The literary history of Pakistani languages, of which there are several,. including Punjabi, Sindhi and
Pashto, is quite old and rich. All the regional languages have their masterpieces and important works
that have held dialogues with the time and a place they were created in. These works in the hands of
a skillful scholar and translator measure up to the best in the world. The popular Western
understanding of classical pre-Pakistani (Indian) literature as being only oral is grossly inadequate.
True, most of the old texts were memorized by storytellers and singers, but they were also written
down and these works then found their way to the libraries and collections of literate people. Most
were written not by wandering dervishes but by writers and intellectuals of the time and one finds in
them a sense of history, an awareness of political undercurrents, shifts in literary tastes, negotiation
and play with languages, genre and style, and a lively dialogue with past literary traditions. If there is
an unmistakable influence of Persian in Damodar’s Heer written in the seventeenth century, Waris
Shah’s Heer written a hundred years later shows an amazing sensitivity to the native roots of the
Punjabi language and the wide area it was spoken in, a creative response that verges on nationalism.
Refreshingly, the reader of classical Punjabi literature also comes across a stunning lack of inhibition
towards sexuality and what today’s pundits of morality and culture call vulgar language.
Then, all of a sudden, it seems, the literary trail ran into a brick wall.
In South Asia, one of the most harmful legacies of colonialism has been the gradual loss of intimacy
with the traditions of one’s own soil and culture, history and literature, which are always changing
and evolving. The evolution and change reflect a continuum. Colonialism seriously disrupted that
continuum. The Urdu writer Intizar Husain loosely refers to the period of colonialism as the era of
discontinuity. This fact of gradual loss is truer, and more tragic, with respect to the anglicized class,
and of the class that dreams itself as anglicized, which ended up in the driver’s seat after the
And thus it is that students in Pakistani schools have ample opportunity to read and understand
Shakespeare’s plays and poetry as part of their curriculum, whereas a work like Heer by Waris
Shah reaches people in distorted forms through ‘folk wisdom’ or movie versions, which are often
grossly off the mark. For example, the most quoted and sung verse from Waris Shah’s Heer,
‘doli charh deyaan maariyaan Hear cheekaan (Heer cried as she mounted the bridal palanquin)’
is not from any of the reliably authentic versions of the epic. It was perhaps a late addition made
some two hundred years later by a petty scribe or poet. But only a handful of people who happen to
be serious readers of classical Punjabi are aware of this.
During my last trip to Lahore I listened in awe to one of my nephews as he discussed Dickens’s
David Copperfield in great detail. I was impressed and a bit disturbed. He is only twelve years old
and goes to one of the elite schools of South Asia. When I in turn told him that the countless
translations of The Arabian Nights had had a tremendous impact on British literature and that
Dickens’s fiction was a departure from the literature of his time partly due to this influence, he
seemed uninterested. It is safe to assume that if I were to engage him on the subject of an important
Pakistani writer or a work of classical Punjabi, say, Puran Bhagat, he would be at a total loss, a fault
not entirely of his own making. I myself was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that the
neighbourhood of Icchra in Lahore is actually named after Puran Bhagat’s fictional mother.
Only ten years ago I could go on and on about Kafka and not be able to say a word about Naiyer
Masud or Bano Qudsiya. This is the situation all over the country. Now consider another case in
point. My fifteen—year—old niece, a bright girl and an avid reader of fiction in English who stays
clear of pulp unlike most of the English—reading public in Pakistan, could not relate to a well—
received anthology of Pakistani short stories in Urdu assigned to her by her teacher at a
non—convent, truly modern, Americanized school. After reading a few stories she almost wept, in
Urdu, ‘Yeh kya hai (what is this?)!’
Qurratulain Hyder, the winner of the jnanpith Puraskar in 1991, points out in a preface to another
anthology that ‘Indian literature of the nineteenth century was largely an extension of Victorian
literature.’ With the passage of time, our educated classes found it easier to relate to the social and
psychological landscape of the Western metropolis than to their own culture. Rather like the
protagonist in Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful novel Shadow Lines who, among other things, is fascinated
by the stories about London his cousin Tridib tells him. Indeed, he knows the entire landscape of the
house he has never visited before and demonstrates that to May (who loves Tridib) when he visits
her. (Of course, Bengal was the first place in India to be fully colonized, militarily and culturally. So
the reverse Orientalism of Shadow Lines serves as poetic justice.) Yet the reverse swing (unlike in
cricket) is achieved in the end at a far higher cost than realized: at the cost of a crippling disconnect.
