On pakistani fiction in india: Outlook, as far as i remember, never printed it
Kamila Shamsie’s first novel In the City by The Sea (1998) announced the arrival of a new generation of Pakistani authors in English. Writers like Shamsie, who’s also written Salt and Saffron (2002) and Kartography (2004), Mohsin Hamid, author of the acclaimed Moth Smoke (2000) and Uzma Aslam Khan, author of Trespassing (2003) and The Story of Noble Rot (2001) all grew up in Pakistan in the 80s, went to the US for their studies and now divide their time between their homeland and the west.
Ironically, though, while these young Pakistani fiction writers in English are more connected to their homeland than most of their illustrious Pakistani-origin predecessors, their literary success in the subcontinent originates mostly from India.
And this isn’t just because the Indian market for books is many times the size of the Pakistani, or that fiction publishing in English is rare in Pakistan, or even that English isn’t as all-pervasive across the border as it is in India. For Pakistani fiction writers whose Indian subcontinent publishing rights have been bought from their western agents or publishers by Indian publishers, a ban on importing fiction from India means that their books cannot be brought to Pakistan.
“We sell twice as many copies of Pakistani authors in India as we do in Pakistan,” says VK Karthika, executive editor, Penguin Books India. “There’s a decent publishing market in Pakistan, but much smaller than in India. English hasn’t become so much of a prized middle-class possession there, and there are also problems in retailing and distribution.”
According to Serial no. 376, Appendix B of Import Trade and Procedure Order SRO (2000) of Pakistani Customs, only technical, professional and religious books are importable from India. Which leads to the strange situation that a lot of new Pakistani fiction, published by Indian publishers, cannot easily be read by Pakistanis in Pakistan.
“Protocol is fairly straightforward in the book trade,” says Zamir Ansari, general manager sales and marketing, Harper Collins Publishers, India. “Often, publishing rights for the entire subcontinent get sold to India. This has a long history, Pakistan was earlier not a signatory to various copyright conventions like the Bern Agreement, but a lot has changed in recent years.” He points out that these restrictions work both ways, which is why we don’t get to see much of the best Urdu literature from Pakistan; when these Urdu titles are allowed in, for book fairs, they get snapped up immediately by Indian buyers who don’t have access to them normally.
A very positive aspect of the Pakistani book industry, feels Ansari, is that Urdu, Punjabi and Pashto books are displayed side by side with English books even in up-market urban bookstores, unlike in India. But, says Khan, in Pakistan English writing will cease to be resented by the reading public only after “we recognize that the state may be young but the land is ancient and has known many diverse cultural influences that cannot be summed up as Eastern or Western.”
What definitely has changed in recent years is the face of Pakistani fiction writing in English. Pakistani writers have produced several works in English comparable with any in the world, from Zulfikar Ghose’s The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967) to Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters (1980). Half-Pakistani Hanif Kureishi won the Whitbread award for The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) – a long way away from writing porn under the pseudonym Antonia French to support himself through university. But most fiction writers of Pakistani origin who achieved success in the West so far, from Tariq Ali to Adam Zameenzad, were settled abroad and dealt with expatriate concerns, and were slightly dislocated from Pakistani readers – very few Pakistanis have read Nadeem Aslam, who won the Betty Trask Award for The Season of the Rainbirds (1991) written when he was 25. But Shamsie, Hamid and Khan write of and for an urban Pakistan that is easily identifiable, and recognize the reality of an ever-changing, constantly evolving home that diaspora writers deal with less.
Down the years, Pakistani publishers have largely ignored Pakistani English writing, probably because the tiny size of the market made publishing even more risky in a language still resented in most parts of the country. The two main English publishing houses in Pakistan are Oxford University Press and Islamabad-based Al-Hamra Books. Added to this risk is the threat of piracy, which is rampant in the book industry in Pakistan. Kamila Shamsie knows her books do well, but “It’s really hard to have accurate figures because there’s so much book piracy. Part of the reason for the sad state of the market is the sad state of publishing. OUP was briefly publishing fiction, but no more. They still publish me, but that’s because my books get taught in schools and so fall under the heading of text books.”
Mohsin Hamid recalls seeing many copies of Moth Smoke in several roadside bookstores in Lahore and Islamabad. “Unfortunately, these copies were all pirated, so I have no actual sales figures for my novel in Pakistan.” His UK publisher, Granta, sold South Asian rights to Penguin India, so Moth Smoke didn’t have a Pakistani publisher. “This was a big mistake, due to my own ignorance. I think Penguin was unable to get copies of the book to Pakistan and piracy was the result. I hope next time to get separate publishers in Pakistan and India for my next book, but I knew too little about the process when Moth Smoke was published.” His views on the banning of book imports? “Ridiculous.”
The Pakistani distribution of Uzma Aslam Khan’s politically charged second novel, Trespassing, has been very problematic too. Shipments of the book arrived in Karachi part and were detained by customs because of import restrictions. “It is absurd,” says Khan, “Cross border understanding through literature is strictly forbidden. A story is more dangerous than an atom bomb.” She still hasn’t seen the Indian edition in Lahore, but has seen the UK hardcover edition. “There’s no law banning the import of fiction from Britain, only India. Madness! So sales here are probably a fourth of what they are in India. I should move to India.” In a time when governments are taking several steps to bring the nations closer, from cricket to fashion, she finds it perplexing that literature is ignored.
So vigilant is Pakistani Customs that every title being imported is examined thoroughly – educational books and college textbooks don’t count as books importable, as they’re not ‘professional’ books, so even in the educational field only books about teaching skills qualify. And it takes special permission from the Ministry of Commerce to let certain titles through – Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History was allowed into Pakistan in 2003 after receiving this permission.
But Shafiq Naz, founder and managing director of Alhamra Publishing, feels the situation is not so bad. “Occasionally an over-zealous customs officer might make use of some ambiguity in the law to block certain categories of books. But it is extremely rare and I am confident that the book trade between India and Pakistan will further increase with the improvement in relations between the two countries which we are witnessing these days.”
He isn’t the only one feeling upbeat. “It’s a pretty exciting time in Pakistani fiction at the moment,” says Shamsie. “In the last few years more and more writers are coming up and I see that number increasing in the next few years. At the moment there’s little sign of the increasing success of Pakistani writers translating into an improvement in the publishing scene – but I hope that changes.”
Hamid concurs “Pakistani Fiction feels a bit like Pakistani fast bowling did in the 90s; full of potential and ready to take off.”
Maybe it’s time to open those cartons rotting in ports and let Pakistani fiction free.