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Portrayal of Identity Crisis in English Novels by Pakistani Writers

Moniba Mehboob

MA (Final) Literature

Dr. Faisal Nazir

22nd May 2017


Abstract
This paper is focused mainly on the portrayal of identity crisis in the Uzma

Aslam Khans novel the Geometry of God and the representation of

Pakistaniness in the novel, or the lack thereof, on established grounds of the

relationship between national identity and literature. In doing so, it explores

what Pakistaniness should entail. This is done by analysing the narrative, and

the ethical value of the novel through an exploration of all characters but

especially of Noman who refers to himself as a match-fixer. The paper

studies Nomans identity crisis deeply, relating his condition to the

postcolonial condition, and focuses on the resolution of the crisis. It is an effort

to bridge some gaps in the critical work done on Pakistani English fiction in

relation to portrayal of identity and a step towards establishing a future

pathway for Pakistani English writers.

Now I wonder what really is my land


The one left behind or the one just landed in
Oscillating between these two worlds
My fractured Identity looms large
With worms of memories wriggling in my flesh
And a myth dying in my brain

(My Fractured Identity by Valsa George)

In contemporary Pakistani English fiction, it is common to note a clear identity

crisis, sometimes explicitly portrayed as in Mohsin Hamids Moth Smoke, and sometimes

implicitly present arising from the authors own identity crisis arising from the nations

hindering struggle with self-identity. Forming this connection between national identity and

literature is not a misplaced notion since it has been prominent in the postcolonial world and
critics such as Franz Fanon, Timothy Brennan, and Edward Said have long ago commented

upon it. Peter Hitchcock in the introduction to his book The Long Space writes, Consciously

or not the space of postcolonial writing brings alternative histories to bear on the process of

anticolonial narration (Hitchcock 9). This implies an immediate relationship between a

nations history and its literature and where those two are connected, national identity is

manifest. Timothy Brennan in his essay, The National Longing for Form, has likened the novel

and the nation saying that the novel is formed by mimicking the structure of the nation, a

clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles (49).

Edward Said in his book Culture and Imperialism argues that nations proclaim their

identities through their narrations, that is, through their stories and novels. The culture

represented in postcolonial novels then, forms and reinforces the cultural identity of a nation.

In their book The Empire Writes Back, Ashcroft, Griffith, and Tiffin outline four critical models

of postcolonial literatures, the first of them being the national or regional model in which a

nation forms its own distinctive narrative to write its distinctive character. The first nation to

do this was the USA. They write that forming a national literature is a postcolonial nations way

to reject the colonisers claim to exclusivity (14-16). Edward Said too writes about self-

definition which he says all nations carry out through their writing (42). This establishes the

fact that novels are a means of self-definition for nations, a way of asserting their distinctive

identity.

This distinctive identity has often become a problem for postcolonial nations as

Rushdie writes in his essay, An Indian Writer in England, a native of a postcolonial nation is

"now partly of the West-sometimes... straddling two cultures; at other times falling between

two stools" (Rushdie 79). The problem has resulted in an identity crisis, a fragmentation of

identity, or in what Bhabha calls mimicry (4). Novelists have responded to this crisis with

several concepts of identity portrayed in their novels. If we focus only on how Pakistani authors
have tried to resolve the issue, we see that most novelists such as Ahmed Ali, Moniza Alvi, and

Kamila Shamsie present a universal standpoint or in Cara Cilanos words, they take up a

human identity. There are then those with a multicultural context such as Mohsin Hamids

novels or Hanif Kureishis, which exhibit the hybridity which Bhabha proposes in his book, the

Location of Culture. There are also those such as Uzma Aslam Khans the Geometry of God

which see resolution in the form of a clear secular and westernized position of mimicry after

having portrayed the struggle between all components of identity formation; this is seen

especially in novels with a background of Zias era of Islamization which Muneeza Shamsie

also mentions in her essay South Asian Muslims: Fiction and Poetry in English (153). Critics

such as Bina Shah have presented the universal standpoint as the antidote to the Pakistani

identity crisis (9), while Mahira Hajiyeva represents hybridity as the most apt answer to

identity crises (140).

