IN CHOOSING WRITING from and about Pakistan as its theme, the latest edition of the prestigious Granta magazine encourages readers to look to the country for more than violence, religious extremism and abject desolation. It chooses to do this with a collection dominated by pieces about violence, religious extremism and abject desolation. That said, Granta 112: Pakistan is a pleasantly juicy edition of a franchise that has given us, this year, an unfulfilling Work issue (Granta 109) and a distinctly flaccid Sex issue (Granta 110). Granta tends towards its best when casting its eye further afield; of the contemporary writing featured in Going Back Home (Granta 111), the strongest was perhaps Janine di Giovanni’s essay on returning to Bosnia.
Granta: Pakistan too owes much of its vigour to the selection of non-fiction seen here. Guardian correspondent Declan Walsh’s ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’ leads him to a grisly statistic—8,500 people lost to violent deaths in the Northwest Frontier Province in the past year—a figure of which he attempts to make some sense. In doing so, Walsh provides a thoroughly lucid history of the Pakistani Taliban, the oft demonised (and as oft romanticised) customs and traditions of the Pashtuns, and the distinct differences between the two, which are all too often presented as oh so much mayhem by lesser journalists. Walsh’s ability to humanise without sentimentalising comes not just from his research, which is very much in evidence, but from his own point of view, which is never lost nor diluted. It’s an interesting voice, never detached, often slightly bewildered, like a well-informed naïf abroad.
The truth is that many, many Pakistani writers writing in English are also naïfs abroad in their own country; only since they cannot quite acknowledge this, their writing often finds itself both stating the obvious and jumping to conclusions with the misplaced authority provided by a sense of cultural entitlement. The vastness of Walsh’s canvas means that the piece does a great deal more than merely steer the reader through a political imbroglio. This writing never allows itself the lazy luxury of generalisation. Observing social and sexual mores with lashings of humour and the robust tone of a rollicking adventure novel, Walsh not only gives you, in flesh and blood, the central player whom he trails—Anwar Kamal, “lawyer and chieftain, landlord and warlord,” Walsh’s idea of a Pakistani Flashman—but he also hangs out getting drunk and stoned (and being hit on) by Peshawar’s young urban professionals. The seeming paradoxes in Pashtun society, be they between tradition and rebellion, religiosity and hypocrisy or tribal law and central governance, are made, if not less paradoxical, then at least all too human.