Granta 112: Pakistan
I was not looking forward to the new issue of Granta on Pakistan. I worried about opening it and finding it looked like some compendium of war reportage. But what I saw when I opened the envelope made me laugh, and it has been a long time since anything about my home country has done that.
The cover of this issue looks like one of the trucks that careen around Pakistan’s roads like some madman’s joke. They are always overloaded, belching black smoke, and as you make your way past, hoping that today will not be the day one falls on you, you catch a glimpse of Pakistan—a flower or a mountain or a building or a leaf—and that image stays with you.
The madman, it turns out, is Islam Gull and, by giving him the cover, Granta invites us all to take this overbalanced, barely road-safe vehicle and try to navigate Pakistan through it. The journey the magazine takes you on may not be as wild as a journey on a Pakistani truck, but it does try to be as kaleidoscopic.
The impressive list of writers doesn’t shy away from the many low points in Pakistan’s history and politics: Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who Islamicised Pakistan; Benazir Bhutto and the failure of democracy to bring change; the endless war in Kashmir; Faisal Shahzad, the most famous Pakistani-American according to the New York Times; the rise of the Taliban; and even the beheading of Daniel Pearl, fictionalised by Mohsin Hamid. Division and nuance run through the magazine. Hamid voices this in “A Beheading” in a raw cry of: “Who the fuck are these people?” Meanwhile, Declan Walsh shows the fluid alliances in Northwest Pakistan and Basharat Peer speaks to young Kashmiris caught in a power struggle between India and Pakistan and feeling allegiance for neither.
Some of the most lasting images for me were in the love stories; it seems I can only find hope for Pakistan in fiction these days. There are five love stories in the collection and two bookend the magazine: “Leila in the Wilderness” by Nadeem Aslam and “The Sins of the Mother” by Jamil Ahmad. These two could be the beginning and end of the same story: the first is about a woman freed from her brutal husband by her childhood love; and the second ends with a woman killed by her lover to protect her from a worse fate, leaving behind their little son to pay for her sins.
The love stories have as much violence in them as the war reporting. Men use guns, rape, and brutal attempts to control and contain women to protect their honor. Yet in the face of this, there is also a sense of hope—against all odds.
In Pakistan, men cannot sin; women bear the brunt of men’s and even the country’s honor and only they can betray it. The love stories and indeed—as they are woven throughout—the magazine as a whole tease out this issue of honor and humanity. The art in the magazine, introduced with bittersweet resignation by Hari Kunzru, also beautifully testifies to the endurance of this humanity, despite the geopolitical forces that buffet it.
And so this is the image Granta leaves you with: the image of a multitude, divided on itself, yet comprised of individuals who each love this country that betrays them and fails them and yet also somehow contains them all. And while you may not be able to understand why they love it, in the end, you cannot deny that they do.