A worldwide pandemic that hurled the publishing industry into a crisis was a damaging blow to Hoori Noorani’s small, Karachi-based independent Urdu press, Maktaba-e-Danyal, which focuses on publishing progressive fiction, non-fiction, and poetry with a special emphasis on books in translation. But it wasn’t even the biggest crisis they faced in 2020.

On the night of January, Hoori Noorani got a call from her manager, who informed her that the offices of Maktaba-e-Danyal were raided by men claiming to be from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, an important institution of the military. The men confiscated about 260 copies of Kashif Raza’s Urdu translation of Muhammad Hanif’s English novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. They also wanted to get the list of booksellers who had already stocked the book. In the next few days, the book disappeared from bookshops. It’s impossible to buy it anywhere today.

Hanif’s novel was originally released in English by a London publishing house in 2008 to wide acclaim. Following the satirical tradition of Latin American novels about dictators, Hanif’s novel depicts the last days of the military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq. The book includes comical portrayals of the dictator and also features queer characters. It was longlisted for the Man Booker and won the Commonwealth prize for best first novel.

Over the phone, Hanif, whose characteristic style of dark comedy and cutting satire have fuelled his fiction, told me in a mocking tone that is all too familiar to his readers: “The book vanished. It was never officially banned. It just went missing.”

Hoori Noorani told me that she had never experienced anything like this in over thirty years of publishing: “I don’t think things were this bad even in Zia-ul-Haq’s time. Back then, in the eighties, we published all kinds of leftist and dissident books, and we definitely encountered problems, even momentary bans in specific regions, but we never went through something like this.”

Maverick publisher

It is important to understand the history of Maktaba-e-Danyal to fully appreciate the space they occupy in Pakistan’s publishing landscape. Hoori Noorani’s late father, Malik Noorani, established Maktaba-e-Danyal in 1967 to promote and publish progressive Urdu literature.He was close friends with many progressive writers before migrating to Pakistan, and after migrating he tried to build solidarity between writers and scholars on both sides of the border by publishing them under one umbrella. Hoori Noorani has continued this mission as well.

As a result, Maktaba-e-Danyal can be proud of their distinguished publishing history, which includes some of the biggest names in progressive Urdu literature from India and Pakistan: Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sajjad Zaheeer, Qurratulain Hyder, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sibte Hasan, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, Fahmida Riaz, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, and Jeelani Bano.

In addition to their interest in literature and theatre, both of Hoori Noorani’s parents were members of progressive and communist political groups. Her late mother, Mumtaz Noorani, served as the president of the Pakistan Democratic Women’s Association. Hoori Noorani recounts a childhood that was spent around revolutionary writers and activists like Habib Jalib and Hasan Nasir: “I became politically conscious from a young age. There were always leftist writers and revolutionaries visiting our house.”

Such an upbringing fundamentally shaped her political and literary views. By the time she finished her schooling, she was intensely curious about different traditions of Marxism around the world. She decided to go for a Master’s degree in philology and literature from Friendship University, Moscow: “When the time came for higher studies, I chose not to go the way of my brothers who were studying in the US. I said I wanted to go to Russia. It was a political decision, yes. I had already become involved in student politics. I wanted to learn more about Marxism and socialist politics around the world, but I was also extremely interested in Russian literature. I was inspired by great Russian writers like Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Pushkin.”

Moscow introduced her to Russian literature, but it also shaped her long-lasting interest in translation: “I read a lot of French literature and African literatures in Russian. It was a transformative time in my life. I met people from other regions in Asia, lots of students from India and Nepal and Sri Lanka, also from Latin America, from Africa. The world was opening up to me.”

Soon after Hoori Noorani returned, her father fell ill and passed away. Due to her interest in literature and left-wing politics, she wanted to continue the work he had started with Maktaba-e-Danyal. However, her father didn’t have time to prepare her for the job before he passed away: “He died too soon for me to learn too much from him. I slowly got the hang of things from studying his files and his letters. Thankfully, I inherited the tremendous goodwill my father had earned and also a wonderful list of authors.”

Literature in translation

One of her first projects upon her return was a translation of the play, Interview in Buenos Aires, by the writer, Genrikh Borovik. Set after the assassination of Allende, the play revolves around a journalist’s conflicts with a fascist dictatorship. It was hugely popular once, and it was performed all over the world, but it is largely forgotten today like much of Soviet literature.

“I thought it was very relevant to Pakistan’s situation in the ’80s. I don’t know how it passed the censors at the time, but I don’t think they understood it,” she laughed. Her translation was used for performances by the Dastak Theatre Group during the peak of the Zia era. Noorani was heavily involved with the theatre group, and they also staged other politically relevant plays by writers like Brecht and Gorky.

Working as a translator allowed Noorani to gain an even deeper appreciation of translations and initiated a long-term commitment to publishing translations through Maktaba-e-Danyal. The press publishes translations of French and Russian literature (some recent translations include works by Milan Kundera, Amin Maalouf, and Tahar Ben Jelloun) alongside the classics of Urdu progressive writing. More recently, they have also started publishing translations of contemporary English novels by Pakistani writers.

When the novelist and translator, Kashif Raza, approached Hoori Noorani with the translation of Hanif’s novel, the manuscript had already been languishing with another Urdu publishing house for many years. Hanif suspected that they were delaying the publication due to the controversial nature of the book, and Raza and Noorani eventually convinced him to publish the translation with Maktaba-e-Danyal.

Muhammad Hanif.

“The English novel had already been out for nearly a decade,” Hanif told me. “I had not encountered any threats of banning or confiscation, so I wasn’t expecting anything to go wrong with the Urdu translation either.” Maktaba-e-Danyal went ahead and published the book in September 2019 and launched the book at major literary festivals and bookshops. The translation sold extremely well and Noorani started preparing for a second edition towards the end of the year. Around this time, they received a legal notice from Zia-ul-Haq’s son, who informed them that he planned to sue them for defamation.

Noorani was not shaken by the legal threat. She had never claimed that they were publishing a historical work or that their representation of Zia-ul-Haq was truthful. But before she could respond through her lawyers, the office of the publishing house was raided, and the books were confiscated. Since then, the incident has been roundly condemned by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Local media outlets as well as international media outlets like BBC, NPR, and The Guardian have reported on the incident. The book is still “missing”.

The confiscation of the book resulted in unanticipated losses for the publisher. Hoori Noorani had spent a long time editing and marketing the book. Suddenly, the physical copies of the book along with the publisher’s investments disappeared in thin air. And soon after this, the pandemic hit Pakistan with full force.

And then the pandemic

As a result, the publishing house was forced to close down for nearly three months. Noorani relies on a small staff and she did not want to expose them to precarious working conditions. Her manager is a heart patient and he was extremely vulnerable to the fast-spreading virus. Other staff members travelled on public transport, which was completely shut down during the lockdown.

“Almost three months of no business,” she informed me. “All I could do was work on some manuscripts that were in editing and proofreading stage. Thankfully, the lockdown happened right after the festival season. We had sold some work in book exhibitions and conferences during the first few months of the year, so we had some money in the bank to keep us afloat despite the confiscation of Hanif’s book and the pandemic. We were able to pay our staff for three months when we couldn’t open. I was very thankful for this.”

During this time, the publishing house developed a better model to market and sell the books online. They significantly expanded their online presence and started catering to online customers with a more refined internal infrastructure. The digital market has been rapidly growing for Urdu publishers over the past couple of years – many publishers now routinely take orders online or on WhatsApp and deliver books to the doorstep. The pandemic accelerated this development even more and Maktaba-e-Danyal did not want to be left behind in this critical process.

The publishing house also began considering other models, like print-on-demand and yearly subscriptions. Print-on-demand is an attractive option for them due to their huge backlist that includes many bestsellers, but also includes important, necessary works of progressive literature and literary history that have now gone out-of-print. Hoori Noorani has spent a lot of time assessing these different options this year, partly due to the confiscation of Hanif’s book and partly due to the unprecedented effects of the pandemic. “I think the book industry will have to change significantly in the near future,” she told me resolutely.

Maktaba-e-Danyal is gradually getting back on its feet. They are planning new editions of older books as well as exciting new releases. I spoke with Kashif Raza, the translator of Hanif’s book and a leading Urdu novelist, whose novel, Chaar Dervesh Aur Ek Kachhwa (“Four Seekers and a Tortoise”), also published by Maktaba-e-Danyal, won the 2020 UBL Fiction Prize, one of the biggest prizes for Urdu literature. He told me that “the publication of my novel’s second edition was delayed for months due to the pandemic. It was recently released and I’m very happy that things are slowly starting to gain momentum again.”

Noorani is also looking forward to publishing new works by Urdu writers such as Sameena Nazir, Salman Haider (who himself went “missing” for more than twenty days after airing critical views about the military online), and Julien, whose latest collection of stories Derrida, Haramda (“Derrida, You Bastard!”) seems to be next in line. Noorani is also hopeful about publishing Urdu translations of English novels by Uzma Aslam Khan and Omer Shahid Hamid.

However, there is little optimism in the literary industry under the repressive publishing landscape in Pakistan, which has only become more authoritarian since the confiscation of Hanif’s book without any notice or warrant. The Punjab Assembly has banned books on religious history by Leslie Hazleton and the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board has banned a hundred books for being anti-national. Book trade with India had already stopped due to rising political tensions between the two countries.

Bilal Zahoor, the editorial director of Folio Books, another left-leaning independent publishing house, wrote in Dawn: “In the case of Pakistan’s hybrid regime, the ruling elite in Punjab seem to view the existing stockpile of repressive materials in the constitutional inventory as not yet sufficient to carry out the national project, and feels that more is needed to achieve complete hegemony over people’s collective imagination.”

The repressive policies with regards to publishing are only reflections of the larger political changes happening in the country. Journalists and political activists are routinely censored and even abducted. Enforced disappearances have become one of the biggest political issues in the country, especially in Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

When I asked Hoori Noorani how she sees the current political and literary landscape in the region, she responded: “If these kinds of practices become standard, it will be very difficult to publish any critical work. The sad part is that it’s not just happening in our country. It’s happening all around the world. There is increasing authoritarianism. It’s happening in our neighbouring country, India. It’s especially scary to see what’s happening in India because they have a long secular and democratic tradition. They were an example for progressives here. We used to take inspiration from them.”

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.