As 2015 draws to a close, we asked a selection of writers what they read this year that inspired them, delighted them... and disappointed them.
THE book that I have been slow-reading through the year is Dada Amir Haider Khan’s memoir, Chains to Lose. It’s the best coming-of-age story I have ever read as the coming-of-age happens in the barracks of a Peshawar cantonment, in the opium dens of Calcutta and then mostly in the engine rooms of ships headed to far-off exotic ports.
Long before he became a Marxist revolutionary Khan was a chronic rebel who ran away from his village near Rawalpindi even before he was a teenager and became a sailor before reaching puberty.
From here on his life becomes an endless adventure and we get to see the great port cities of the world through a teenager’s eyes. Khan is a natural storyteller and it’s a thrill-a-page read. I have reached the part where Khan is headed to Moscow for his political education and I don’t want this book to end. Published by the Pakistan Study Centre of Karachi University, I wish it was made more widely available and translated into other languages. (Some parts of it have been translated brilliantly into Punjabi by Huma Safdar).
Other books that I have read and enjoyed this year include Hangwoman by K.R. Meera, an incredible voice from India. I have reread George Saunders’s short stories, scary and funny at the same time. Hasan Mujtaba’s book of poems Koel Shehr Ki Katha reminds us why poetry matters; Ajmal Kamal’s collection of essays Achi Urdu Bhi Kya Buri Shay Hai includes some of the wittiest and sharpest essays about literature and politics. Mubashir Ali Zaidi writes these 100-word stories and if you get over the gimmick, there are some real gems.
Sometimes you think you have read the book but you have only seen the movie based on the book. I had this illusion about Umrao Jaan Ada; I am reading the novel these days and loving it.
They say that those who read do not write as much and those who write do not read as much. Since I write every day, every week, every year, come hell or high water, I do not read so much. I might not have picked up anything published this year.
The most recent novel I picked up is probably Khalid Muhammad’s pacey Agency Rules: Never an Easy Day at the Office. Published by Dead Drop Books, this debut is the first indigenously published English language political thriller. Although it may or may not be entirely successful, the volume is an exciting development: it portends promise for our publishing industry.
I finally got my hands on another local bestseller, Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet. Although I am familiar with much of her source material, especially Wilferd Madelung’s magisterial The Succession of Muhammad [PBUH], she has produced the most readable historical book on matters pertaining to Islam since Karen Armstrong’s opus, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet [PBUH] (though it is more akin to Amin Maalouf’s brilliant historical narrative, The Crusades through Arab Eyes).
I have gone through several minor memoirs this year, an underappreciated form that never fails to pique my interest.
I came across Omar Kureishi’s breezy Ebb and Flow, for instance, at the weekly book fair at Frere Hall in which he traces the arc of his career as a cricket commentator and the history of PIA — ‘Great People to Fly With’ — to boot. Then a friend dispatched Sadruddin Hashwani’s The Truth Always Prevails to me which I read in a night. There is no doubt that it wades into murky polemic waters towards the end, but politics aside it does unexpectedly present a compelling early portrait of an industrious, instinctively astute self-made man.
And finally, I reread one of my favourite novels, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. I must have read it nine times before and am happy to report it still works.
The one Urdu book that stood out above all others I have read this past year is undoubtedly Intizar Husain’s Aagey Samundar Hai. I can say this not just because it is a powerful book, and an important one, but also because it contains within its pages all that is most remarkable about Intizar sahib’s very distinctive writing. The fact that I translated it meant that I also did a close reading of the text and virtually ‘lived’ with this book till it was published a month ago as The Sea Lies Ahead.
Khalid Jawed’s modernist Nematkhana reassured me that the novel is alive and well in India, just as Zakia Mashhadi’s short story collection Yeh Jahan-e Rang-o Boo demonstrated that the Urdu story is as robust as ever in its contemporary avatar. One story in particular by Mashhadi, ‘Bhediya Secular Hai’ is located in the forested heartland of India and makes a profound political statement.
