Peccavistan

in homistan| imperial watch

I am currently re-reading Shame. Last I read it, I was maybe 17 or 18. I remember liking parts of it and not understanding any of it. It is an insider novel, drowning in in-jokes, self-allusions, winks and sad nods. I never realized how sad it is – Rushdie pokes into the narrative (in a rather laborious and “showing the seams” kind of way) and just laments those that made this country of shameless religiosity possible. A number of times, he mentions that it isn’t Pakistan but a country set at an angle to it. Evoking the sin or shame in the apocryphal Peccavi, Rushdie tagged shame itself as the generative force at the heart of Pakistan.1 That conceit holds, for a while, but falls apart in the middle of the novel, and it has fallen apart outside of it. I don’t think shame or honor appear in public or private discourses, as the driving cultural forces in or about Pakistan. That takalluf generation, which sparked Rushdie’s imagination, is not around much these days.

The pun Peccavi – I have Sind/Sinned – works with an understanding of shame coupled with the acquisition of a particular piece of geography (of the state of Sindh that contains Karachi in current day Pakistan). This pun of conquest has long been attributed to Charles Napier, but in fact he never said it. Indeed, the notion of sin did not enter into the emotional registers which informed his actions. Charles Napier (1782-1853) was a hermit-turned-warrior, heady with the crusading spirit that afflicted some of the veterans of the European wars of early 19th century. He was clear that the common people of Sindh (Hindus or Muslims) had to be “saved” from the despotic Muslim Mirs of Talpur. Whether there was just cause or not, Sindh had to be taken by the East India Company (EIC), and redemption – for him, as a great General, for the EIC, as a civilizing force, and for Sindh, as a country rendered anew in the Faith – awaited.

I made up my mind that although war had not been declared (nor is it necessary to declare it), I would at once march upon Imangurh and prove to the whole Talpur family of both Khyrpor and Hyderabad that neither their deserts, nor their negotiations can protect them from the British troops. The Ameers will fly over the Indus, and we shall become masters of the left bank of the river from Mitenkote to the mouth; peace with civilization will then replace war and barbarism. My conscience will be light, for I see no wrong in so regulating a set of tyrants who are themselves invaders, and have in sixty years nearly destroyed the country. The people hate them.2

In Napier’s view, a particular violence and terror haunted the valleys of Sindh. It was the Muslim menace in power – the Mirs were the “greatest ruffians,” “imbeciles,” possessing “zenanas filled with young girls torn from their friends, and treated when in the hareem with revolting barbarity,” and even prone to enjoying the occasional human “sacrifice”. His civilizing mission, for which he invented a casus belli, was to counter this terror and violence. The East India Company, and later the Raj, clung to this reading of the Sindh principality, declaring several “Wars On” dacoits, thugs, criminal tribes and the like – the terrorism of Pir Pagaro’s Hur being a late example portrayed in the former British administrator H.T. Lambrick’s novel, The Terrorist (1972).

This violence which was projected onto and into the Sindhis by the colonial voice masked, however, the colonial violence itself. The violence of breaking treaties established since 1801, of invasions, the killing and capturing of a principality on false pretenses (the Mirs were accused of seeking a conspiratorial connection with the Russians or the Afghanis against the EIC). The terror is clear in the dispatches of the Mirs – plaintively begging for some credence from the British for their legitimacy, for their rule. They know that they cannot do anything to stop the British troops and their appeals to past treaties and past promises are all couched in the voice of honor, respect (and shame). “We” had a treaty, will you not honor it? The Mirs had already seen the violence.

To give just one example: In March 1839, British fleets Wellesley and Algerine under the command of Rear-Admiral Frederick Lewis Maitland were approaching to dock at the harbor of Karachi. As the ships neared, a cannon-ball splashed into the water in front of the ship. It came from the garrison of the Manora fort. A welcoming blast. Maitland unleashed his 74 guns on the fort and the city of Karachi, reducing the fort to rubble and raining destruction on the civilians. The terror felt by the community from this bombardment is aptly captured in the memoir of Seth Naomul Hotchand. Afterwards, the harbor, and the city, were promptly seized, and nothing more threatening than a few dozen sword-bearing dead troops were discovered at the fort. The port of Karachi became a permanent harbor for colonial ships, until 1947.

