De-colonise yourself. That is the strongest message I came away with from the Rising Dust writing workshop held by Desi Writers in Lahore some months ago. Unlike the other messages which I know will return to bite me when I write, this message has not ceased to niggle at me.
De-colonise yourself. Am I colonised? The answer came back as pat as the slap of chapati on a tawa: yes I am. All right then, I'm colonised. We all are, and we always were. The list of invaders and colonisers of India is long and florid starting with the Greek, Arab and Turkish invasions. After them the Mamluks, the Khiljis and the Tughluqs and we haven't even come to the Moghuls yet. When the Mughals did arrive, the Portugese arrived after them and then the British, and of course the Americans most recently on air-wave steeds and broadband warships. All these people left bits of themselves behind. There is no such thing as a purely subcontinental culture. If I cast around for an example of something essentially 'here' I alight on the humble tandoor. But the Persians, Armenians, Turks, Hebrews, Uzbeks and Kurds all possess close variants of the word and the item to which all their words refer is the same tandoor we're familiar with in Pakistan. The question is, is there anything wrong with being 'colonised', per se?
I left Pakistan kicking and screaming in the early '90s and returned the same way twenty years later. I had never expected to come back. After years of waiting at my postbox stifling the urge to bite the postman or woman if there was nothing for me, I had accepted my isolation and realised I was not isolated at all. I had not only a new life but I had been allowed to retain my old one to a great extent. Yes my family was not there, but hey, there was email.
I got religion there. Or perhaps I simply got older. One seems to follow the other. But the fact is I find other countries more Islamic than Pakistan has ever been, at least that was and is my brand of Islam. I have little patience with our bean counting religiosity and find it hard to believe that God listens to your prayer when the one lac and fiftieth prayed over khajoor ka beej leaves your hand, and not before. I have no patience at all with our wedding rasams and rituals and attend each function kicking as hard and screaming as loudly as I did when I returned to this country.
I say my prayers now, and my Iblees damns me with faint praise when I do, and my Gabriels high five each other, and if I don't my angels do not tempt me with deserts under which streams of milk flow because they know I am lactose intolerant.
I wish I was like Kamila Shamsie where my writing was concerned, but as much as her I cannot relate to the woman behind the veil or the one squatting above a desi toilet. I am not alone in not being versed let alone well versed in Urdu literature, and have always realised that deficit in my education, but as a result of the workshop I have resolved to try and read more Urdu. It is true that some of the best informed most intellectual persons I know are as well versed in Urdu literature as in any other. At the same time I defy anyone to say there is no 'Made in Pakistan' plastered right across my face, because this is what Pakistan made of me. I have never shrunk from who I am nor has my colour faded when someone introduced me as their Pakistani friend. I am Pakistani, and happy to be so (except at certain generally explosive moments), although what Pakistani is is something that has yet to be defined. Perhaps that is what is meant by 'de-colonisation', the ability to be aware of one's strati-graphic composition, to understand it, and in the context of a writer convey the layers in a way that enables the reader to feel the grains of sand, and each individual stone and shard of pottery.