South Asian fiction has clearly understood the assignment. Emerging from the socio-political anxieties of a people with a shared and continuing history of conflict and trauma, much of recent South Asian fiction has taken to plugging the gaps in state-sponsored narratives / statistics / histories. At a time when the past is being willfully excised from school textbooks to suit political narratives, Tahira Naqvi’s The History Teacher of Lahore attempts a redressal of gaps and fissures.

It tells the story of Pakistan in the 1980s, post the trial and execution of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the appropriation of absolute power by General Zia-ul-Haq, leading to a radical Islamisation of the country. In the epigraph to her introductory chapter, Naqvi quotes Sartre: “Oppressed with countless little daily cares, he had waited...For an act. A free, considered act; that should pledge his whole life, and stand at the beginning of a new existence.”

Her protagonist Arif Ali, teacher, poet, and idealist, inhabits this exact persona that of an only-too-ordinary young man who yearns for a more meaningful existence, and having found one, succumbs to its tragic inevitability. The novel does not set out to be redemptive. It does not promise hope. Instead, it shines a light on the state of education and its impact on the youth of the nation, as well as the danger of bigotry that plagues our collective social and cultural spaces.

Literature and politics

Growing up in Sialkot, Arif makes the acquaintance of Kamal Ahmad, his friend’s uncle, and an obvious outlier. Kamal has rejected social norms, a substantial family inheritance, and the middle-class quest for success. A formative influence on Arif, Kamal throws open the world of poetry, philosophy, and politics to the young man. Arif’s as yet simplistic questions about politics why was the army in Pakistan always trying to wrest power from the people? Why did Pakistan and India hate each other so much? When would the fight over Kashmir cease? begin to find nuanced responses in the literature he reads. “Literature and politics,” he concludes, “were like cousins courting each other and at any given time a marriage seemed imminent.”

This function of literature as a crucial lens on politics becomes one of the key concerns in the novel. Drawing on her extensive experience as a translator, Naqvi bolsters her narrative with snatches of poetry Iqbal, Tagore, Bulleh Shah, Zaheer Kashmiri and popular Hindi film music, including the 80s pop sensation Nazia Hasan’s, deemed haram by the General’s government for its exuberance and the concomitant promise of rebellion. Arif’s own poetry traverses the range of love, social commentary, and protest. Literature, thus, serves as a witness, a medium of protest, and also a vehicle of change. Arif says, in describing the work of a poet arrested for his activism, “This too is history. Unerasable in its imprint.” Literature is history, and will not be shushed away, is the clear signage.

When the reader first meets Arif, he is a history teacher at the Government Model School for Boys, Lahore. Having moved away from the parental home in Sialkot, he lives alone, prepares lessons, grades assignments and “suffers” faculty meetings. A chance meeting with Kamal propels Arif into the thick of Lahore’s political discontent and dissent. In helping Kamal with taking a young Christian boy to safety from the fallout of the Blasphemy Laws, Arif brushes against the full force of the Islamisation that threatens all secular and liberal values of the country he has grown up in. Hesitant to take on a fully activist role himself, Arif begins to question all that he had once taken for granted.

The slaughter of a nation

He sees afresh the surveillance all citizens are subject to, not just by structures of the state but also by the self-appointed moral police that informs on and reports all perceived misdemeanours against the religion. The narrative builds a comprehensive picture of increasing claustrophobia, a prevailing sense of fear that grips the nation. There are public floggings and brutal punishments in this dictatorial regime. The rights of minorities and women are severely eroded.

The text refers to the Hudood Ordinance where the onus of “proving” rape was put squarely on the victim and four Muslim men “of good standing” would need to appear as witnesses to the crime, and to the Women’s Testimony Law which decreed that a woman’s testimony was only worth half of a man’s. Together, these laws effectively shut down all prospects of justice or redressal for crimes against women.

The regression and intolerance that Arif recognises at his workplace and elsewhere pushes him to re-examine the state-sanctioned history textbooks he was teaching from, identifying in them what he calls “the slaughter of history”. The books assigned by the Ministry of Education had efficiently erased the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic aspects of Pakistan’s history, creating instead, a narrative that was meant to inspire nationalistic confidence and glorify what was termed “Muslim heritage”, at the cost of historical accuracy.

Arif’s crisis in Lahore of the 1980s is easily that of neighbouring countries as well as certain Global North Goliaths in 2023, where history has been re-visioned and redacted in the interests of majoritarian pride. The refusal of American schools to teach Critical Race Theory, or the excision of mediaeval history from Indian textbooks, is not particularly different from the refusal of Arif’s school to teach the history of the sub-continent and that of the Partition. Arif wants to offer his students the truth, not distortions and embellishments. He sees this systemic failure of education as responsible for creating a generation that has normalised religious and sectarian intolerance and has consequently validated the oppression of those who already lack both power and privilege.

The History Teacher of Lahore is not, despite all of the above, just a solemn study of the inequities of Pakistani politics. It is the coming-of-age story of a protagonist caught in the flux of a changing national imagination. It has in it an old-fashioned, epistolary romance, love that overcomes obstacles of class and sectarian difference, heartwarming friendships, a fair smattering of references to popular cinema, novels, and poetry (confluences which often hint at the shared influences and culture of India and Pakistan), a short but sharp sub-plot critiquing the interfering South Asian extended family, and an affirmation of human generosity and kindness in the face of extreme hostility.

It is, however, crucially, both commentary on, and exposition of the role that literature plays in making history accessible to those it has been obfuscated for. In its pursuit of truth and poetry, it reminds me of what Arundhati Roy said in her 2019 Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, “The place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When it’s broken we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter.”

Naqvi’s story of Lahore and this one, ordinary, history teacher is literature that is needed.

The History Teacher of Lahore, Tahira Naqvi, Speaking Tiger Books.