A question that I am frequently asked is why a Pakistani Muslim would be interested in Guru Nanak or other aspects of the country’s non-Muslim history and culture that I have studied and written about copiously. It is a question that I struggle to answer satisfactorily. Even when asked with sincerity, almost with a sense of pleasant surprise, it is a question that has begun to annoy me. For it takes the focus away from my writing and puts it on me, the author.
The question, as I interpret it, places me within the story, so that the point I am making about, say, Nanak’s philosophy becomes much less important than what I am saying about it as a Pakistani Muslim writer.
It started with one of the first interviews I did about my book, Walking with Nanak, with an international media organisation over two years ago. It has been a key theme of the talks and conferences that I have been invited to over the years to present my work – the “Muslim narrative” or “Pakistani narrative” on Nanak. But it is not the narrative I had in mind when I first started studying Nanak. It is a narrative that has been imposed on me, on my work. And I am not alone in suffering this.
Years ago, my wife Anam Zakaria and I were sitting in a Delhi bookstore talking to its owner about the publishing industry when a casual customer walked in and joined the conversation. When the shop’s owner introduced us as visiting Pakistani authors, her immediate reaction was that she was done reading about the Taliban and the War on Terror, so would not be interested in our work.
It is a sentiment that is widely echoed in Pakistan’s literary circles now, especially after the recent boom in Pakistani writing in English. Many feel that since those writing in English cater to a particular audience, mostly abroad, the subjects they choose do not “truly represent” Pakistan or its society; their topics are dictated by global demand, which has boxed in Pakistan and its writers.
Thus, in this view, writing in English from Pakistan should be about Islamist extremism, violence against women or the polarisation of the society. So, when Musharraf Ali Farooqi, for example, published The Story of A Widow, he broke out of these silos. In a public talk he recalled how his publishers wanted to title the novel “The Story of A Pakistani Widow”, but he flatly refused. Her Pakistani identity had nothing to do with the story, he insisted.
How much do Pakistani writers conform to this imposed narrative? It is a difficult question to answer. There are of course market pressures. Certain kinds of books that fall into these categories are likely to sell more, posing a big dilemma to their writers and publishers. I would be lying if I said I have not used this same narrative to market my research.
Now, is it problematic for writers to operate from within these marketable categories? Not necessarily. Many writers, in fact, place their work in these silos to invite gaze, then expand the boundaries or erase them completely.
This is what Mohsin Hamid does to an extent in his first book, Moth Smoke, where he lays the foundation of a dystopian society and using that explores another, often ignored, aspect of the society: polarisation and class privilege. Daniyal Mueenuddin does it beautifully in his short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Since then, however, this theme has become a cliché and almost essential to what’s “expected” of writing from Pakistan.
It is the gaze that I too tried using in my first two books, A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities and In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan. Within the narrative of rising extremism and violence in the country, I wanted to tell these beautiful stories of minorities asserting their religious identity through festivals and of Sufi shrines defying our conception of how a Muslim society should be. So even as the background remained about religious tolerance, these stories challenged the simplistic binary of tolerant and intolerant societies.
This, however, is not what I was trying to do in Walking with Nanak. This box then of a Pakistani Muslim writing about Nanak comes from outside, fashioned by an assumption and expectation of what a Pakistani Muslim should write about.
This categorisation of my work brought media attention and curiosity of readers, which I cannot complain about, but there is something unsettling about these assumptions. It imposes expectations and limitations that many of us as writers are constantly challenging.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.