Language, Identity, and Pakistani Writing in English

by Claire Chambers: Language has an important role to play in national identity. One only has to think about the Shaheed Minar in Dhaka. As its name suggests, this monument commemorates what many Bangladeshis view as the shaheeds or martyrs of the Bengali language movement who were killed in Bengal in 1952. The history of West Pakistan’s linguistic imperialism contributed significantly to the 1971 War and the creation of Bangladesh out of Pakistan’s former East Wing. 

However, in the context of present-day Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent more broadly, the relationship between language and nation is a complex and contested question. The English language continues to exert a tenacious hold over the subcontinent. In the decades immediately before and after Partition, the majority of South Asians, especially leftists, rejected the use of English for creative purposes, positioning it as an elitist, colonial tongue. For instance, article 4 of the Manifesto of the Progressive Writers Association (1936), sets out the radical authors’ goal ‘to strive for the acceptance of a common language (Hindustani) and a common script (Indo-Roman) for India’. Tellingly, though, this manifesto was drafted in the Nanking Restaurant off Charing Cross Road in London, signalling the inescapable hold of the English language despite the group’s grassroots aims.

Far from making a political choice to write in English, many writers who were educated in the ‘English-medium’ system in Pakistan or Anglo-American countries up to the present have English as their strongest language. As a character in Aamer Hussein’s Another Gulmohar Tree remarks, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you’. The continuing power of English also arises because in the subcontinent there is no single language that has universal support. I do not forget the possible exception of Bangladesh already discussed, but even in that Bengali-dominant country, Urdu speakers are a beleaguered minority upsetting the linguistic equilibrium.

Given this diversity, English is an important lingua franca and has accreted to itself a certain neutrality despite the colonial past and neocolonial present. In India, for example, many Indians in the south of the country prefer English. These south Indians view Hindi as the colonizing language and resent the northern Indian tongue’s imposition in schools when they argue that children could be more usefully learning a global language.

What is more, since the time of B. R. Ambedkar, Dalit writers have often privileged English over what they view as a hopelessly caste-ridden Hindi language. In her book English Heart, Hindi Heartland, Rashmi Sadana even writes about one anti-caste journalist and activist Chandrabhan Prasad, who celebrates Thomas B. Macaulay’s birthday every year to honor the British statesman’s championing of the English language as the best vehicle for Indian students. In his famous ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), Macaulay, a parliamentarian and colonial member of the Supreme Council of India, had bloviated that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’ and that Indian systems of astronomy and other sciences ‘would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school’. This textbook example of colonial arrogance is hard to defend, but Prasad’s provocation indicates that almost two centuries after this ‘Minute’ other imperialist faultlines exist that have little to do with the West.

While next door in Pakistan Urdu perhaps has more purchase and affection than Hindi does in India, the courtly language of ghazals is still seen as oppressive in certain ways and from some quarters. Proponents of the four provincial languages of Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, and Pashto often bemoan Urdu’s dominance. And strident linguistic and political movements have grown up around, for example, the languages of Siraiki (think of calls for a separate province to be created out of south Punjab) and of Pahari (especially among diasporic communities in the UK).

There has been a flowering of Pakistani fiction in English over the last two decades. It has received much news media coverage, and great critical attention when compared to the scant material on the subject before the 1990s. Pakistani writers, most of them living or educated in the West, feature prominently in the international literary scene as award winners or nominees, bestselling authors, festival speakers and, increasingly, topics for research students and critics. The success, borne out by multiple prize awards or nominations, of such novels as Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers and The Golden Legend, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West, Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows and Home Fire, led to bidding wars and high advances for writers like Ali Sethi, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Fatima Bhutto. The 2011 edition of Granta, issue 112 on Pakistan added to a sense of publishers and academics moving away from the fashionable Indo-chic of the 1980s and 90s towards grittier, post-9/11 ‘renditions’ of Pakistan as the eye of the storm in the War on Terror. Some of these writers, despite different backgrounds, exhibit the ability to live in a liminal intellectual space between global south and global north, which percolates through their writing. 

There are problems with the present high profile of Pakistani writing English, which includes the creation of a two-tier system whereby big names like the writers cited above hoover up book deals in the centers of New York and London while the large published-in-India cohort struggle for sales and recognition. Not only that, but Pakistani writing in the global literary marketplace has the appearance of a boys’ club (the only really established figure among Pakistani women writers is Kamila Shamsie, despite the talent of Uzma Aslam Khan, Bina Shah, Moni Mohsin et al.) Read the whole entry >>