With the third largest English-speaking population in the world, one would expect Pakistan to be teeming with novelists unravelling the threads of existence in the land of the pure, and a support structure that firmly holds the spool and urges them on. Instead we find an inexplicably empty horizon, with Pakistani authors few and far between. Those who exist prefer to hop the border to India, claiming better fortunes await them there.
The Correspondent sat down with Pakistani authors and publishing houses to explore why such a dreary literary landscape exists in Pakistan, and is there a way to change it.
“A horror show”
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a Karachi based author, novelist, and translator. He has had several of his books published in India, owing to the ‘horror show’ he calls Pakistan’s local English language publishing in comparison. When asked the customary question about why he chooses India over Pakistan, he says “It makes it easier for writers to reach their readership.”
“The experience with India has been great. Some of these were international publishing houses that have Indian offices. Others are smaller ones like Alpeh Book Company and Yoda Press. However, all of them operate with excellent publishing standards. I would like to mention Yoda Press headed by Arpita Das as an example of an independent publishing house with whom I published the translation of Afzal Ahmed Syed’s book and the experience was the same. Local English language publishing in Pakistan is a horror show in comparison”.
But the story doesn’t end here. A similar, more convoluted version of this ‘horror show’ is true for almost all publishers and writers in Pakistan.
Censorship, readership and distribution are just some of the problems plaguing writers and publishers in the country. Like Farooqi, a lot of local writers end up finding publishers in India, after being turned away from every publishing avenue in their country. This decision isn’t an easy one; in the face of overt nationalism, many writers are pounced upon to explain their literary affiliation with the arch-enemy, which is absurd in a context where this nationalism only hinders progress.
“No one reads English fiction“
When Mohammed Hanif came out with his book ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’, everybody in the country was astounded by this act of rebellion against Pakistan’s strongest institution. How could an ordinary journalist blatantly lampoon Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator who shrouded the country in terror for 10 years? Writers, readers and publishers from literary circles kept expecting a colossal backlash, as did Mohammad Hanif himself. But it never came, except in short, combatable bouts.
Then in 2020, twelve years after the novel’s original publication, things suddenly weren’t as forgiving. It was as if somebody had shaken the brass out of oblivion after an entire decade and they discovered the loophole Hanif so smugly hid behind.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes existed only in the English language until December 2019, when it was first translated into Urdu. A few weeks later, the usual “unidentified men” raided the Maktaba-e-Danyal publishing house in Karachi, publishers of Hanif’s book. They seized several copies and threatened to do more, which they did. Islamabad’s Saeed Book Bank was raided along with a bookstore in Lahore.
“No one in the military reads,” Mohammed Hanif had said wryly in an interview with The New Yorker, when the book was originally published.
English language readership, especially for fiction, is lower still. He was safeguarded because of this, targeted only when his book was being published in a language that that the masses would be able to read.
Hanif, however, still had to find an Indian publisher for his book because nobody in Pakistan was willing to publish it. Despite ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ being officially published in India, publishers in Pakistan had to suffer the brunt for the mere act of translating. Their hesitation was well founded.
Economies of scale
Raheela Baqai is the Marketing Director for Oxford University Press Pakistan, one of the largest publishers in the country. Baqai believes Pakistani writers fare increasingly well in India because ‘our writers get access to a bigger market and of course better financial terms.’
“India has a well-established publishing industry and manufactures high quality printing paper of a different brand and quality. India is a vast country and English publications attract a large market for translation rights. A minimum English title print-run is 5000 copies as compared to Pakistan’s 1000 copies. Here the economies of scale kick-in. India exports English titles for South Asia, South East Asia, UK, Europe, and USA markets,” she adds.
Dr. Ahmad Azhar has written on Lahore’s organised workers’ politics and the 1920 unionisation of native Indian workers. ‘Revolution in Reform: Trade Unionism in Lahore‘ deals with a subject matter that not many can write about, but Azhar is forced to follow the same trajectory as other Pakistani writers, working with Orient Blackswan to get his work published.
He imagines a dreary future for Pakistan’s publishing scene.
“I could not think of a suitable publisher in Pakistan for an academic monograph on a specialised theme written in English. Those in India were a professional lot. I have no complaints. However, I see no prospects or reasons for improvement in Pakistan in the short term because we simply do not have a large enough market.”
Politics of publishing
Because the literary scene in Pakistan isn’t independent, it is deeply intertwined with politics, especially of its neighbor’s. As tensions between India and Pakistan began to reach a crescendo last year, in the wake of developments in India-held Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan suspended its bus and train services with India, also inhibiting all trade and postal services on August 23. This paralyzed the publishing industry in Pakistan, especially the sales of English language books already struggling to cope with inflation.
Saleem Hussain, the managing director of Liberty Books, told Indian publication Scroll, how this ban on book imports crippled the business.
““The ban is affecting the business as at least 20 to 25 percent of books available at Liberty Books are imported from India,” he says.
“In the last eight to 10 years, many new Pakistani authors have been published and these authors have a sizeable market in India, too,” Hussain adds, implying that political implications such as these ultimately damage Pakistani writers too.
The issue of Pakistan’s literary collapse aside, these underground collaborations between the two neighbors are remarkable, especially amid perpetual sparring on the borders that never seem to cease. Writers from Pakistan always seem to be hospitably welcomed in India, with top Indian publishers having established an excellent distribution network in Pakistan.
A new page
Publishing in Pakistan is still a rickety business but to say that it doesn’t have its occasional heroes would be unjust to the many individuals fighting underground battles. Daastan, Auraq and Parestan are some of Pakistan’s self publishing houses. This means writers can avoid the innumerable hurdles and directly leap to the finishing stage.
‘Writing is hard. So publishing should be easy,’ says Auraq.
Mongrel Books is a small press based in Karachi, publishing ‘original voices and compelling stories’. They have made it easier for a lot of English language fiction to be published in a climate where it is sometimes close to impossible to do so. Relatively obscure authors like Sidra F. Sheikh and Sarim Baig are just two of the many to get published by Mongrel, winning them their own cult following.
Pakistan shuns its citizens for not being nationalistic, but blocks most avenues that engender this feeling of nationalism. Amid such an egregious literary collapse, when writers move to India for better earnings, it is beyond audacious to call them un-nationalistic. Pakistan is a country that is notionally united by religion, but divided by everything else, and this divide only seems to grow. Literature and academia lend a country its cognitive stimulus but when the principal perpetrators of this are outcast, all that is left is an intellectual desert.