something that has the potential to actually make the world, or a piece of the world, for some people, a better place. To see that slip away must be devastating.

Anam does not shy away from the big and painful issues, and she achieves power in this, I think, through her creation of such ambivalent characters. After the war, Maya had worked as a doctor performing abortions on women pregnant after rape. These abortions were not only sanctioned and encouraged by the government, but almost forced. Maya had seen her work as patriotic, as important as the guerrilla fighting that the men, her brother included, had done. The ethical question of the work aside—and this is not something that Anam treats lightly—Maya understandably wants to be given credit for doing what she could, as a young, educated woman, for her country’s freedom struggle, but is fighting dismissal from the men:

“When he [Sohail] asks her about her work at the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, she snaps, what, you don’t think women are victims of war too?
He thinks of all the people who have died—the enemy combatants, and the people he didn’t save, and his friend Aref, and all the boys who went to war and were killed. Every day he thinks of them. How very selfish of her to want a piece of that.” (p. 125)

After reading A Golden Age I wouldn’t have expected it to have a sequel, but here it is. I wonder if Anam’s next project will be a third in the series? I think there is still room for movement and growth with these characters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if something along these lines is Anam’s next offering, and I will watch closely for it.

The Good Muslim was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and for good reason, though it didn’t win.

[The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. First published in the UK by Canongate Books, 2011.]

Five Queen’s Road, Sorayya Khan (2009)

After reviewing Sorayya Khan’s Noor several months ago, I thought Five Queen’s Road would have a tough time living up to that beautiful book. But this, too, is a wonderful novel with much sensitivity, depth of characters, and careful plot exposition and layering. Sorayya Khan has earned her place in my top three South Asian writers active at the present (along with Githa Hariharan and Anjum Hasan).

Five Queen’s Road is set in Lahore and moves between July 1947 (Partition) and 1961. Dina Lal, a Hindu resident of Lahore, refuses to leave his city when so many of his community are fleeing. Against the better judgment of his wife, he purchases Five Queen’s Road from a departing Englishman. In an attempt to protect himself and his wife from potential violence, he converts to Islam and invites a Muslim family to live at the front of the grand house. Over time, Dina Lal and his tenant, Amir Shah, fall out, and a battle of wills develops between them. As the years progress–we are not shown them in a linear manner, instead jumping back and forth in time to have the progression revealed to us bit by bit–Amir Shah’s son, Javid, studies in the US and marries a Dutch woman, Irene. It is partly through her outsider’s eyes that we explore the complex relationships between the family members, the city of Lahore, and the house at Five Queen’s Road.

For those familiar with Partition literature, Five Queen’s Road might initially be compared to Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (though I do think Khan is a more sophisticated writer) in that the family home acts as a character in its own right, used as a motif to explore ideas of belonging, separation and attachment. Five Queen’s Road is passed from an Englishman to an Indian (who became Pakistani), so could be seen as a metaphor for all sorts of things. But, Five Queen’s Road is also different, as ultimately, the house is just a material object, it is the people who are attached to the house that matter more. Dina Lal is given strict instructions by the man he buys the house from on how to care for the garden, what should be in each room, and so on, but he willfully neglects to do any of these things.

Sorayya Khan is a very clever writer. I am easily irritated by the literary technique of jumping back and forth in time, as it is often a device used purely for the sake of it, because an author thinks that it may be more interesting than a simple linear progression of plot and narrative. But, Khan does it perfectly. Details of the characters’ lives are revealed gradually, and just as I would begin to wonder if I had missed something, not quite understanding why something happened the way it did, another piece of information from another time was added, making me realise I hadn’t missed something, that it was deliberate. This narrative technique also works well because this is not necessarily a plot driven book. Things happen, and these things are very significant, but the main focus is on the characters, their relationships with one another and with the world. By switching back and forth in time we are able to see how they were shaped, as people, by external events in their lives.

As with Noor, I have struggled to isolate a passage that could capture Khan’s writing adequately. Five Queen’s Road’s beauty lies in the overall effect, and I highly recommend readers discover this for themselves.

Noor, Sorayya Khan (2006)

Noor by Sorayya Khan is a beautiful book. And, as one of the first, and only, Pakistani novels in English to deal with the 1971 Bangladesh War, it is also very important.

The Noor of the title is the mentally disabled daughter of Sajida, a Bengali woman brought to East Pakistan as a young child during the 1971 war, and raised as a Pakistani. Sajida has forgotten much of her background, her language and family, with only dreams and fragments remaining to remind her of who she once was, and who she might have become had circumstances been different. But she has particularly vivid dreams, in which her long-dead mother comes to her in uncanny detail. With the birth of Noor, mentally disabled but more sensitive and intuitive than others, Sajida discovers more about her past than even she remembers. Noor also has an extraordinary artistic talent. As one of her only means of communication, Noor paints and draws her inherited memories of the massacres that her mother witnessed, but had forgotten and repressed for so many years. These memories have the potential to be explosive, as Sajida’s adoptive father Ali, Noor’s grandfather, was a West Pakistani soldier in East Pakistan/Bangladesh as a young man, and had done his best to bury the horror that he not only witnessed like Sajida, but was partly responsible for, too.

Part of Khan’s skill is in making the fantastic and the far-fetched seem completely natural. Noor, disabled, is rejected by her father shortly after her birth, but Sajida accepts her unwaveringly as an extension of herself. It is as this extension that we believe Noor is able to represent the inherited, repressed memories.

Along with the plot elements in which the imagination needs to be suspended are those for which it shouldn’t: graphic descriptions of rape, mass murder, barbaric nationalism and the ferocity of war. An indication of the controversial nature with which the Bangladesh War of Independence is still discussed can be seen in Khan’s introductory note, in which she thanks the many Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who shared their experiences of the war with her, but whom she could not name.

I have decided not to include a passage from the novel describing the horrors of the 1971 war in this review, because decontextualising them feels wrong. Noor is not a pornography of violence, and I do not wish to make it one. It reminded me, in some ways, of Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, in that it subtly builds up to something so shocking that it leaves the reader reeling. The graphic violence should be placed alongside the beauty of the relationships Khan portrays, relationships that can withstand secrets, repression and the knowledge of brutality, but only through compassion for the lessons learnt. Perhaps that is where the salvation lies for Ali, representative of West Pakistani crimes.

The suggestion is, then, that Noor represents the Pakistani memory of the war: repressed, but bursting to get out, be acknowledged, and properly atoned for; unspeakable, beyond language, as it is Noor’s paintings that dredge up the past, not her words; shameful, reconfiguring family and community ties. Noor’s father rejects her, as Sajida and Ali rejected their memories of the war, but only recognition of the trauma can allow the family, and the community, to grow.

Empowering Women? Feminist Responses to Hindutva

I’ve just had an article published in Australian academic journal Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific. It looks at two books on women and communalism in India, Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia’s Women and the Hindu Right (1995) and Atreyee Sen’s Shiv Sena Women (2007). It’s an open access e-journal and available at the following site: