In 2007, when Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist got shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it did for Pakistani fiction what Coke Studio did for the country’s music—the story of Changez, living the American dream but gradually disillusioned by it after 9/11, brought with it a new wave of Pakistani fiction that caught international interest, and got critical acclaim. In 2008, Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the Booker and received the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2009. In 2011, H.M. Naqvi won the first DSC prize for South Asian literature for Home Boy, his first novel. Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and her novel A God in Every Stone was shortlisted for the 2015 Walter Scott Prize. Her seventh novel, Home Fire, was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize. Hamid’s latest, Exit West, is in the Booker shortlist this year. There are many more—Nadeem Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Intezar Hussain—riding the wave of Pakistan writing in English, each telling a different story, but there’s one thing common to all of them—they publish from India.
Most of these stories, which have travelled the world, have started their journeys from Indian shores. “Pakistani authors looking at publishing in India has always happened piecemeal, but now it has picked up in substantially greater numbers,” says Ranjana Sengupta, associate publisher, Penguin Random House, India. Ameena Saiyid, managing director of Oxford University Press, Pakistan, attributes this increase in numbers to the shift in the writing genres that has happened post the ’80s. Writers in Pakistan, she says, were primarily known for their poetry, but then the preferred literary mode shifted to prose, and this shot up the number of writers in English dramatically. “Global success and international awards have also played a big role in popularising the English fiction genre, and opened up prospects of publishing for closet writers in Pakistan,” says Kanishka Gupta, literary agent.
Of course, given the restricted publishing environment in the country, all of Pakistan’s fiction writers, whether big or small, have looked out for publishing, and as the US and UK markets can be quite insular, they have made India the most sought-after publishing ground. Shandana Minhas’s first novel, Tunnel Vision, was published in 2007 by Roli Books, India. The author’s account of what it is like to be a woman in a man’s world just couldn’t find any takers in Pakistan. Minhas has written two other novels since, both have had Indian publishers. “What is being published by the older publishing houses in Pakistan is a bit like the postcolonial last sigh. And the lack of new publishers is due to laziness, nepotism and intellectual poverty,” says Minhas. This year Minhas started her own publishing house, Mongrel Books, to promote English fiction in the country. Publishing options in Pakistan are very scarce, and the English language-publishing scene is worse off, Oxford University Press being the only press of repute. “And we focus only on academic and non-fiction writing,” says Saiyid. India, then, with its robust publishing industry, is the most accessible for writers there.
Inspired from a fight at home, Ayesha Tariq’s graphic novel Sarah: The Sup-pressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter also failed to find a publisher in her country. “The book challenged too many norms and might have upset people,” says Tariq. These are cases where the risk involved in publishing a book also becomes a deterrent, and fear of censorship leads to authors looking out of Pakistan. “Thanks to the well-entrenched alliance between the conservative and religious parties and the army, liberal thinking in Pakistan has been fading. Criticising the military is deemed treason and the radicals’ agenda blasphemy. Hence, it’s not surprising that the country has become a dangerous place for writers, activists and journalists,” says A.K. Asif, whose book Hell! No Saints in Paradise, inspired by the assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, looks at religious extremism in the 21st century. Asif, who lives in the US, says the saturated publishing market in the West led him to venture into India. When Osama Siddique began hunting for publishers for his book Snuffing Out the Moon, he did not want to compromise on the narrative, or make it another subcontinent dystopia—a popular theme in the West. “It has been an extremely smooth ride at Penguin India,” says Siddique.
Even for controversial subjects, Indian publishers are known to be more daring than elsewhere in the world. Sabyn Javeri’s first fiction title, Nobody Killed Her, taking off from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, first found a publisher in the UK. But when the draft went for a legal read they shelved it, citing libel suits. “I remember my UK editor telling me how it is such a paradox to have a woman as prime minister of an Islamic country,” says Javeri. But the idea of the book was to critique the paradox, she says, something that she realised publishers in India understood. Cultural affinities and shared histories ensure that writers find an understanding with Indian publishers that is not equalled in any other country. “The streets of Karachi can easily be the streets of Mumbai. For me, the book is home there,” says Sami Shah, whose novel The Boy of Fire and Earth was recently published by Pan Macmillan, India. Anam Zakaria’s The Footprints of Partition is a collection of tales of the two countries after Partition. “Pakistan and India were therefore the ideal markets for the book, and given that the few publishers in Pakistan were all very cautious of what they publish, India was the best possible alternative,” says Zakaria. For Siddique too, publishing in India was not simply an expediency since he was looking to communicate with the South Asian audience as a whole. And India’s flourishing publishing industry ensures widespread distribution globally.
For all these writers, India is the next best option to being published at home. “It is understood that a book published in India will find its way to Pakistan,” says Asif, who chose to publish in India not only because of the lack of opportunities elsewhere but because he knew his target audience was primarily in these two countries. Zakaria too mentions that publishing in India essentially means having access to both markets. “And if it does well in the subcontinent, the chances of it getting noticed outside are better. Often, Indian publishers act as agents and find publishers for the work abroad,” says Renuka Chatterjee, VP publishing, Speaking Tiger. Many like Hamid, Shamsie, Hanif, have split rights between India and the UK, the US, or both.
India’s publishing industry is an old one, where publishing books from Pakistan has been a long-standing practice. And the recent successes have ensured an exponential increase in interest in both publishing and readership where these books are vying for equal space alongside Indian titles. “But the steep number of books competing for space means that sometimes certain books go unnoticed or get quickly forgotten,” says Teesta Guhasarkar, consulting editor, Pan Macmillan, India. Saiyid also mentions the lack of smooth and sufficient supply of books in Pakistan itself, and high price points, which often leads to piracy.
For Pakistani writers, finding Indian publishers is not a problem. But everything else to do with the book after signing the contract is. It all depends on what the current temperature in the two countries’ blow-hot, blow-cold relationship is. “The biggest disadvantage is the way something as simple as transferring money or getting a visa is held hostage to politics,” says Minhas. “And then there is the trouble of over 20 per cent taxes being deducted because I am not an Indian citizen,” laments Zakaria. Javeri laughs as she remembers taking headache pills after disturbed internet calls between Karachi and Delhi. Mailing material proved to be quite expensive too, points out Tariq, a steep Rs 6,000 per pound. Visas to travel to India are hard to come by and therefore promotional tours, book launches and participating in literary festivals can all be tricky.
The Pakistani publishing industry is at a very nascent stage, and while all involved believe it is a big loss given the country’s talent, there is hardly any solution in sight. There is little to negligible focus on English literature, especially fiction. “Irrational tariff structures and no regulatory oversight make printing a real issue, distribution is quite a challenge, as is piracy,” says Minhas. Unless big publishing houses set up shop in the country, and more literary agents come up who can help authors, especially new talent, Pakistan writers will look abroad. “More awards and festivals can help boost the literary environment in the country and the small reading audience. And something as simple as ensuring prices are given specifically to work being published locally can go a long way,” says Saiyid. But there has been a change with the coming in of independent publishers who are looking to promote the country’s talent, and all believe that’s a rich pool. “Restrictions suggest that there is a repository of unheard voices to be discovered,” says Guhasarkar. Literary festivals, new bookstores, writing and reading groups are all helping change the landscape, but there is still a long way to go. For now, as Javeri puts it: “In Pakistan, journalism shouts, books whisper.”