This is a serious problem which affects all aspects of our lives in South Asia, from education to
politics, from the status of women to social justice for the disadvantaged. The postcolonial era should
have been an era of overcoming the disconnect. Most South Asian governments, however, have
neither the intention nor the imagination to fix this problem. It is, then, up to the individual to take up
As I began to question my own relationship with my culture, history and language[s], I realized that
sometimes it is pertinent to re-educate oneself in order to reconnect with one’s past.
The process of re—acquainting, I must confess, started many years ago as I claimed my dual
Pakistani—American identity. It was the subtle racism that permeates every walk of life in the United
States that first nudged me to rake up my roots and restore to myself some sense of self-esteem. I
did so by going to the local public library to see which South Asian writers’ names showed up on the
shelves. I found a smattering of names: Ghalib, Tagore, Iqbal, Premchand, Manto. (I would discover
later that these were the names that always showed up), and yearned to know more. The first
window that opened up to me was The Colour of Nothingness, an anthology of Urdu short stories
edited by Professor Memon (Penguin). The world it revealed to me was so immense that I felt it
would take many lifetimes to explore it. In time, I translated Urdu writers like Naiyer Masud and
Intizar Husain and taught myself to read the Devnagari script so I could read Hindi fiction. Training
myself to read Punjabi literature in Shahmukhi, a Punjabi script older than its Gurmukhi counterpart
but which, surprisingly, has never been taught in schools in West Punjab, was another comic—tragic
journey of love and longing. But it was a pleasure to finally be able to read a wealth of modern
Punjabi literature from both sides of the border.
When I was asked to edit an anthology of Pakistani short fiction for Penguin India, I wasn’t sure at
first if was fit for the job; however, I was painfully aware of the importance of such endeavour and
the near absence of anthologies of Pakistani literature. The handful that exist are dominated by a few
big names. (I found Asif Farrukhi’s Fire in the Autumn Garden a refreshing turn in this regard.)
Besides, I knew it would give me the opportunity to acquaint myself with Pakistani literature in
languages other than English. The unfortunate fact is that most modern Urdu writers living in the
Pakistani side of the Punjab know virtually nothing of their fellow writers in Punjabi. This further gives
birth to the attitude that nothing is being written of merit in languages other than English and Urdu. I
have always believed that anthologies which highlight literatures in other than state—sanctioned
languages go some way towards rooting out ignorance and mistrust and in the process accord
humanity to others. This anthology then, among other things, also aims in a small measure to
reconnect modern Pakistani literature to its literary past. This is not an attempt to deny the influence
from outside (Western or otherwise), but to provide a wider perspective and strike some balance in
the reader’s mind.
Luckily, I never accepted Rushdie’s argument regarding the inferiority of ‘vernacular’ literature as
opposed to its English counterpart. As I started gathering stories for the anthology, I knew I was
going to face hurdles he too might have faced had he seriously sought after con temporary Indian
literature in languages he is not acquainted with. The hurdles include the difficulty of accessing
different literatures, of reaching out to people who have a thorough knowledge of the literature (at
least contemporary) In a particular language, then choosing the right stories, and finally connecting
with people who could translate from these languages into the target language, which in this case is
English. Considering all of the above, Mirror works Fifty Years of Indian Writing appears, with all
due respect to Rushdie, to be a parody of a serious literary effort. It was more a service to the
publishing industry than to the readers.'
Not being based in Pakistan, I too found my task to be doubly difficult. But the world of e-mail and
internet, among other loyal friends, came to my rescue and saved the day.
I am delighted that at least half of the writers in this book are being anthologized for the first time, and
many of them have been translated for the first time. Eleven out of fourteen stories have been
translated exclusively for this volume. Talat Abbasi wrote In His Own Time for this anthology upon
my request, as a sequel to her much acclaimed Mirage.
