Translating Challawa: Pakistani Writing Between Urdu, English, and Lesbian Erotica

A small but vibrant literary scene has emerged in Pakistan over the last decade. After the events of 9/11 pushed their country into the media’s spotlight, many authors wanted to write their own narratives rather than have them transposed from elsewhere. Big names soon garnered global fame. Among multiple other awards and nominations, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, Mohammed Hanif”s A Case of Exploding Mangoes won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009, and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist that same year. Following these international successes, in 2010 Oxford University Press and the British Council founded the Karachi Literature Festival, which now takes place each February. The Lahore Literary Festival had its inaugural run in February 2013.

Though Urdu may be the official language of the country, English is the language of the nation’s elite and it is literature written in English that is receiving this international and local praise and publicity. Urdu writing is often not translated, nor are works in any of the eight other languages that are spoken in different regions of the state.

Mohammed Hanif is frustrated by the privilege afforded English in his country at the expense of the regional languages. He worked as a journalist abroad and speaks perfect English, but he can both read and write in Urdu and is very much connected to the multiple facets of Pakistan. While he recognizes that there are some good initiatives underway, he thinks the writing pool is still relatively small, made smaller still by the constraints of language. Despite the fact that the Karachi Literature Festival hosts authors in English and Urdu, as well as in regional languages, Hanif feels that the writing scenes are very divided.  He cites as an example the generation currently in grammar schools or colleges, who are getting an excellent education in English but don’t read in any of the local languages.  “You can’t cut yourself off from the languages and the literature of a place that you live in,” he says.

The strong emphasis on proficiency in English within many of the state’s top schools serves to further divide the upper classes from the rest of the population and, by extension, excludes whole categories of writing from discussions of literature. “If you cannot understand any of the languages this population speaks,” says Hanif, “you’re not going to make very sensible decisions about your life or about your literature, because you have already assumed whatever these people are saying, it is not worth listening to.”

While Faiza Khan and Aysha Raja speak Urdu, they were raised in the West, and cannot read it. The two women launched a short story competition and in 2010 compiled the winners in the first issue of a journal called The Life’s Too Short Literary Review. A nod, says Khan, to the way Pakistan is marketed and, to some extent, actually is. The Review would be just another literary venture among many were it based in the UK where Khan and Raja grew up, but here it is helping to foster a literary environment that is fraught with almost as many contradictions and complexities as Pakistan itself.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the entries,” Khan says. “There were 700 insufferably awful ones, and then some of them were really expert.” Besides organizing the journal and running the short story prize, Khan, who has now relocated from Pakistan to India, writes for various publications and is also an editor. Ask her about the country’s newfound fame as a literary hot spot and she is less than enthusiastic.  “Some Pakistani writers are gaining international attention and some are writing extremely good books,” she says, “but I don’t know if I would call something a literary boom if at most one book or manuscript a year were coming out.”

Her friend and journal co-founder echoes these sentiments. Raja left a career in law to work as a literary publicist and also acts as an agent for authors. She runs a chain of independent bookshops called The Last Word and is involved in organizing the Lahore Literary Festival. “We are limited in our characterization,” she says, “because we don’t have much to offer as yet which will show the breadth and the ground that we could cover.” She doesn’t subscribe to the idea that conflict zones produce good writing, a theory that is often applied to Pakistan. She thinks writers write well because they are naturally inclined and put in the effort, and that the geographical and political turbulence of the state and its increased prominence over the last decade has put Pakistan under the global microscope, nothing more.

But while both Khan and Raja may feel that the literary environment in which they work is over-hyped, the two women separately migrated here to pursue their ambitions rather than remain in the UK. For Raja, there is an opportunity for literature initiatives to emerge, simply because people are looking. Khan describes the literary landscape here as inviting because it has yet to be exploited. Yet along with that percolating potential are some serious challenges that strike at the root of what it means to write in Pakistan.


Humayun Iqbal has salt and pepper hair that reaches almost to his shoulders and a mouth stained faintly red from paan. He gives off the air of an aging rock star, or a mischievous uncle. Living in relative obscurity, rock star he is not, but his work was once, and—thanks to the Review—is now again, famous.  This is the man who brought lesbian erotica to the masses.

