Rushdie on Names, History, and Pakistan

[Added by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University]

[from Salman Rushdie's Shame (New York: Aventura/Vintage, 1984).]

It is well known that the term "Pakistan," an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis, A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind, and the "tan," they say, for Baluchistan. (No mention of the East Wing, you notice; Bangledesh never got its name in the title, and so, eventually, it took the hint and succeeded from the secessionists. Image what such a double secession does to people! -- so it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne-across, or trans-lated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest covers up what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time. The past was rewritten; there was nothing else to be done. (91)

Who commandeered the job of rewriting history? -- The immigrants, the mojahirs. In what languages? -- Urdu and English, both imported tongues, although one travelled less distance than the other. It is possible to see the subsequent history of Pakistan as a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world forcing its way back through what-had-been-imposed. It is a true desire of every artist to impose his or her vision on the world; and Pakistan, the peeling, fragmented, frightening palimpsest, increasingly at war with itself, may be described as a failure of the dreaming mind. . . . As for me: I, too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist. I, too, face the problem of history: what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to come back with change. . . . My story's palimpsest-country has, I repeat, no name of its own. The exiled Czech writer Kundera once wrote: "A name means continuity with the past and people without a past are people without a name." But I am dealing with a past that refuses to be suppressed, that is daily doing battle with the present; so it is perhaps unduly harsh of me to deny my fairyland a title.

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