So even though Napier, who landed in Sindh in 1841, saw terror and violence everywhere, he failed to see it as his own violence. He believed that the oriental despotism of the Mirs, in his view, could only come via such implementation of raw power. The Mirs had no such powers to exercise – they held a carefully negotiated shared political stage with various ethnic tribes, landed elites and powerful sufis in 19th century. This is not to deny that there wasn’t any “native” violence but that violence – the one inflicted on peasants trapped in a feudal setting was not the concern of someone like Napier. The violence and terror which played a rhetorical role in Napier’s imagination of Sindh – he used it to construct a rationale for invading Sindh – was not the feudal violence, it was the wholly imagined atrocities (on “young girls”). More broadly, such hyperbolic invocations of local violence have played a substantive role in colonial imaginations of frontiers, in general (hello, Africa). Now, it plays a rhetorical role in our present day imagination of Pakistan.

‘Peccavi’ was a phrase that was never uttered about an event that never occurred. Rushdie’s coinage of ‘Peccavistan’ takes the myth and runs with it, using the notion of ‘sin’ in the original Latin to resonate with his construction of Pakistan as a place dominated by the affective response of shame. He did so by invoking a class, a literary heritage, a particular politics and a particular poetics. But, as we learn from the actual history of Napier’s conquest of Sindh, at the root of the story lies not shame, but something else – terror and violence – constructed with a rhetorical force to justify colonization and control. ‘Peccavistan,’ with its rich history of misattribution and disjuncture, is a worthy banner to stake atop modern constructions of Pakistan. Nowadays, Peccavistan has become a bastion of terror and violence. Where Rushdie saw shame as an endemic value which clouds every interaction – social or political – I want to argue for Peccavistan as the phenomenon of observing Pakistan as endemically violent and terrorist. When Rushdie uses Peccavistan to argue for alternatives to history, to the way things could have been, I want to show that Peccavistan is perceived reality – the only way things make sense to a certain, shall we say, dominant perspective – an alternate emotional construct constituting discourse about the region.

This brings us to the terror and violence which permeates Granta:Pakistan – a special issue of the literary magazine covering the same geography that Rushdie and Napier did. Please see lapata’s thorough treatment at Bookslut, where she teases out the issue of translation and linguistic diversity. In my reading, the fiction quickly became a homogenous blob – female infanticide, honor killings, terrorist beheadings. The writing seemed monotonous, the violence peeking through exactly when I expected it to, terror permeating every interaction. Sure, there was truck art on the cover, some poems, and a few artists who did attempt to show other facets – but the conversation, the literal conversation, is dominated by Mohsin Hamid and Declan Walsh – each in their own, specific ways situating a primordial violence within Peccavistan. This was jarring because I remember an avowed commitment, on the part of Granta‘s publicity campaign, to show a different side of Pakistan.

The editor of Granta, John Freeman, was recently interviewed:

Q. There’s a lot of militancy and fundamentalism and violence here. In fact, the only two prose pieces that don’t include at least one of the above are located outside Pakistan. Are we saying it’s not possible to write about the country without writing about these things?

A. I was worried about making an issue that would fall into all the representational traps that Pakistanis feel and that you see in the media. On the other hand, when we ask people to write we don’t always tell them what to write about, and in some ways I feel that’s the way to get the truest representation of the country. And literature is not a direct representation of life or reality, it’s a refraction. It magnifies the anxieties of people who live in a country beyond what they actually are, but it’s a way of turning that into narrative and drama.

Also, the situation is deathly serious. And what’s very exciting is that Pakistan now has a generation of writers up to the task of writing about that in a way that’s interesting as literature, that makes for good short stories and novels and is not just politically or socially concerned. That’s the big reason we did the issue. I found Mohsin’s piece particularly powerful because it’s about violence but also about his desire to avoid it, about what it means to write about it and the fear that it puts inside of him, what the costs of it are.

It’s a catch 22 for many of them because it is in some ways what makes them marketable. I think they write about it because they’re deeply concerned, but to be marketed based on something that’s very close to your heart and very serious raises all sorts of questions. That’s why we didn’t want a cover with a Kalashnikov or a mullah. Because as much as this issue is addressing things that are of deep concern, it’s also a chance to celebrate all this talent that’s coming out of the country.

Freeman’s slippery response – and his rather risible equation of the “deathly serious” situation with “very exciting” possibilities – seems appropriate to me. Yes, Pakistan – as an object of consumption – is marketable only via its violence or its failure [pdf]. Freeman, however, carrying the standard of Granta bestows a literary credibility to this particular selling that has evaded the editors of Foreign Policy. Note that the very reason Freeman wants to focus on Pakistan’s artistic or literary voices is because a) he is told but b) he noticed the New York Times Magazine cover-story on the country from 2009. A cover story which imagines Pakistan descriptively as “perilous, anarchic, broke, violent, splintering, corrupt, armed, governable?”. Those were the parameters within which political Pakistan could be understood and those were the parameters within which literary Peccavistan was to be sold.