Two ongoing projects have caused me to revisit two old favourites: the poetry of Shahryar and the prose of Ismat Chughtai.
I am currently working on two projects simultaneously: a biography of Shahryar, and editing a collection of critical writings on Chughtai in her centenary year. While both works will be in English, I am reading and rereading copious amounts of their writings in Urdu and enjoying every moment, not to mention the writings of their contemporaries and critics on them. Sitting beside me, as I type this, is Naiyer Masud’s Collected Stories, an omnibus edited and translated by Muhammad Umar Memon. No summing up of this year’s Urdu reading can be complete without Khirman: a five volume set of the most stunning poetry by Muztar Khairabadi painstakingly collected and published by his grandson, Javed Akhtar.
M. Umer Memon
I have read a few works of fiction during the course of 2015, among others Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemiel and The Man Who Sold His Shadow; Cabrera Infante’s Infante’s Inferno; Anour Benmalek’s The Child of an Ancient People; Olga Grjasnowa’s All Russians Love Birch Trees; Juan Goytisolo’s Makbara and Marks of Identity; Ian Bedford’s The Last Candles of the Night, Marion Molteno’s Uncertain Light, and Kader Abdolah’s The House of the Mosque — interesting works in their own right, especially Post-Modernist Goytisolo’s, whose experiments in prose narrative break the balance of technical devices ordinarily used in constructing novels and, hence, not an easy read. However, it is not these that I want to talk about.
I want to talk briefly about Goytisolo the person, not the novelist.
My interest in him grew as a by-product of my larger interest in “medievalism” and al-Andalus, whose culture and achievements continue to fascinate me. In 1956, during the oppressive years of Franco’s dictatorship, Goytisolo, aged 25, left his native Spain for France and became an internationally acclaimed novelist within a decade. However, he didn’t go back, even after Franco, when Spain had eased into a democratic way of life. The continuing self-imposed exile was the result of deeply-rooted ideological reasons which were larger and went farther than merely the politically repressive climate of his birth land. He didn’t want to return to a Spain that so brutally denied him his rightful Andalusian heritage and was, along with the rest of Europe, hell-bent on wiping out every last trace of a culture, which though produced by the indigenous Muslim, Jewish, and Christian population, was nonetheless something of an aberration, an unwelcome ‘outsider’ best exiled forever from the history of medieval Europe.
To ‘harden’ and ‘define’ his exile, Goytisolo — novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist — moved to North Africa, where he learned Arabic, adopted North African children and made them his heirs, and calls himself a ‘Morisco’. All this in an effort to declare his explicit solidarity with the descendants of a people who were so mercilessly expelled from their beloved homeland.
Didn't read as much as I wanted to this year because I was working on a novel; I try not to read much fiction so that it doesn't start influencing my writing. Still, I read a lot of good non-fiction, and now that my novel's completed, I got back to some fiction by the end of the year. So here`s a closer look at what I read.
The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria is billed as 'an intimate history of Pakistan'.
It tells the story of Pakistan's formation along with the personal family history of Zakaria's aunt, whose husband took a second wife. I liked the parallel threads and the women's perspective that Zakaria provided: something always missing in both personal narrative and history coming from Pakistan.
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald is the memoir of the author grieving after her father's death; she acquires a goshawk and decides to train it. Goshawks are stubborn and notoriously hard to train, but MacDonald finds peace and transcends her grief in the process of taming this beautiful hawk. It's a wry, poignant, and satisfying story.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alemeddine is the story of Aaliya, a septuagenarian woman living in Beirut, but it is also the story of Beirut. Together Aaliya and Beirut have lived through civil war, Aaliya's childhood and young womanhood, her divorceand her friendship with Hannah. Aaliya is a recluse who has spent her life collecting and translating books into Arabic, both well-known classics and obscure novels. Alameddine's novel is so richly interlaid with literature, art, and music that reading it is an education in itself. A striking, fabulous novel that I didn`t want to end.
