Does your pichal pairi have a guitar-slinging boyfriend?

On the possibilities inherent in Pakistani speculative fiction


IN SADIA KHATRI’Sshort story The City of Mitr, there are no chaar deevari, no constricting corners, no ceilings. Instead: “a thousand circles overlapping, interweaving, sparkling in their stacked orbits, an intricate geometry… a miracle of light.” On the long night of Shab-e-Yalda, “the womxn lie awake all night, spending their minds and bodies on food and music and poetry, mourning and celebrating, remembering the first Mitris, the ones who dreamed the city into being.”

Is the city of Mitr set in the future? Is it Khatri’s wistful articulation of an alternative present? The Mitris sip tea and tell tales of older, masculine worlds—an inside world, “where the men hurt the womxn,” and an outside world, “where they hurt plants, animals and machines”—and the story of what followed, the origin story of Mitr: “Men ruined the world with their hands; womxn remade the debris with their imaginations.”

In a sense, the core of Mitr is the core of all speculative fiction: imagination. The genre—although most writers will balk at that very word—is a vast tent where science fiction and fantasy jostle alongside superheroes and the supernatural, as well as newer subgenres that are responding to specific cultural needs, such as Afrofuturism and biopunk. Speculative fiction builds alternative worlds: our lives, but refracted, either by new scientific discoveries or leaps in technology or a drastically different social order. When Khatri began writing her story, she says she first mapped out the city of Mitr, its values and terminologies, “Then I sat down to write the history of the city, how it came into being, what existed before it,” she explained. “The questions I was asking myself were: what happens when we take away the structures of oppression from our present? In order to root these out, what else would we have to get rid of, from our spaces, from our language? What concepts might we have never arrived at in our present, and which ones might become obsolete or grow into disuse?” 

“There is another reason to advocate the collective embrace of speculative fiction: progressive politics.” 

Long before we hurtled into the twenty-first century, science fiction authors were already building their own versions of it, asking how technologies would develop, how societies would transform, how age-old questions about what it meant to be human, what it meant to exist, would be warped by new settings, wondering who would be shut out of the modern world. For most of the previous century, such speculative undertakings were considered niche, treated with disdain, dismissed as a crude, second-rate genre. Usman T Malik, arguably Pakistan’s best known contemporary sci-fi writer, recalls how literary critic Harold Bloom called Nobel laureate Doris Lessing “that writer of fourth-rate science fiction.”

Today, speculative fiction is less likely to be dismissed as escapist chaff. Globally, the genre has acquired currency in popular culture: Ted Chiang’s short stories, for instance, not only garner critical acclaim, they are also adapted into Hollywood blockbusters. (You may not have read The Story of Your Life, but you are likely to have watched its film version: Arrival.) We now have studies that show reading fantasy feeds a child’s sense of wonder, empathy and emotional intelligence. In adults, it staves off cynicism and serves as an outlet for creativity. The sheer variety of what falls within the genre’s folds means there is something for every reader—and sometimes, escapism for escapism’s sake is necessary, too. But as the genre unfurls within Pakistan—with a plethora of stories, as well as comics and an upcoming short film—there is also another reason to advocate the collective embrace of speculative fiction: politics. Specifically: progressive politics. 

LABELS ARE CAGES,Ursula K Le Guin, science fiction’s greatest ambassador, once said. They are also recent. In her essay on the history of desi science-fiction and fantasy (SFF), Indian writer Mimi Mondal noted that science fiction as a distinct, recognisable genre only came together in the early twentieth century, fantasy a few decades later. But storytellers have been incorporating fantastical elements into their narratives for far longer: epics and folktales from across the world, the plays of Shakespeare, even relatively newer works like Frankenstein or Alice in Wonderland. These can only be read as precursors of ideas and tropes that speculative fiction would later explore, Mondal argued, rather than works within the genre itself. In a non-Western postcolonial context, especially in South Asia where mythologies are living, breathing belief systems, this gets even trickier: “it is impossible to recognise which works…were written clearly to be genre, or even fiction.”    

“In Bees Sau Gyarah, the homeless are called Lovers of the Open Air.”

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain | Wikimedia Commons

The tall-tale adventures told in Dastan-e-Amir Hamza (1855) and the oral-folktale-style epic of Tilism-e-Hoshruba (circa 1883) would today fall within the modern category of speculative fiction. In 1905, to entertain herself while her husband travelled, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain wrote Sultana’s Dream, a tale of reverse purdah where men are restricted to a mardana while women take over the public sphere, rejuvenating a ravaged world. (The City of Mitr pays homage to this early feminist utopia; Khatri says she wanted to build on what already exists: “taking our own stories and lore and expanding from there”.)