In this paper, we shall discuss the portrayal of this problem in Uzma Aslam Khans

novel the Geometry of God. We shall divide our discussion into three sections. In the first

section, I will analyse the novels characters and see how they identify themselves, paying

special attention to the character of Noman who is most explicitly shown to be amidst the

dilemma of identity. In the second section, I will comment upon the novels narrative and

analyse it to show how it can be interpreted as a representation of Pakistan and the postcolonial

dilemma. In the third section, I will relate the previous discussion to an ethical analysis of the

novel to gauge its representation of Pakistan in the light of what Pakistaniness entails according

to several critics.

The Geometry of God is the story of the headstrong and pragmatic Amal and her

younger sister Mehwish who is blind and develops her own version of language in her journey

of becoming herself, along with their grandfather Zahoor who is a palaeontologist disliked in

his country for his Darwinian ideas, and Noman who calls himself a match-fixer and struggles
between his Islamic and secular identity, ultimately calling himself an imitation Muslim

sarcastically. Each of these characters is struggling with themselves and with society in trying

to find their real selves, much like the Pakistanis are doing today, except Zahoor who in his late

age has already fixed himself in the secular stance although he never clearly says so. The story

shows how the four central characters mature under Zahoors influence and grow up to join the

secular bloc, ending with Zahoors death, Amals marriage with her lover, and Mehwish finding

love with Noman. In this section, we shall take a closer look at the characterization of the three

maturing protagonists, mostly focusing on Noman.

Amal, having been named by Zahoor for her Aql-e-amali or a talent for doing as

Zahoor himself translates it, stands true to her name and becomes a palaeontologist, tracing his

footsteps but mostly stays away from religion. Even as a child, she steers clear of Apa Farzana

who is her mothers friend and an Islamic preacher. She seems to have had no identity crisis to

resolve except to face the challenges posed to her by her sisters blindness and by the patriarchal

society. Mehwish too, raised by Amal and influenced directly and indirectly by Zahoor, crosses

to the secular bloc. Her maturing centres on her blindness and the way she deals with it, building

relationships and coping mechanisms accordingly. We see her clash with religion most

prominently in her encounters with Miss Fauzia and even in them, her tone is always critical of

what Miss Fauzia says, often in a confused way, as when Miss Fauzia tells her that, the

moazzan calls not sings. He is to be obeyed not enjoyed (Khan 151). Miss Fauzia is an

interesting portrayal of religion in the novel. She is a flat and hypocritical character just like all

other religious characters portrayed in the novel and tells Mehwish in class that God has

punished the blind with things they cannot do themselves (Khan 137). Eventually, Mehwish

grows to call her zero someone and begins to ridicule her, and since hers was the only

religious presence in Mehwishs life, this shows us her perspective of religion (Khan 175).
The character of Noman and the struggles he faces portray best the identity crisis

we are examining. When we first meet Noman, he is in a park near a masjid. His father is

praying and Noman has already prayed. He is doing algebra and thinking about how his father

has changed and isnt the fun person he used to be anymore. He focuses on the structure of the

mosque and finds the magic zero, with which he concludes that his father has changed because

God has left the country (Khan 17). We also get to know that he is passionate about algebra.

When we next get to meet him, he is at the dinner table with his family and his father calls the

youth of Pakistan cultural freaks and criticizes science for its discoveries (Khan 22). In our

third meeting, we are given the first hint at Nomans dilemma. His father hands him two

speeches of Jinnah; one which proves that Jinnah wanted a secular state and one which proves

that he wanted an Islamic state-and hence, Noman becomes a match-fixer. His father, the new

Vice Chairman of the Party of Creation appoints him as his personal secretary and uses him to

publish a monthly periodical for the Academy of Moral Policy, which is supposed to prescribe

ways to relieve young minds of maghrib zaadagi, westernisation (Khan 89). This is ironic

since Noman himself is one of those influenced by westernisation as we see in his behaviour

when hes with Petrov, strolling the bazaar outside Anarkali (Khan 63-67). After becoming his

fathers secretary, Noman is forced to kill off one side of his personality in order to please his

father. What his father says about the young Pakistani is true for Noman. He is a split (Khan

75). When he introduces himself to Zahoor later in the novel, he tells him, I match-fix. Give

me a sacred verse, and I can prove both divine will and biological evolution wrong and right.

Or give me one of our founders speeches, and I can prove he was a believer and a kafir (Khan

125).