My one disappointing read was Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, a collection of essays examining pop culture, feminism, and politics. All the rave reviews it received in 2014 made me curious to read it, but I couldn't engage with Gay's style and I found the topics dated and uninteresting.
Omar Shahid Hamid
One of the disadvantages of being an avid reader is that at the end of every year as you sit down to evaluate the quality of the vast quantity of books that have been read over the year you tend to forget a lot of the books you may have read. However, for me this means that the ones that stand out in my mind are really exceptional, to have been so memorable. The year 2015 saw superb books written about two of my big interests: Pakistan cricket, and the city of Karachi.
Laurent Gayer's Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, was the book that was begging to be written for decades, and the author did not disappoint in taking us down the bloodstained history of the city.
For years cricket fans like myself had waited for someone to write the seminal history of Pakistan cricket, and like London buses, after ages of nothing, two came along at the same time. Osman Samiuddin's The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket and Peter Oborne's Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, both stood out for different reasons.
Oborne's depth of research, for someone who was neither a cricket journalist nor a Pakistani, is to be admired, especially his in-depth look at the early years of the game in Pakistan. While Samiuddin's treatment of the development of the modern ethos of Pakistan cricket is so compelling that if you shut your eyes, you can just about hear the commentary from Pakistan's glory years playing in the background.
Samiuddin is also to be commended for an exceptional chapter on match fixing, a topic that, curiously, despite all the Greek tragedy undertones that surround it in Pakistan,no one has really chosen to write on in any great depth, at least not since the late 1990s. What else was good? Ben Macintyre's work on the British Double agent, Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, was excellent. And despite my best efforts to read more fiction, I still fell woefully short, but in that category, Jason Goodwin's The Janissary Tree was gripping as a thriller and brought to life Istanbul of the early 19th century.
Three books stood out for me this year, though none are from this year. First, The Hearing Trumpet, by the surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington.
This slender story, illustrated by the writer, is wholly unpredictable and wild.
It's told by a 92-year-old woman whose son and daughter-in-law are scheming to put her in an old person`s home. She cannot change their plans, but she can use her remarkable wit to survive the strange world that greets her upon being institutionalised. 'People under 70 and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,' she says. Possibly no other writer has more successfully defied what we think of when we think of old age.
Another novel that left me amazed is TheKnown World by Edward P. Jones. Before reading it, I didn`t know that before slavery saw its end in the United States, a small number of black families also owned slaves. In a language that is nothing short of miraculous, Jones explores every possible angle of power and abuse of power, confronting us with the question of how an individual can inflict upon another a violence he or she has known. Who can break the cycle, who cannot, and why? Pakistani readers will find much to identify with in these pages.
Finally, Footnotes in Gaza by the comic journalist Joe Sacco. Like Jones, Sacco is interested in where the seeds of grief and anger come from, but in a different context. He details two mostly forgotten killings of Palestinians by Israelis in 1956 one in Khan Younis, the other in Rafah. As he digs up the past by interviewing survivors and scrutinising archives, war rages on in the present. He writes in the foreword, 'The past and present cannot be so easily disentangled; they are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur.' But Sacco`s combination of oral histories, documentary evidence, acommitted translator-guide, and drawings that are breath-stopping in their attention to detail, all give him the power to see through the blur, and show us what the media never did, and never will. A book to cherish.
Since I am a writer myself, many other writers feel that I must read their creations and I have received scores of books this year. After tearing up the wrapping, I go through these, a reflex action I wish I could control. My mind is still tuned to the old belief that books are meant to be read, whereas it is probably no longer so. The quality benchmark of Urdu publications has plunged in Pakistan.
There is an avalanche of pseudo-religious inanities without an iota of what one would expect from a serious study of religion, or even Islam, (that incidentally deeply interests me), a flood of collections of ghazals, a sleep-inducing plodding through metre and rhyme that is of ten out of metre, and a newly invented genre of dead prose being passed off as novels.