Putting together an anthology presents the inherent problem of having to sometimes leave out writers
you admire. Tahira Naqvi, Khalida Husain, Bano Qudsiya, Noorulhuda Shah, Afzal Ahsan
Randhawa, Masud Ashar, Anwar Sajjad, Ahsan Wahga and many other writers whose work I
would have liked to include, had to be left out in order to give space to newer voices. Also, I found
out it was much easier to access stories from those writing in English and residing outside Pakistan.
Being a writer in English myself, I have as friends many of these writers, among them Javed Qazi and
Tahira Naqvi. But I made a painful decision to include only those who have not been widely read
and anthologized. My sincere apologies to Tahira and javed and others who deserved to be
The anthology also reflects a move away from parochialism. If Asad Mohammad Khan’s story is an
ode to humanity against the backdrop of the Bhopal tragedy, then Sorayya Khan’s piece explores a
child’s dreams that intertwine with her mother’s memories of East Pakistan. Fahmida Riaz’s
intellectual—from— the-East is sexually attracted to a Jewish professor in Berkeley and Azra
Waqar’s protagonist journeys into the heart of the Bangladesh tragedy.
Above all, I have attempted to include stories that resist being exotic and easy, written for mass
consumption, a trend very popular in the United States. Such stories, with the complicity of editors
and agents alike, refute the reader’s intelligence. Admittedly, I am guilty of making it a little harder for
the reader and offer my apology in advance. Roland Barthes has suggested that there are two kinds
of writings: readerly and writerly. Readerly writing is for the purpose of pure entertainment, and
assumes that the reader is not very intelligent. A writerly text, on the other hand, makes demands and
forces the reader to engage with the text to re—construct a (new) meaning of her own. Balzac, too,
has said that a serious reader raises herself at par with the writer. This is the journey I have
envisioned. I hope readers are willing to undertake the journey with me.
No book, and this is especially true of anthologies, is brought to fruition single—handedly — rather,
it is born of the collective effort of many invisible hands. I’ve been encouraged in my work, helped
and assisted, time and again, by close friends and total strangers alike. One of these strangers did
everything in her power to introduce me to the wealth of Punjabi literature, and together we selected
and translated stories and got in touch with writers. And now she, Amna Ali, the daughter of the
noted Punjabi poet and fiction writer Nadir Ali, is married to me.
My thanks to Asif Farrukhi, Shereen Masud, Raji Pillai (as usual), Pratibha, Ramon, Stewart at the
African American Centre at the San Francisco Public Library, jim and Terry, Ajmal Kamal, Asad
Mohammad Khan, Balaji, Ashu Lal and Elizabeth Bell for lending a helping hand, whether it was for
getting in touch with a writer, proof-reading, or listening to me read rough drafts time and again. This
book is a fruit of their labour as well. Finally, my special thanks to Mridula Mohindra, my editor at
Penguin, for painstakingly going over the entire manuscript and really improving the quality of the final
product. And I thank you, Karthika, for having faith in a complete stranger, But in the world of
literature strange things have been known to happen from time to time. Thanks.
Back of the Book
An eclectic selection of contemporary short stories from Pakistan
A Letter from India brings together the best short fiction by some of the most important voices of
Pakistani literature. Refreshing in their style and diverse in their themes, these stories-in English, and
translated from Urdu and Punjabi-reflect a move away from nationalism and parochialism as they
examine issues of identity, sexuality, individual freedom and interpersonal relationships.
If Intizar Husain’s ‘A Letter from India’ presents us with an insight into the psyche a of a
family torn apart by Partition (and the consequent loss of a family tree), in Asad Mohammad Khan’s
‘The Squatter’ we discover pure and simple human love that doesn’t lend legitimacy to religious
barriers. In Nadir Ali’s ‘Feeqa’s Death’ the protagonist’ dream becomes a device to reflect forces,
while Zubair’s ‘The Door Is Open’ manipulates dreams to deconstruct personal fear and family
tyranny. Sorayya Khan’s and Azra Waqar’s stories speak of the lingering pain and guilt that seep
into individual lives from national tragedies left unquestioned and unexplored. And while ‘Spots’
humanizes social outcasts, Ashu Lal’s ‘Mangoes in the Time of Winter’ critiques the decadence of
Bold, sensitive and intricate, this collection is a timely reminder of the rich diversity of
Pakistan’s multi-ethnic society.
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