Despite having written many works, Iqbal is best known as the author of Challawa, the serialized Urdu fiction purportedly written by Sabiho Bano, an upper class Pakistani woman who has a sexual appetite for schoolgirls. Like many other erotic novels serialized in Pakistan in the 1970s, it ran in journals that were widely read across class lines. It was popular mass-market Urdu fiction that fizzled out in the 1980s under the conservative rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Inspired by his reading of Sappho, Iqbal set out to write a new and better type of erotic on-going story.  “Nobody writes about lesbians,” he says.

Challawa challenges some common perceptions of Pakistani fiction. Iqbal’s piece is set apart from much current popular writing by his fellow nationals because it is written in Urdu and does not deal with the political violence and instability that some more famous works investigate.  While the fact that it is lesbian erotica written by a man may raise some eyebrows, within the context of Pakistan’s male dominated literary environment this is not such a surprise. Moreover, the overt sexuality of the piece contests the common Western assumption that sex is a recent import to Pakistan. “There is a tradition of historically gay relationships being part of the landscape,” says Raja. “There was never really that Victorian reaction to it in this part of the world.”

Iqbal’s Challawa represents one of the largely unknown subgenres within Pakistani literature.  Khan and Raja had never heard of it, but when a friend brought it to their attention they were quickly taken with the work and wanted to republish it in The Life’s Too Short Literary Review. Mohammed Hanif, who feels the quality of the writing in Iqbal’s story and its focus on women sets it apart from much of the erotica of that period, agreed to translate it.

Drinking tea and chain smoking in his airy living room in the upscale neighborhood of Defence in Karachi, Hanif is very aware that to talk about language and literature in Pakistan is also to have a conversation about class.  “If you have a book that gets published,” he says, “5000 people will read it, maybe 7000, in a population of around 180 million.”  Pakistan has a 55 per cent literacy rate.  Just under half of its roughly 177 million citizens cannot read and the majority of its population struggles to pay for basic necessities; books are an unaffordable luxury.  So already to talk about literature in this country is to exclude millions of Pakistanis from such dialogue.  Even if class and literacy do not define such conversations, they certainly affect them. And then issues of language draw the circle of inclusion even smaller.

The Life’s Too Short Literary Review and the competition that provides its content will remain in English because Khan and Raja simply can’t take on Urdu submissions without the ability to read them. They have also decided to run the story competition every few years rather than annually, to give the pool of talent time to accumulate. Both agree, however, that Urdu writing is a vital and untapped part of Pakistan’s literary landscape.  But they feel that as long as the infrastructure to translate and transmit it to the international market is lacking, the wealth of material in these stories will remain inaccessible.

The readers are there, but what they will choose to read continues to develop.  According to both Khan and Raja, writing that caters to the West’s perceptions of Pakistan and touches on subjects such as terrorism, violence and the subjugation of women is much easier to market and sell. “I find it immensely patronizing,” says Khan, “that one has to write about Pakistani issues rather than just issues.” Through her work, Raja is seeing new novels published that are breaking out from the standard narratives surrounding her country: “You can see other genres developing,” she says. “And maybe even every single novel that comes out of Pakistan doesn’t have to be an aspiring award winning novel. It could just be good writing.” That hope is qualified, however, by her observation that often it is only after a work is shortlisted for a regional award, like the Man Asian Literary Prize or the DSC Prize, that European or North American publishers take note.

But that may be changing. Iqbal’s Challawa certainly defies many people’s ideas of the country and, of all the stories published in the initial Review, it has attracted the most international attention.  Possibly mirroring the state itself, Pakistan’s writing scene is a literary environment in flux. It is still struggling to emerge from the shadow of global perceptions and expectations of what Pakistani literature should be. The scene may be transitioning into something more cohesive and sizable, but it’s not there yet.  For Khan, however, malleability is good. “I hope there aren’t any characteristics that define Pakistani literature,” she says. “I hope that what comes of it is that people are able to write novels about whatever they want.”


The material for this piece was gathered over the period between 2011 and 2013.

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