My book choices are inspired by an all-too-brief trip to Pakistan this year as part of a creative and cultural exchange organised by Highlight Arts. There is so much I don’t know about Pakistan that it was difficult to decide where to begin, but I’ve found these books – non-fiction, poetry and fiction – to be a great introduction to this fascinating, young country.
Trials: On Death Row in Pakistan by Isabel Buchanan (Jonathan Cape) is a first hand account of the penal system in Pakistan, and in particular death row, written by a young Scottish lawyer. There are around 8,000 prisoners on death row at any time: most are poor, and many are innocent. This book concentrates on a few individuals trapped in this system; it is fascinating and troubling in equal measure. Buchanan’s voice clearly explains the complexities of the Pakistani legal system in relation to the emotive circumstances of her clients. The book records the backstories of those we meet from the accused, to those colleagues who lead her through the seemingly Kafka-esque court systems. She writes with careful reflection on the limits of the law, human rights, the nature of justice and the role of the lawyer. The book is in a large part about Buchanan’s mentor in this process – the remarkable Sarah Belal– who takes Buchanan on as an intern, before employing her. Belal is the hero of the book, taking on the cases everyone else has dismissed, forgotten, or is too scared to touch. The one personal story that is missing is that of Buchanan herself; apart from a brief summary of what brought her to Lahore, she largely removes herself from the narrative concentrating instead on the people she meets, writing with compassion and understanding. This book provides an insight into an area I knew nothing about, and for a such a frustratingly complex subject, I found it highly engaging.
Defiant Colours by Kishwar Naheed, edited by Asif Farrukhi (Sang-e-meel). Kishwar Naheed is one of Pakistan’s leading poets and the poems in this Urdu/English volume are selected from individual collections, dating from 1991 onwards, sampling a range of styles and themes. Naheed writes about the personal and the public, and is best known as an outspoken feminist poet addressing women’s rights at a time when women’s roles were strictly limited and women’s voices suppressed. The poems argue passionately for freedom of thought, speech and action, and are set against backgrounds of troubled relationships or oppressive political scenery. The introduction is informative and discusses how Naheed’s style follows, then digresses from, a Pakistani tradition of poetry, with comments on the translations. This book presents an important poetic record of a remarkable time in one woman’s life–personally and politically– in Pakistan. In Naheed’s words, ‘I speak the unspeakable/ Because I haven’t learnt to say/ What must be said.’
What Will You Give Me for This Beauty by Ali Akbar Natiq, translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi (Hamish Hamilton). The stories in this collection are narrated with a beautiful, clear-eyed simplicity yet relate complex modern lives lived according to ancient customs and values. They read like dark fables, with a wry observance of people, and how wealth, status and morality is wieled as power. We clearly see the hand that society deals the poor. Set in the Punjab countryside, the stories feature a cross-section of lives from courtesans to masons, farm workers, landowners, hunters, acrobats and buffalo rustlers. These are tales of communities and the forces at work within them: pride, faith, justice, hope, revenge and oppression. Natiq, named a Granta New Voice 2011, has also published two poetry collections which I think is reflected in his concise but vivid language and his ability to convey a world in a few pages.