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A Pakistani story

Publication Date : 24-10-2012


In a BBC interview about her novel "The God of Small Things", Indian author Arundhati Roy was asked a familiar question: “With all your talent and gifts, why do you not choose to tell "good" stories about our part of the world?”

The implication of the question, cleverly sandwiched as it was between congratulatory phrases about Roy’s success as an author, were clear: an Indian author should not expose the cruelties of caste, infidelity, exclusion and emotional silence; she should focus on the rich culture, colourful festivals, stories of henna and mangoes.

Roy’s answer was just as clear: “I do not work for the tourism department.”

The exchange is instructive for anyone who writes or has considered writing about South Asia, and perhaps also for anyone writing in any of the impoverished corners of deprivation in today’s world. In the geographical blindness of the Internet, where every word is accessible to everyone, the task of representation has indeed become a complicated one.

On one side is the glaring burden of the many unarticulated realities, all those secret sins and cruelties that need to be told: the sweeper punished for angering the spoilt millionaires, the women sold as settlements in tribal vendettas or the mentally ill lynched by mobs.

On the other lies the onus of telling the "good" story, to avoid the bristling rebukes of readers such as the one who confronted Roy — children of a culture uncomfortable with the exposure of the dirt beneath and inside.

The choice is complicated by the realisation that for all inhabitants of impoverished lands who want the "good" story, the raucous celebration of colour, festivity and hospitality which they would like to attach as adjectives to themselves, there are just as many dwellers in lands of abundance who want the "bad" story.

These readers who live in developed luxury require a slum in a story about India, child soldiers in stories about Sudan, and terrorists in stories about Pakistan. Their expectations for a helpless story, a poor story, are just as oppressive as the demand for a "good" story.

Together the burden of these expectations can cow any writer, since all their choices of topic and complications of character come to represent not something in themselves — tools for a story or situation — but devious selections of who one has chosen to please. In the case of Pakistan, thrust into the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons, these allusions become even more problematic.

A story about child brides in the tribal areas ends up doing all the wrong things. The Pakistani reader will read and lament and, based on the sheer repetition of such realities, move on, perhaps to the news about the latest prodigy with 14 As in their O-level exams — that is, the "good" stories.

Elsewhere, others will provide just as predictable a response, reading to substantiate their own conclusions: a woman without healthcare in Ohio can feel better thinking about the girl shot by the Taliban for being on a school bus.

Even amid all these vexations, the task of telling the Pakistani story was never more pressing. With either side so happily settled in its patterns, never has there been more of an imperative to rattle an existing discourse and insist on telling a story about neither and both at the same time.

A possible strategy for such a mischievous revolution is to use the strategies of storytellers past. One of these, as exemplified by Charles Dickens in his work on the grim London of the industrial era, was an abandonment of data and an embrace of empathy.

A plethora of facts, figures and the rational argument aped from policy briefs may be good enough strategies for tolerable times, but fall desperately short of invoking anything but apathy in the ones we confront today.

The immigrant workers toiling in a meat-packing plant were interesting to no one until Upton Sinclair made them so in The Jungle. Perhaps victims of factory fires, burned, mourned and now forgotten, could be revived in the same way. If everyone has abandoned fact then fiction can take up some of its burdens.

Of course, these are all Western examples from Western novels and we are all secure in our aversion to those; but as one Chinese entrepreneur says in the recent book Factory Girls, copying can create an empire when it is done with any sense (he ran a school teaching Chinese factory workers just enough office skills to turn them into secretaries).

Perhaps a lesson from the Chinese in using whatever is necessary wherever it may come from in the world is something Pakistanis can digest.

The present would be a good time to do so. More than any other time in its existence, Pakistan needs stories: stories that revive the individual, that are geared not to change the mind of the policymaker or the media pundit but the ordinary person who looks and listens and will one day feel.

The target for the Pakistani writer is neither the "good" story nor the "bad" story or even perhaps the most accurate story, but rather the story that can break through the calcified armours of denial, apathy and self-interest that perpetuate the Pakistani cult of disinterest.

The Pakistani story, then, is the only rescue not simply for Pakistan but its image in the minds of Pakistanis. When there are too many Pakistani stories to count, of trash heaps that were treasure troves, of falling in love in visa lines, of hailing rickshaws to get to one’s own wedding, of teaching a great-grandmother to use a cellphone — with so many stories there will no longer be any "good" stories or "bad" stories about Pakistan.

In that moment, Pakistan will escape both the insistence of those who wish to hide the dark, the grim and the ambiguous and those that underscore the helplessness, the pain and the poverty. Any story about it will be, simply, a Pakistani story.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


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