There is also a developing tendency amongst budding and not-so-young authors to write autobiographies. Why they expect that the details of their most mundane activities such as selling a house in Sargodha in 1954 and buying an apartment in Islamabad, or a visit to a convalescing stepsister-in-law in Gujranwala would interest a reader, is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mortal.
Good books are also being published mostly by small publishers such as Scheherazade of Karachi and a couple of publishers in Punjab; Sangat Academy in Quetta has also published several books on Baloch literature in Urdu this year. Balochi Zuban-o-Adab ki Tareekh by Dr Shah Mohammad Marri is the book that stands out in my mind, and I am appreciative of this informative and aesthetically pleasing addition to my bookshelf.
Then there was yet another memoir by the inimitable Kishwar Naheed, (she has already written two), MuthiBhar Yadain, highly entertaining pen sketches of her friends and acquaintances. This year I mostly found good reads in literary journals and some good poetry on social media. Now that is a place where many a discovery has to be made.
Due chiefly to the fact that I have travelled quite a lot this year — and when I travel I read more — this has been a good year for me, reading wise. In non-fiction, my three standout books were Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, Do No Harm by Henry Marsh and If the Oceans were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power. Gawande and Marsh are both immensely successful surgeons who, writing with rare sensitivity and grace, confront not just that big taboo of our age — death — but also how to prepare oneself for it, both as a doctor (Marsh) and patient (Gawande).
Despite the grim subject, both books are an inspiring and moving tribute to the human spirit.
An anthropologist by training and half Jewish, half Quaker by birth, Power spends a year reading the Quran with a respected Muslim scholar, Mohammed Akram Nadwi. The book charts not just this modern feminist’s attempt to understand the Quran, but also her relationship with her pious, orthodox teacher. This important book is a profound testament to Powers’ and Nadwi’s attempts to bridge cultural and religious divides and wherever possible, find common ground based on their shared humanity.
In fiction, I was utterly consumed by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. Charting the course of a 60-year-old friendship between two girls that starts in a poor neighbourhood of Naples in the 1950s, these four books are profoundly political in nature and also delve into the disappointments of sex, the constraints of motherhood, the inequities of marriage and the everyday challenges that litter the path of women who aspire to anything other than domesticity.
The Blue Between Sky and Water is Susan Abulhawa’s tribute to the extraordinary resilience and courage of the Palestinians who inhabit “the world’s largest open air prison”, Gaza. Abulhawa’s novel, though unsparing in its account of the brutality and humiliation inflicted daily on Gazans by Israelis, is a lyrical story of the redemptive quality of love and familial bonds. Finally, The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur and The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill are very different but equally intense examinations of motherhood and modern marriage set in Delhi and New York.
Pablo Neruda’s protégé, the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, once told the younger poets of his region not to write poems if they’re not able to “improve the blank page”.
Unfortunately, the present literary scene in Pakistan is not encouraging. A lot is been written these days, but it pains me to say, it is not interesting.
Neither have the senior writers produced anything extraordinary in fiction or poetry which could be called noticeable or even different from their already available pieces of writing, nor are there any hopeful voices coming from the new generation. One sees a spark here and there, but generally the situation is alarming. Compared to Urdu, some over-projected voices of those are heard who write in English, but they don’t make any difference in the overall scenario of the world of English writings. Praise for them is mere tokenism.
Nobody expects that every year poets would create Naqsh-i Faryadi or Zindan Nama (Faiz), Guman Ka Mumkin (Rashed), Shabe Rafta (Majeed Amjad), Nayaft (Faraz), Shayed (Jaun Elia), Badan Dareeda (Fahmida Riaz), Khushboo (Parveen Shakir), Chiryon Ka Shor (Zeeshan Sahil) or that Awaz-i Dost (Mukhtar Masood), Zarguzasht and Aab-i-Gum (Yousufi), Labbaik (Mumtaz Mufti), Chakiwarha Mein Visaal (Khalid Akhtar), Khuda ki Basti (Shaukat Siddiqui), Udas Naslain (Abdullah Husain), Basti and Aagey Samundar Hai (Intizar Husain), Raja Gidh (Bano Qudsia), Dhain Baksh Ke Betay (Hasan Manzar), and Buri Aurat ki Katha (Kishwar Naheed) would be produced by prose writers.
