Imagined Spaces — Momina Masood

It was 7:30pm and we were already late for the Improv show, Alhamra’s Hall III already with a huge line in front of it. My parents and I tried to get ahead, hoping to be quickly recognized by one of the performers and be ushered in. Someone waved, I waved back, and rushed towards the seats, my parents still stumbling up the elaborate steps, breathless, laughing. “Kya baat thi?” I asked once they caught up to me. “Outside a guy asked the security guard about the show, andar kya ho raha hai? And he replied, O jee angrezi vich ik doosrey da mazaak udaande ne.” (They make fun of each other in English.)

For the viewers inside, the show and many others like it meant another step forward for the Pakistani theatre scene. For the guard outside, representative of those living on the peripheries, “art” and “culture” are spheres they don’t and, perhaps, can’t inhabit. Most people when making their way to Lahore’s Alhamra theatre do for the “stage shows”, the crude Punjabi comedies, occasionally punctuated with “vulgar” dance performances, which are deemed unfit for civilized and educated classes. Plays or events in English, on the other hand, attract a different audience, the one with chauffeurs and voices hiding the tinge of regional accents. On a sunny day, you can even make out a thin, watery membrane stretching between the two lines, making each other appear unreal and distant, as caricatures, as others.

This inside/outside binary holds the country together. Middle class readers often slam Kamila Shamsie for writing about the bubble-wrapped, privileged 1% of Pakistan, while upper class academics and literature professors cannot get enough of her for their university modules and international conferences. Even the government found her worthy of a Prime Minister’s Award for Literature. Yet the “lower” you go, the fascination ends with the accented angrezi no one speaks.

On the bottom rungs is a different art. Women’s Urdu periodicals and digests sell more than Bilal Tanweer or Mohammed Hanif. The Urdu novelist, Umera Ahmad, is a bigger name than Bapsi Sidhwa among the local housewives, and they cannot imagine anyone better. As the educated flock to cinemas for the latest Marvel flick, middle class homes find reruns of Bollywood movies on cable their weekend treat. The membrane remains intact. It’s vital. For it reminds the contemporary Pakistani writer that the minoritized protagonist he’s writing about will never actually read him. His own unsilencing and humanization is of no concern to him, for it will be in a language he has never learned to accept as his own. It is not the one he speaks. Can you humanize through translation?

The Western publishing market, on the other hand, will usually laud the courage of a South Asian writer “X” who was willing to write about violence and poverty that is often seen to be representative of South Asian spaces. But the middle class Ahmed-next-door who has spent more days not being in a bomb blast than being in one remains skeptical of being truly represented, and sometimes wonders whether such representations only add to the negative stereotyping of third world spaces. But X knows who he is writing for. He has had a foreign, fully-funded MFA and knows what literary agents like. He writes about the sweeper Bashir knowing he isn’t writing for Bashir nor does he have Bashir’s interests at heart. Western readers will appreciate the demystification and empowerment of Bashir while Bashir sits eating pakodas on the other side of town, the side X usually avoids due to the bad roads and the smell. The membrane cannot be overcome. The membrane comfortably lets the two sides coexist as imagined spaces.

Minor literatures in non-regional languages will remain problematic, and the intentions of X, his sincerity, his claim of ownership to a postcolonial sensibility questioned. He writes for the colonizer pleading the case of the doubly marginalized he has no access to. When he writes about himself, he is seen as privileged and inaccessible by the middle class that do sometimes read him. And when he writes about the lower classes, he comes off as inauthentic. Ahmed remains skeptical. Bashir doesn’t give a fuck. The lauded X remains virtually unknown (or disliked, if he’s lucky) at home.

The other day a flashmob appeared in the vicinity of Anarkali and started dancing to the sheer astonishment of the passersby and, well, the whole country. It was one of the rare times when the boundaries of the membrane were overstepped. Both sides were brought in contact with each other, and both left each other puzzled, disgusted, and estranged. Conservatives proclaimed such vulgarity as another sign of the end of the world, while liberals saw the act as empowering of femininity, and a work of art. Those unable to find art in a flashmob performance were quickly reduced to jaahils. If attempted as a bridging of class barriers, the attempt failed spectacularly. The dialogue ensued only brought out the prejudices that made the membrane possible in the first place. The membrane is mighty and all-powerful. The membrane is necessary.

The membrane does bubble-wrap spaces and make them inaccessible, but also invites empathy. It excites imagination on either side; the classes coexist constantly repelled and in awe of each other, envying, gloating, but snuggled together in collective communal experience. To be able to reach international audiences, X must (or so he thinks) write in English, severing him from his own community, about that which he writes, stereotyping it further in the attempt of humanizing it, always italicizing and explaining colloquialisms, always conscious of his Western reader. But who knows, an Irvine Welsh might not be far away. Someone who can write about Bashir without translating him, who is too in love with the dialect to choose the lingua franca. And who knows, Bashir might even decide to read him one day in his part of the town, sipping on his chai, the sweeper’s broom comfortably resting at his feet.

Momina Masood currently lives in Lahore, Pakistan, and usually has a hard time describing herself to strangers. Talk to her at @momina711