Pakistani writer Faiqa Mansab had been a professional writer for a few years. When it was time for her to come out with her first novel, she wanted to approach the publishing world like a pro. She didn’t want to self-publish. Neither did she want to send the book directly to publishers for their slush pile.
For the uninitiated, it doesn’t help being in Pakistan, where the publishing industry is almost non-existent. A whopping 85 rejection emails were a clear enough indication to Faiqa that most publishers in the UK and US won’t take a chance with a debut author. Succour, at last, came from the other side of the border and her debut novel, This House of Clay and Water was published in May 2017 by Penguin Random House India.
Faiqa isn’t an exception on the Indian literary scene. In the last few years, many Pakistani writers have journeyed into the ‘enemy’ territory to get published. This year's Man Booker longlisted writers Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire) and Mohsin Hamid (Exit West) have been among them.
Absence of space
While you may presume that it is fear of Islamists that pushes Pakistani authors to India, the real reason turns out to be the non-existent publishing industry for writers in English in Pakistan. The only publishing house in the country, Oxford University Press, by virtue of its nature, publishes academic works only, leaving no room for fiction writers.
Walking with Nanak is Haroon Khalid’s third book. And this one too, like his previous two works, has been published in India. But this wasn’t how he had planned it to be. “For my first book, I was initially in conversation with a Pakistan publisher. However, for some unexplained reason, they decided to pull out after months of review.” Looking back, he sees that as a blessing in disguise. “It was a dream for me to publish with a major publisher in India. I had approached a few publishers earlier, but had not followed up seriously. Rejection by a Pakistan publisher allowed me to reach out to several more publishers and agents. I was lucky to find Kanishka Gupta, my literary agent, who got me my first book deal in just a few days,” says Haroon.
He says that the scale on which the Indian publishers operate is so much bigger than Pakistani publishers. “As a writer, I want to reach out to as many people as possible. Indian publishers made more sense. I also feel given the nature of my work, it perhaps would be appreciated in India more than Pakistan.”
Nadia Akbar is author of the upcoming Goodbye Freddie Mercury, which is being published by Penguin Random House India under its press, Hamish Hamilton. It would be released in South Asia, including Pakistan, in 2018. For her, it was more a matter of resources than location. “It’s not really about choosing India over Pakistan, but about which country offers more support when it comes to publishing. At present, India is the centre of major internationally connected publishing houses in South Asia.”
For those who ask how does it feel to be in the enemy territory, Laaleen Sukhera, the editor of Austenistan, a Jane Austen-inspired anthology set in Pakistani society to be published by Bloomsbury this month, has the answer: “We are South Asians and I don’t believe culture has any boundaries. Pakistani readers devour fiction imported from India and our interest and kinship is mutual across the arts and popular culture.”
The advent of Pakistani writers has the publishing industry elated. Ranjana Sengupta, associate publisher with Penguin India, says, “There is enormous interest in the idea of Pakistan — both in the form of fiction and non-fiction — in India. The reasons are historical as well as contemporary: a continuing curiosity about how people across the border think, live and how they are different. Therefore, books on Pakistan, especially by Pakistani authors, tend to do well. These are normally widely reviewed and usually well received. Recent works such as Exit West by Mohsin Hamid or The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam have received a lot of attention. They are, of course, established authors, but even debut fiction, such as Osama Siddique’s Snuffing Out the Moon, is generating a lot of interest. For us as a publishing house, it enhances our profile as a publisher of high-quality Pakistani fiction and non-fiction.”
Senior commissioning editor with Pan Macmillan India, Teesta Guha Sarkar, says an incredible and unexpected assortment is coming from Pakistan. “In the last year, we’ve published Bilal Tanweer’s translation of the great Urdu satirist Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, two phenomenal works of speculative fiction, and Omar Shahid Hamid’s latest thriller, The Party Worker. The submissions have not been predictable and that’s the way we like it. We will be publishing a wonderful novella next year that explores the meaning of beauty.”
Meanwhile, Faiza Khan, editorial director, Bloomsbury India, has noticed more and more genre writing. “I’ve recently seen my first Pakistani-English sci-fi and dystopian fiction, and we’re seeing more chicklit and more political thrillers.”
A good number of Pakistani writers coming to India are debutant authors. And literary agent Kanishka Gupta, whose agency Writer’s Side represents over 40 Pakistani writers, “strongly” believes that first-time writers from Pakistan are more promising than their Indian counterparts. “Of late, the writers have started experimenting with form and genres and are not just sticking to the regular commercial or literary fiction,” he says and adds that all debut Pakistani writers have little to no expectations because they belong to a country that doesn’t have any publishing infrastructure.
No extreme reactions
Of late, we have seen anti-Pakistan rhetoric affect films and send actors packing home. It doesn’t seem to affect literature from Pakistan.
Faiza Khan feels it is because publishing is much smaller an industry than the film industry and less flashy too. “If someone wishes to score points with the Indian public by being a ranting nationalist and banning Pakistani participation, they’ll get far more attention by doing it in Bollywood.” Penguin’s Sengupta feels it could be so because the manuscripts they receive from Pakistan are serious assessments of identities, histories and stories. “They tend not to be polemical. The same is true of what we publish by Indian writers on Pakistan.”
In times when censorship is on the rise, even around us, Teesta Guha Sarkar feels one has to tread with some awareness and caution, but does not fail to point: “Restrictions also lead to resistance, and with new independent presses setting up shop, I see a glimmer of that in Pakistan as well.”
Pak authors sell more
Ranjana Sengupta, associate publisher, Penguin India, says the readers of Pakistani fiction and non-fiction are a fairly wide cross section. “The Partition generation’s numbers are dwindling but they have bequeathed an interest in that cataclysmic moment; in the landscapes they left behind and the people they never forgot. In Delhi, especially, there is a huge interest in Pakistan and Pakistani authors, but this is not just true of Delhi. Some years ago Fatima Bhutto was here for the launch of her Songs of Blood and Sword and all the venues were packed.” Publishers say books are almost immediately available in both India and Pakistan. Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water was published in India in end of May this year and was available in bookshops in Pakistan within the month. Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her, a book about two ambitious women entwined in political drama and an unresolved assassination, first released in Pakistan and then India. She feels that both India and Pakistan are swinging between modernity and tradition when it comes to female empowerment. That is something that clicked on both sides of the border.
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid | Penguin
- This Wide Night by Sarvat Hasin | Penguin
- Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie | Bloomsbury
- Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif | Bloomsbury
- Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures by Muhammad Khalid Akhtar | translated by Bilal Tanweer | Pan Macmillan India
- The Story of a Widow by Musharraf Ali Farooqi | Pan Macmillan India
- Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz — The Authorized Biography by Ali Madeeh Hashmi | Rupa
- Walking with Nanak by Haroon Khalid | Tranquebar
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