But nothing noticeable from the new generation is coming up, despite the fact that there is a fairly very rich variety of styles, issues and forms that their seniors have produced and worked on. There could be many reasons for this bleak picture.
That being said, one can expect that poets like Azra Abbas, Yasmeen Hameed, Abbas Tabish, Raza Shehzad, Afzal Syed, Abrar Ahmed, Harris Khalique and fiction writers like Farhat Parveen, Mubin Mirza, Hameed Shahid, Asif Farrukhi, Nilofer Iqbal, and Ali Akbar Natiq will give us some worthwhile creations to improve the above-mentioned bleak situation. They have all the potential to do so, so let’s hope they will do it.
These days I don’t get enough time to read much fiction as I would like to. The writing of my latest novel set in Morocco, my interfaith and education work, saps a lot of my time. Many hours a week are drained into reading non-fiction essential reading which includes education papers and inspection reports. As I travel fairly regularly I use long plane or train journeys to treat myself to a novel or two and see which one hooks me. Often this has meant that my house is littered with quite a few unread novels.
Having said that I have just finished The Dust That Falls from Dreams, the latest novel by a writer friend, Louis De Berniere. I loved reading this story of three families starting from the death of Queen Victoria and going to the end of WW I. The book follows their story as they cope with the effects of war.
At the Kolkata Book Fair this year I picked up an earlier work of Anita Desai. It was interesting to read The Village by the Sea (1982),a novel she has written for young people. About brother and sister Hari and Lila, it focuses on the poverty, hardships and sorrow faced by a small rural community in India.
I was delighted to extend my reading of German literature when I was given two well-known literary masterpieces as presents, Nathan the Wise (1779) and Effie Briest (1896). The play Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is a plea for religious tolerance. All the more important in today’s troubled times. Linked to my two other favourite European novels, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the so called ‘adultery tragedies,’ Effi Briest, a realist novel by Theodor Fontane deals with the topic of 19th-century marriage from a female perspective.
During my recent visit to Palestine, and wanting to read work by Palestinian writers, I bought Sharon and my Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries (1988) from a Jerusalem bookshop. Written by Suad Amiry, it gives us a unique insight into life under occupation, full of pathos as well as humour.
During 2015, a large number of novels were based around the sad picture of terrorism and the APS Peshawar school incident. One of these was Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s story, ‘Aye meray tarkhaan’, of a man making small coffins of the children who died in the incident. The same concept was artistically presented by Hameed Shahid in his collection of short stories titled Iss Dehshat mein Wehshat.
The history of our country and times gone by is a source of inspiration for writers, too. There are so many various facets of the past that can be revisited.
The subject of the War of 1971 has been dwelt upon in Masud Mufti’s Waqt Ki Qash, and Aqeela Ismail’s novel Of Martyrs and Marigold. On a different subject, Dr Shah Mohammad Marri has educated us on the movement against colonialism in Balochistan and also the women’s movement at the grassroots level in his book published this year. Two writers published novels this year based on the days of the British Raj; these are Mustansar Hussain Tarar with his Aey Ghazale Shab and Ali Akbar Natiq with his Nau Lakhi Kothi.
Many poetry collections have also been published this year, but the one I most enjoyed reading was the collection of US-based writer Ahmad Mushtaq Auraq-i-Khizani.
In a completely different style, Dr Aslam Farrukhi’s writing in his book Saat Aasman gives us a reflection of the classic style of Urdu. And ultimately, I must say that the one work published during 2015 that stands out is the biography of artist Ali Imam penned by Sheen Farrukh. This is something to read for those interested in art, as well as beautiful writing.
This selection was compiled by staff at Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared in Dawn Newspaper on December 27