Already in the early 1950s, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s Bees Sau Gyarah was paying tribute to an earlier work; Akhtar was reportedly inspired after “reading reviews of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.” In the novella, the homeless are called Lovers of the Open Air and the special police PULJAKMACH: Pakar Lo Jis Ko Marzi Chahey. One Mr Popo navigates a dystopian world of ageing bachelors and a smattering of women, where Urdu has replaced Zulu as the national language in South Africa, and Pakistan is a province in the state of Islamistan, along with Afghanistan and Iran. A bomb destroys the Manhattan skyline; the empire implodes. Rereading it in 2011, a critic in Dawn found himself more alarmed than amused.  

Better known is Ibn-e-Safi’s series of supernatural spy novels, written during the height of the Cold War, and popularised as the Imran series. Then, in the 1970s, Suspense Digest began publishing Devta, a serialised fantasy thriller by Mohiuddin Nawab in which a young orphan attains telepathic powers and navigates conspiracies and prophecies in Lahore. It continued to do so for 33 years —likely the longest continuously published series on record. 

For the most part, however, it can be argued that the overall literary canon of Pakistan, especially in English, skews realist. “I have read plenty of literature by desi and non-desi writers,” said Malik, “which tends to be mimetic, the template taken, as it were, from what was once considered high literature by academics and MFA programmes: realism.” His own best-known story The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistan Family, nominated for the prestigious Nebula Prize in 2014, eschews hardcore sci-fi tropes, instead intertwining motifs from chemistry with a storyline that hews close to reality. 

Although distinctive and newer forms are emerging—in 2013, for instance, Sidra Fatima Sheikh published The Light Blue Jumper, a humorous intergalactic spaceship novel that interrogates colonialism, imperialism, even enforced disappearance—most local English fiction still has a tendency to produce a particular type of story, centred on select themes, key amongst them partition, religion and terrorism. These ideas are important and worth exploring, but Pakistani writers often lift motifs from real life and weave a story around them, rather than creating new story patterns based on these ideas. 

“What if we lived in a world where people had no gender except once a month when they became either male or female? What if we could interfere with people’s dreams?”

One attempt at countering this tendency has been The Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction, now in its fourth year. The award makes the case that “challenging the boundaries of traditional thinking and ideologies is one of the core competencies of any progressive society.” Named in honour of Dr Abdus Salam—a man whose legacy has been marred by the virulent orthodoxies that progressives hope to challenge—the annual prize aims to encourage “a wildness of thought”, says Malik, who is one of its conveners. Last year’s winning entry—The Puppetmaster by Kehkashan Khalid—follows a curious little girl called Gul, who thinks she has spotted something odd in “an overturned tandoor sky.”  Khalid, an artist interested in the notion of digimodernism and a post-truth world, was working with resin at the time, trying to recreate layers of paint preserved under a hardened translucent surface—similar to a snow-globe. “I wondered if whole worlds existed within such snow-globes and the inspiration for the story was born. Not to mention the innuendos it held, concerning women and glass ceilings.”   

Khalid, who also writes realistic short fiction, says her loyalty will always lie with speculative fiction. “There is something incredibly freeing about being able to build entire worlds on your own rules,” she said. “Also, the way I see it, we are what past speculative fiction writers imagined.”

“The ‘what if’ questions in speculative fiction can lead to some wonderfully interesting thought experiments,” said Jawziya Zaman, whose short story Contagion, written from the perspective of the bacteria that caused the plague in the 1300s, received an honourable mention for the 2017 Salam Award. “What if we lived in a world where people had no gender except once a month when they became either male or female? What if we could interfere with people’s dreams? What if we could travel through time? What if there was a society in which people stopped talking entirely after age six?” 

In Saniya Kamal’s The Last Interview of Lara Khalid, another Salam Award finalist, world-building is approached more obliquely. The story is written as an online celebrity profile published in the future, of a robot with human parents. Kamal says she grappled with how to describe her world—where autonomous robots exist alongside humans but are terribly marginalised, with few, hard-won rights—within the constraints of her chosen format: “Suppose in this future version of Karachi, Teen Talwar is a hologram—all the readers of a local magazine would already know that.” She had questions like what skills would textbooks of the future teach, what would advertisements sell and to whom.      

“Give us your pichal pairis, your churails, your bhoots but hand them to us in new forms.”

Khalid says she reads everything in the genre, from young adult to science fiction and fantasy, but is only just getting to know more about the South Asian SFF. “Growing up, my understanding of this genre was informed either by tales such as Amir Hamza, Umro Ayyar or Hatim Tai, or foreign writers. I think the first author I ran into that sounded South Asian was Sabaa Tahir—I was fascinated by the book featuring a brown protagonist. When I stumbled onto the Salam Award, I also began to read the stories of Usman Malik and that was extremely inspiring because I suddenly realised how science fiction and fantasy could exist in my culture and my region, and emerge from it.”   

This is precisely what Malik hoped to jumpstart: an imaginative and exciting local literature. 

