Novelists See Pakistan as Land of Contradictions Pakistan, celebrating its 60th anniversary this week, is a country of contradictions, two Pakistani-born novelists say. On the one hand, there are signs of optimism about the emergence of democracy. On the other, Pakistan is seen as the focus of the war on terrorism.
NPR logo

Novelists See Pakistan as Land of Contradictions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Novelists See Pakistan as Land of Contradictions

Novelists See Pakistan as Land of Contradictions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Pakistan is celebrating 60 years of independence, and here's one writer's take on his country.

Mr. MOHSIN HAMID (Novelist, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"): Perhaps because we currently lack wealth, power, or even sporting glory - the occasional brilliance of our temperamental cricket team notwithstanding - commensurate with our status as the world's sixth most populous country, we Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in our food.

MONTAGNE: Novelist Mohsin Hamid's foodies are part of the fabric of Pakistan rarely glimpsed by the West, which is why today we continue our series on Pakistan with a literary tour of the country.

Mohsin Hamid and novelist Kamila Shamsie grew up in two very different cities in that country - one ancient and elegant, the other a roiling coastal mega city. And in their most recent novels, both authors challenged Western perspectives of Pakistan, and they joined us from our bureau in London. Good morning, and thank you for joining us.

Mr. HAMID: Good morning.

Ms. KAMILA SHAMSIE (Novelist, "Broken Verses"): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Mohsin Hamid, I would like to start with you and with a passage in your book which speaks to the Western perspective, really, of Pakistan. Your main character gets angry at his American girlfriend's father's characterization of Pakistan.

Mr. HAMID: Okay. So in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," Changez, who's the main character, gets slightly upset by something that her father says, and I'm going to read that passage.

(Reading) "Erica's father had asked me how things were back home. And I had replied saying that they were quite good, thank you. When he said, economy's falling apart, though, no? Corruption, dictatorship, the rich living like princes where everyone else suffers - the elite has raped that place well and good, right? And fundamentalism. You guys have got some serious problems with fundamentalism. I felt myself bridle. There was nothing overtly objectionable in what he had said. Indeed, his was a summary with some knowledge, most likely the short news items in the front page of The Wall Street Journal. But his tone struck the negative chord with me, and it was only out of politeness that I limited my response to, yes, there are challenges, sir. But my family is there. And I can assure you it is not as bad as that."

MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder, Kamila Shamsie, did you bridle - you didn't write that, so I'm just wondering, as you listened, did you bridle a little bit?

Ms. SHAMSIE: I understand why Changez bridles. And I think Changez's assertion that, well, yes, you know, he's been - he's informed in the way that those people who read short news items are. And that's much the problem with reporting on Pakistan is is those short news items. And they're not lying, but they aren't giving you the complete picture, either.

Mr. HAMID: I think that's right. You know, Pakistan's purpose in world news today is to frighten, mainly. Pakistan hasn't been cast in the role of, you know, interesting cultural plays or, you know, land of great comedians. And so, therefore, nobody covers the many other aspects of Pakistan, which are the majority of Pakistan.

MONTAGNE: Kamila Shamsie, there is the chapter beginning in one of your novel's cartography that begins with my litany of Karachi. Would you read a passage from that?

Ms. SHAMSIE: (Reading) "My litany of Karachi went to characteristics around something like this. Dry skin, socks, peanuts roasted in their shells and bought by the pound in bags made of newspaper, the silence of no fan and no air-conditioner, hibiscus flowers, shawls - days at the beach, which involve a litany of their own: salted fish air, turtle tracks, fishermen's nets drawn into shore, warm sand, wet sand, feet slippery on rock moss, jeans rolled up as we wade and rolls down again, heavy with salt and sea - shells, sparks from the barbecue, the concentrated colors of sunset. Stars."

MONTAGNE: Which is a very different Karachi than most people would imagine.

Ms. SHAMSIE: Right. I mean, you know, the great joke of Karachi is that if we didn't have the beach, you know, we would really be lost because it is - you know, I can say it because I'm from there and I love the place - but it's an ugly city. But if you actually want to see something that's beautiful and go to a place that you feel rested in, you go to the beach. And it is a place where you see people there, and you find every kind of person from Karachi - every class, every religious persuasion.

You have women in full burqa. You have women like me wondering around in shorts and a tank top. And everyone's very happy to do their own thing and just enjoy themselves. And it's worth remembering that, you know, we can all live together in that way as well.

MONTAGNE: Mohsin Hamid, describe Lahore for us. And describe it by comparison to Karachi.

Mr. HAMID: Well, Lahore is, you know, the second biggest city of Pakistan. And Karachi is about twice the size. So they're both big cities, but Karachi definitely feels much larger. Lahore is more slow-paced. It's, you know, inland, on the river Ravi. It has this sort of sedate pace that cities tend to have when they're far from the sea. Lahore also is much older than Karachi, so it has its share of ancient mosques and forts and monuments. It's quite tranquil and calm.

MONTAGNE: Would you, in Lahore, perhaps sip iced tea on the balcony or on the veranda?

Mr. HAMID: Well, you - you know, Lahore is full of verandas and it's full of balconies. But more than iced tea, we are big lemonade drinkers in Lahore. So, shikanjbeen as it's called, is the local lemonade, and that's sipped a lot.

And Lahore is also much more green than Karachi. And so the city is just full of trees and fruit and flowers, whereas Karachi is ringed with huge industrial plants. And so it really is a dynamo of industry.

MONTAGNE: When you two go to Pakistan and you talk to your families there, what is most in their minds? What news are they talking about?

Ms. SHAMSIE: The big story out of Pakistan has been that, you know, the judiciary and the military government went head to head with all the pro democracy forces pretty much lining up behind the judiciary, and they won. And everyone's actually quite excited about this and what these means and see this as a rather hopeful and promising time. So although I know this isn't the vision people are getting outside Pakistan, there is a kind of tentative optimism going on at the moment which I haven't felt there for quite a long time.

Mr. HAMID: And it's interesting because when people try to give you a view that Pakistan is the land of terrorism or Pakistan is the land of the war against terrorism or whatever, it's such a blatant over simplification that I think everybody should be resistant to it. And, you know, one example of that is, you know, recently in the U.S. presidential debates - or pre-presidential debates -Barack Obama mentioned that he thought it would be okay for U.S. soldiers to come into Pakistan and, you know, conduct strikes there if he had, you know, information about any terrorists in the country. And in Pakistan, that's, you know, viewed with complete horror.

You know, suddenly, people are asking me, is America about to invade Pakistan? And it's just a way of showing you how one sentence said at one point can suddenly become, in a country, a view that the other country is full of people who want to attack them. It's a fine balance between, as Kamila says, really exciting times and also really frightening times.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much for joining us.

Ms. SHAMSIE: Thank you.

Mr. HAMID: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Kamila Shamsie's most recent novel is "Broken Verses." Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel is "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, the explosion of media under President Pervez Musharraf and the rising scrutiny it faces from the government.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.