The author has rightly named him Noman which can be read no man. Noman

himself calls himself Not a synthesis, or even a cultural freak. But an absence (Khan 122).

He understands that in all her question, his mother really asks him, how long before you,
Noman, become a man?, asking him to resolve his identity crisis (Khan 97). Noman himself

identifies his crisis when he says he wont write the periodical Akhlaq in his native Punjabi or

even in Urdu but in foreign English (Khan 89). He is well aware of his dilemma. He

continuously asks himself, why dont I stop being Abas peon and get my own job teaching al

Jabra, before I forget the magic in a sifr? (Khan 105). In his case, the coloniser is Aba and

Noman is the colonised, therefore, he is forced to write in foreign English and moulded in a

shape which is not his own. He identifies his Satan being memory because he cant stop serving

his father, in hopes of rediscovering the original. We can relate this to what Milan Kundera

writes about the postcolonial condition, The struggle of man against power is the struggle of

memory against forgetting (3).

Noman writes about religion when by now he has fully accepted that he doesnt

believe, yet, he writes things such as the section on Pure Science for a science book where he

eliminates all discoveries saying that everything happens by Allahs will and must be left at

that. We see clear expression of the conclusion he will reach when he says he doesnt even want

to represent God, that he doesnt even want to represent himself (Khan 110). Near the middle

of the novel, he shows signs of depression resulting from his identity crisis and he says, Ive

become a man who cant even gaze at the stars and tune into cosmic radiation on the radio

without searching for a verse to prove the crackling exists, but that lately he has been coming

across verses which he is to ignore such as the ones hinting at evolution (Khan 118). He realizes

when he calls himself an absence that he has no beliefs of his own left anymore. He

believe[s] Aba wrong and prove[s] him right (Khan 122). He argues for his father in public

but internally he argues for Zahoor, both representing polar ends of belief.

It is when Nomans foolish acts get Zahoor arrested that he decides to finally pick

sides and stop match-fixing. This is when he again finds the magic zero which he hadnt seen

since he first saw it. This is when he decides to leave home to find himself. How he finds himself
or rather how he asserts his complete shift to secularism is interesting to note; he does this by

revolting against his father who in the novel is the religious extreme of belief, by writing the

editors note for his last issue of Akhlaq. The couplet by Mir Taqi Mir which he includes in this

issue is relevant here: To save their souls they kill themselves with care/ A paradise like that

can go to hell! (Khan 261). This can go both ways; Noman might have included this in reference

to the Party of Creation, but it goes for him just as much and perhaps more. Absences like

Noman adopt protective stupidity, as George Orwell terms it in his novel 1984, which is

equivalent to killing with care.

It is this secular resolution which demands our attention. The author has not really

even considered a tilt towards a religious resolution. In this, the novel may be called biased.

Being a representation of Pakistan, a tilt at least was considerable but Noman always had a

secular mind, he was only gathering up the courage to expose it.

Now, we come to interpretation of the general narrative of the novel which deals

with issues such as identity, postcolonial experience, faith and reason, westernization, and even

postcolonial literature. Uzma Aslam Khan has subtly touched upon the topic of postcolonial

experience and postcolonial literature. The present is dangerous, the past was glorious. Its our

jammed intersection. When youre not illuminated by history, youre encumbered by it (Khan

79). In saying this, Noman admits his postcolonial state and that his identity crisis stems from

that state. This is what he refers to when he talks of writing in foreign English as has been

mentioned earlier. He says later about Mehwish that he must wait for her to resolve the

conversation I believe shes been having with herself for too long (Khan 215). This we can

say for Pakistani literature too, or for postcolonial literature. It is a discourse trying to find itself

by conversing with its own self and engaging with its people and we must wait for it to resolve

its silent conversation. Further in the novel we have Amal thinking, I need to scratch

fingerprints, and leave my own (Khan 301). She says this almost as if prescribing a way for
Pakistani literature; to scratch colonial influence and form distinct literary identity

corresponding with national identity. Another issue the author touches upon is that of

representation. Just as Pakistani authors do not explicitly wish to represent their country,

Noman says he doesnt want to represent God or even himself- hence the problem of

representation in literature. We can also find a metaphor in the danger Noman faces from the

bullet near his chest for the danger Pakistani literature faces from westernisation, except that

Nomans bullet has not slipped and Pakistans seems to already have slipped halfway, hence

the lack of complete and authentic representation of the country, but this issue we shall deal

with in the next section.