What I found endearing was that some of the fiction contributors to the issue – Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie – decided to expose their own culpability by showcasing what they did so brilliantly in the issue. They released a co-written “How to write about Pakistan” on the Granta website. Endearing, because theirs are among the only voices heard globally on Pakistan, so if any clichés exist, it is from them. Nadeem Aslam’s Where to Begin was a more mature defense of violence in his short-story but perhaps just as limiting as the paeans by mango farmers. Aslam does believe, inherently, in the embodied violence of the spaces he recreates in his work but is that all those spaces can hold?

Let me be frank: every individual author has perfect freedom to craft her voice as she wants and on whatever she damn well prefers. Clearly, Daniyal Mueenuddin or Kamila Shamsie’s literary output has nothing distinctly about terrorism or militant Talibans. But insofar as they are allowed to make public statements about Pakistan, those metrics are pre-defined. The making of literary Peccavistan is, then, slightly different from an individual artist’s output – it is about a collective conversation, an editing of a particular narrative on Pakistan which partakes profitably in the ways that the market has pre-determined. Even that is, of course, inherently defensible. The problem, insofar as I am trying to locate a problem and not just providing a gloss, is that there is no counter, in public or political or literary discourse, to Peccavistan. There are no other histories, no other voices, there are no reflections on other constitutive qualities – hospitality, savviness, familial bonds, the cultural affinities. I say this not as an apologist or a nationalist but as a cultural historian who is all too aware of the power of framing discourses, which set up their own regimes of what is allowable and what is unmentionable and constrict all possibilities except those that have been pre-articulated. I should add that, as a reader, it is disheartening to see the Pakistani Englishsprache elite contribute so whole-heartedly to the construction of only that reality.

That this Peccavistan is constructed in a particular way is much clearer in the non-fiction inclusions in the issue. It is amazing to contemplate that John Freeman couldn’t find a single Pakistani journalist who can write knowingly about her own country. Not a one. Declan Walsh and Jane Perlez must have been chafing from their constant appearances in Guardian and New York Times and needed the exposure. It seems to me that an editor with the avowed intent of finding the Pakistani voice may have noticed that the last 10 years have produced a veritable explosion of smart, young journalists – any of whom could have provided a long-form piece and benefited from the exposure. Why does it matter, you ask? Walsh and Perlez are remarkable journalists by all accounts – even if they don’t have direct linguistic or social access to the communities they cover. It matters because the framing of the violence becomes all-too-distant. Take the matter of drones – the only times the subject of drone comes up in the non-fiction entries, it is uttered from the mouths of avowed terrorists. To the reader there remains little doubt that there cannot be a debate on the drones, and their rhetorical usage are so much empty strategies of deceit employed by the evil-doers. Yet, little can be further from the truth. The violence and terror of drones is just as much as framing device for Pakistan’s social pulse as the violence of Taliban or misogynist husbands. That Walsh or Perlez are not attuned to this is not surprising. And again, this is not a nativist argument. I am not criticizing Walsh or Perlez because they are outsiders. The one piece which I thought was sensitive, nuanced and a fine job of reporting was Lorraine Adams’ reportage on Faisal Shahzad. (Strangely, though Ayesha Nasir is billed along with her, the piece contains no reporting from Pakistan. I am not sure what happened there.) What I am pointing out is that Walsh or Perlez, and their work, fit perfectly both the type of narrative the market wants to read about Pakistan and the type of persona best suited to bringing it to the market.

Peccavistan is just as real as Pakistan.Granta: Pakistan is a selling of Peccavistan. It is a bundling, an explaining, a framing, a means of de-mystification when the mystery is itself a reflection of paucity of sources not of intelligibility. Peccavistan sells because Peccavistan takes away complexity, it reduces our mental and emotional commitments to Pakistan. Pakistan, though 180 million strong, ravaged by floods and suicide bombers, continues to carry on. Apocryphally speaking.

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  1. btw, I have since that long-ago post solved the mystery of who said it, and where. Exposé soon []
  2. William F. P. Napier, The Life and Opinions of General Sir Charles James Napier vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1857), 275. []

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