“Give us your pichal pairis, your churails, your bhoots but hand them to us in new forms. Does your pichal pairi go to school? Does she have a guitar-slinging boyfriend? What is her coming-of-age story, what are the conflicts she hides within? What equations of power and dispossession wrap around her body and space? I would personally read that before I read another story about the materialistic feudal heir who attends Aitchison and is scheming to create drama within his social circle, for I believe I have read that story many times.”   

THESE DAYS, ASthe world burns and crumbles around us, it is natural to feel despondent. It is tempting to succumb to the belief that what we have now is the best we can ever have in our collective lives. The late, great Mark Fisher called this a time of capitalist realism, imbued with “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” This encourages an inherently conservative mindset: as I argue here, conservatives of each era are usually former progressives who ceased their struggle. They made peace with their present. Simply put, they stopped imagining a different future. 

This is where the progressive—and subversive—potential of speculative fiction comes in. In order to fight for a different future, we must first be able to imagine it. The worlds that speculative fiction authors construct are rich, coherent and deep explorations of alternatives futures—they are, in a sense, controlled experiments that allow us to deal with meaty existential concerns without being blinkered by our individual contexts. One of fantasy’s foremost authors, Robin Hobb, summed it up beautifully:

“Fantasy is where we can examine the big questions we face while leaving our own baggage outside the door. Divorce yourself from your own ethnic, religious, gender, nationality and other identities and think about slavery or being born a worker or serf or any other hot button issue. It lets us confront those issues without preconceived notions in radically different settings.” 

These gloomy visions don’t necessarily undermine the progressive nature of speculative fiction; rather, they serve as warnings, a call to action now.

Often, speculative fiction is an exercise not just in imagination but an articulation of our collective hopes and fears. These days, because we are more fearful than hopeful, in Pakistan as in the world, much of the current crop of local speculative fiction is darkly dystopian. Arafat Mazhar’s animated Urdu short Sheher-e-Tabassum , for instance,features a quirky Pakistan set in 2071, speckled with space suits and flying rickshaws. But it is also a Pakistan that is strictly surveilled and centralised, dictated by an ordinance that makes it incumbent upon citizens to keep smiling—their lives literally depend on it. Similarly, Bilal Ahmed’s graphic novel, ‘Mehtaab’, takes place circa 2050 in a place called Neo Pakistan, described by Ahmed as a post-conflict wasteland where empathy is depicted as “a virus spreading through society.”

These gloomy visions don’t necessarily undermine the progressive nature of speculative fiction; rather, they serve as warnings, a call to action now. “The story we wanted to present was our interpretation of the worst possible outcome if Pakistan did not address the very real issues present in the country today,” said Ahmed. On the other hand, Mazhar says his film is not meant to be a prediction of the future: “It is in fact a reflection of some of today’s most pertinent issues exaggerated and in a fantastical setting…It is almost allegorical to the way certain terms are corrupted by those in power: for example, ishq-e-rasool could have meant a lot of things once upon a time. In a way we wanted to be able to showcase how something as innocuous and as beautiful as a smile can also be corrupted to a point where it not only loses its meaning but becomes an instrument for control.” 

Mazhar says he calls his genre ‘cyberkhilafat’, informed by contemporary anxieties that he argues would perhaps not even have existed for previous generations of South Asian writers. What are the ways in which power plays out when religion and technology is used by the state? “It serves as a kind of slap in the face sometimes: you see this terrifying reality and you think, thank God, I don’t live in this impossible world–and then the similarities dawn on you.”

In Umair Najeeb’s PaakLegion superhero comics, co-written by Iman Sultan, the future that needs saving is also already here. In the first instalment, released last year, twins separated at birth in the twin-cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi try to become vigilantes until they are imbued with the power to manipulate electricity. Although superpowers abound in PaakLegion, its universe is unlikely to deviate significantly from reality, he says. The point he is trying to make with his diverse cast of characters—stealth fighter Divya in her ghagra choli; Kashmiri poet and plant whisperer Aazam; Afsoon, who shape-shifts into a markhor—is different, but equally vital: our saviours, in the future as in the present, must be people who look like us, talk like us—and are from among us. ■   

HAMZA SARFRAZ(@wingsforus) is a researcher interested in pop culture.
Additional reporting by JAZA AQIL.Header illustration by HAFSA ASHFAQUE

More Stories

Havelian aur Hava: On Architecture and Air Pollution

How Karachi's architecture became environmentally unsustainable.

Anti-Ahmadi hashtags: Initiated by Jamiat Ulema Islam, supported by all

The hashtags #AhmadisAreNotMuslims and #Expose_Qadyani_ProMinisters may have been started by JUI activists, but their popularity amongst users across the political spectrum reflects the strength of anti-Ahmadi hatred in Pakistan.


We analyzed a network of Twitter accounts targeting Pakistan’s Minister of Human Rights.