I know I may be going out on a limb here but what IS up with Pakistani English fiction writers becoming the prescriptive messiahs of Pakistan?
I mean, I know that novelists are storytellers and there's nothing as powerful as a good storyteller to bring out the humanity of such a massive disaster as the current floods - often drowned in dry and incomprehensible statistics - for a wider reading public, especially outside Pakistan. And some, such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, have done an admirable job of painting pictures with their words, (Incidentally, here's a well-written critique of the American press' obsession with the Taliban taking advantage of the floods, that many readers have taken to be a critique of Mueenuddin's piece, which to be fair only pandered to this obsession right at the end). But since when did Pakistani English language novelists, most of them with only a book or two to their names, become the "experts" on Pakistan's politics, economy, sociology, and everything else? So much so that you would be hard-pressed to find a piece on Pakistan by a Pakistani in the New York Times or other Western English newspapers not written by a Pakistani fiction writer.
The Usual Suspects: (clockwise from top left) Hanif, Mueenuddin, Sethi, Shamsie
Don't get me wrong: I enjoy a well-written piece as much as anyone else (though some of the pieces recently appearing don't even fall into that category - Ali Sethi, I'm thinking of you) and I can understand the Western press' natural reliance on people who can string together a sentence in English. What I find inexplicable is the total reliance on a handful of mostly urban elite, mostly thirty-something writers to explain everything about Pakistan, to the exclusion of almost anyone else (aside from the official line periodically trotted out by the Husain Haqqanis and the Wajid Shamsul Hasans). You want a piece on feudalism? Let's go to Mueenuddin (he's a farmer after all). You want a piece on corruption, let's ask Sethi. The music scene? Mohsin Hamid. Attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team? Kamila Shamsie. Afghan refugees? Mohammed Hanif. The Ahmadis? How about Bapsi Sidhwa? At least Mohammed Hanif can claim to be a reporter who has covered Pakistani politics for years. And I am sure these writers reflect upon their country and have quite intelligent things to say about a variety of topics. But are they the only people who do / can? What about activists, political economists, musicians, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, sports journalists... you know, the people who actually work in these fields and do the research? Or for that matter, why not poets or writers in 'native' languages who have far greater experience of "the Pakistani condition"? (If Marquez for example wanted to submit an op-ed in Spanish about Colombia, don't you think the NYT would get it translated?)
But the problem is not just that the pool of op-ed writers being drawn from by Western publications is small and stereotyped. The more insidious problem is that some of these writers end up believing their own hype and think they actually have it all figured out, going beyond humanizing stories with anecdotes and observation to presenting solutions. So we have Shamsie blaming these floods on the timber mafia (yes, deforestation is a factor but certainly does not explain the entire gamut of devastation caused by the floods, most of it in areas where timber theft is not really a factor), Hanif trying to make a point against the Taliban scare by claiming that there is no indigenous word for terrorism in Sindhi or Seraiki (really? and Pushto does?) and Mueenuddin raising the spectre of the radicalization of and revolution by the displaced and hungry to explain why those people should be helped out.
But a special place in all this must be reserved for Mohsin Hamid, whose every article on Pakistan seems now to be predicated on the belief that everything would be rosy in Pakistan if only everyone paid more taxes. What is perhaps even more strange is that it's a local publication, Dawn, that gives him pride of place on its op-ed pages to hold forth his economic prescriptions that under a little bit of scrutiny turn out to be mostly nice-sounding fluff. Here, for example is his solution to Pakistan's woes, from his latest piece in Dawn:
"Helping [the flood affectees] means taxes. We pay only a tenth of our collective income to our state, far less than most countries.
and India pay half again as much as we do. We need to pay more. We need a comprehensive flood tax programme. We need to cease our foolish bickering about whether taxes should be paid to the provinces or to the centre, by merchants or by landlords, on luxury goods or on shareholdings. The answer to these either-or questions is both. Let’s tax both locally and nationally, both trading and agriculture, both consumption and wealth." Sri Lanka
Author Mohsin Hamid: obsessed with taxes
Yes, Mohsin, we know you were a banker and we know that Pakistan's tax collections are abysmally low. But could you go and check with any economist how much of what we do collect is actually utilized? And I'm not even talking about corruption here, the other favourite bugbear of armchair theorists. I'm talking about the state's lack of capacity in even making the most of what it has. It is a favourite pastime of the intelligentsia to moan about how Pakistan allocates only 1.5% of its GDP to education and health and how we need to raise this number manifold. All well and good, but what about the fact that more than 50% of even this meagre allocation goes un-utilized because the state does not have the ability to use it? Yes, of course there should be more schools for children and health units in the rural areas, but what about the fact that even the ones that exist are often without teachers and medical staff and supplies? Mohsin alludes to this major issue with the throwaway line, "if we can... then spend for our impoverished majority..." Ah, yes, great idea, it's a pity nobody ever thought of it before.
Could we move beyond the safe generalizations to understand the complexity of the issues? Or am I just being a Wish Maker?