Pakistani novels are internationally viewed as representations of the country but the

novels rarely display Pakistaniness. A reading of Mushtaq Bilals collection of interviews of

Pakistani novelists would make clear that most of these authors do not think of themselves as

representatives of Pakistan. And yet David Waterman in his book calls Pakistani novels fiction

informed by history and operating as social critique and obviously takes them as a

representation of Pakistan. It seems as if a western sensibility has been enforced upon Pakistani

settings or characters in these novels, as if they were a vehicle of American expansionism. Anna

Hartnell agrees with this opinion in her essay on Mohsin Hamids The Reluctant

Fundamentalist (336-348) as she observes western influence in the novel.

Cara Cilano in her book Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English presents

several definitions of Pakistaniness from numerous aspects and then settles for a ranging

understanding of Pakistani identities (1-10). In another discussion on the Pakistaniness of

Pakistani literature, Klein mentions the beliefs of several Pakistani critics such as Wazir Agha

who sought in it a synthesis of local cultures, Jameel Jalbi who incorporates Pakistans identity

into that of the Muslim Ummah, Saleem Ahmed and Hasan Askari who equate the Islamic and

the Pakistani. According to Klein, there is a consensus among these differing critics that
Pakistani literature should not be westernized (458). The westernization of literature is

something Saleem Ahmed warned us of in his essay Pakistani Adab ka Masla (Problem of

Pakistani literature). Since he equates the Pakistani identity and the Muslim identity, Ahmed

maintains that our identity was prominent pre-partition due to its strong opposition to the Hindu

identity and now that the opposition is no more as explicit since the inception of Pakistan, the

Pakistani identity is endangered. He suggests looking to our Islamic roots and reinvigorating

them to find a new identity now that weve lost the identity of opposition and are falling prey

to mimicry (786-787). An analysis of the novel under discussion clearly elucidates western

influence on our literature. The kind of society displayed in the Geometry of God is clearly one

which if anything, represents only a small section of the Pakistani society. The character of

Noman in the beginning, the lusty and promiscuous character of Zara, the love affair of Amal

with Omar and the sexual depiction throughout the novel is again an aspect which does not

represent Pakistan as such. Most Pakistani authors adopt a sexual tone in their novels, showing

themselves sexually open perhaps to deflect their own identity and adopt that of the coloniser

in order to eliminate difference. This has been clarified by Albert Memmi in his book The

Coloniser and the Colonised,

Their constant and very justified ambition is to escape from their colonized

condition, an additional burden in an already oppressive status. To that end,

they endeavour to resemble the colonizer in the frank hope that he may cease

to consider them different from him. Hence their efforts to forget the past, to

change collective habits, and their enthusiastic adoption of Western

language. Culture and customs. (15-16)

This is exactly what Khan seems to be doing too in her novel. The values

presented in the novel are not those of a Pakistani. The Party of Creation is an exaggerated

portrayal of religious extremists, and the characters are not representations of Pakistan. It
would be fair to say that in light of the opinions of the above-mentioned critics, the Geometry

of God does not exhibit any Pakistaniness at all except to show some Desi invertebrates, to

use Zaras term (Khan 187). The term here would refer to how I previously described

Pakistanis English novels- western sensibility forced upon Pakistani characters and settings

or rather, the reverse.

Conclusion:

You have spilled both blood and ink, what more will you do with your hands? (Khan 324)

This paper discusses Uzma Aslam Khans novel the Geometry of God to study

the portrayal of the identity crisis of Pakistan. It also gauges the representative value of the

novel along with a short discourse on Pakistaniness, claiming that the novel has very less

representative value as a Pakistani English novel. However, the novel does portray the

identity crisis is Nomans character well enough and even prescribes a future pathway in the

previously quoted words of Amal, I need to scratch fingerprints, and leave my own. This

combined with Saleem Ahmeds advice of reconnecting with our Islamic roots to find a

distinct Pakistani voice, much like Djebars suggestion of Anamnesis, is probably the best

advice for Pakistani authors which will also help them overcome their postcolonial tendencies

and finally be known as Pakistani writers instead of postcolonial novelists, achieving a

distinct status as the literature of America has managed to do.


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