June 27, 2020
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The Indus In Spate: A Book Of Omens

Granta luxuriates in the remarkable flourish in English writing from a land divided by the faultlines of extremism

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The Indus In Spate: A Book Of Omens
The Indus In Spate: A Book Of Omens
Granta: Pakistan

Edited By John Freeman
Penguin | Pages: 282 | Rs. 599

Granta has established a well-deserved reputation for the excellence of its contents. This, its 112th issue, is devoted to English writing in Pakistan and is illustrated by paintings and photographs of the country. The issue has been put together by John Freeman, an American who was appointed editor of Granta in May 2009 and had said in an interview then: “Culturally, financially, and metaphorically, we don’t live in an Anglo-American world anymore.... We need to find writers outside of the English language...especially the Middle East, Africa and Asia.” Freeman has put together a memorable issue, a must-read for anyone who wants to know the life, politics and literature of present-day Pakistan.

Some contributors are well-known: Intizar Hussain, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Fatima Bhutto, Basharat Peer, Kamila Shamsie and others. This issue opens with a long short story, Leila in the Wilderness, by Nadeem Aslam (pictured above). It is a masterpiece that gives a fair assessment of the mental make-up of the majority of today’s Pakistanis. It is about two feudal families with large estates comprising hundreds of villages located on opposite banks of the Indus, with an uninhabited island in the middle of the river. It is largely about Timur and his dominant mother, Razia, who dictates every action of her son and hordes of servants living in their mansion. She is a devout Muslim: for her every word of the Quran is the law. Their Christian maids are not allowed to touch the family copy of the holy book. She consults it for all decisions. She also consults The Book of Omens which is riddled with superstitions. She wears charms and amulets. She finds a good-looking girl named Leila from a poor family to be the wife of her son. Leila is expected to produce a son and heir: daughters are not acceptable. Two things they share with their neighbours across the river are hatred for each other and contempt for infidels: to fall in a jehad against India gets them a passport to paradise.

Nadeem Aslam’s long short story, Leila in the Wilderness, gives a fair assessment of the mental make-up of Pakistanis.

One early dawn Razia hears the call for morning prayer coming from the river. She sees a mosque on the deserted island. Who could have built it overnight besides Allah? Her son must grab it before their neighbours occupy it. And so he does. A small township of dhabas, shops and boatmen come up. If such a miracle can take place, Allah is sure to give Timur a son and heir. Preparations are made on a grand scale for celebrating the event. But Leila lets them down by producing a girl. Razia thinks there must be something lacking in her son’s semen. So she changes his diet. He tries again. Leila produces a second daughter and three more eventually. Leila then escapes to her home and lover. Razia finds another wife for her son. She does the same as Leila. Their world falls apart. Their neighbours take over the island, Timur falls out with his mother and then kills himself; the mosque catches fire and burns down. It is a lurid tale, well told and full of information.

Another masterpiece is Portrait of Jinnah by Jane Perlez, a Pulitzer prize-winner who was New York Times correspondent in Pakistan for three years. She writes: “There is little argument that Jinnah was personally indifferent to his religion—he drank, smoked, ate pork. He was so unaware of the religious calendar that he planned the inauguration-day banquet for Pakistan as a luncheon even though it was Ramadan and the guests would be unable to eat. (It was eventually changed to a dinner).”

Jinnah was Shia. He married a Parsi millionaire’s daughter who predeceased him, leaving a daughter who married a Christian converted from Zoroastrianism. He was a chain-smoker and suffered from terminal cancer when he took over as Governor-General of Pakistan and died eleven months later at the age of seventy-one. His vision of Pakistan was flawed. In his inaugural speech he said: “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” It is ironic that while the Qaid-e-Azam was making this pious pronouncement, millions of Hindus and Sikhs were being driven out of the Islamic state and over a million were slaughtered.

Granta: Pakistan is a compelling read.

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