All that knowledge from the previous blog posts should now be stored in your brain, and I hope that you are ready to dwell deeper into The Empty Room. Leave your thoughts regarding the novel below, and through that we will be able to discuss Abbas’s literature in more detail.
Five other Pakistani novels you need to explore:
Ice-Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa: A novel based around India’s 1947 Partition.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: A contemporary novel set in post 9/11 (there is also a film adaptation staring the only and only Riz Ahmed).
Minaret by Laila Aboulela: Although not a Pakistani novel, I just had to add this one to the list as it really is a marvellous read. It follows the life of a young Muslim girl, who faces many challenges.
Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam: A heart-breaking story about the issue of honour killings.
It was Muneeza Shamsie who said that:
‘By the end of the twentieth century, it [Pakistani literature in English] had grown from a little-known genre to a vital, dynamic body of work’.1
Pakistani literature over the years, has become more and more successful. Literature like The Empty Room, which focuses on real-life issues shows how the purpose of literature is not to just serve as entertainment, but is also there to educate. This genre is only expanding further into the 21st century, with pieces of art that engage the mind, and change perception. You could say it is revolutionising literature.
 Muneeza Shamsie, Hybrid tapestries: The Development of Pakistani literature in English (Oxford University Press, 2017), 347.
Zubeida Agha was born in 1922, in Faisalabad, Pakistan. She is described as “A Pioneer of Modern Art in Pakistan” 1 as she was the first painter to introduce modernist art to Pakistan. Agha studied Philosophy and Political Science at Kinniard College, in Lahore. However, she realised that this is not what she wanted to do and took on painting at BC Sanyal studio. Yet she seeked
to do something original, rather than the conventional painting she was taught at the studio. Once she met Mario Perlingieri, a student of Picasso’s, she began to find her own way of painting. It was 1949, when she had her first ever solo exhibition in Karachi, and changed how people viewed Pakistani art.
Anna Molka Ahmed.
Born in 1917, Ahmed was a painter of the fine arts. She converted to Islam when she was 18 years old, and studied painting, sculpture and design in London’s St. Martin School of Arts. In the 1940s, she moved to Lahore and began to teach fine art at the University of
Punjab. She is known to be the first Pakistani art teacher, to make her students paint outdoors, and focus on the landscapes and people. Ahmed worked throughout her life to promote fine art in Pakistan, and make it a prominent subject in Universities.
These two infamous Pakistani painters contributed immensely to the arts in Pakistan, and still today their respected names are recognised. Two female painters who, regardless of the negative attitudes a South Asian woman would face for working, at the time, carried on with their passions.
We have seen Tahira’s role as a wife who lives in a patriarchal world, but what about her artistic role as a painter? Before she was married, Tahira’s mother told Shehzad and his family, that they should allow Tahira to continue her painting, to which they agree. Tahira is a passionate painter, who uses it to express herself as a woman who experiences many changes in life.
Tahira describes ‘the sheer sensuous pleasure of wielding brush and mixing oil and pigment’.2 The alliteration: ‘sheer sensuous’, portrays how she finds satisfaction and happiness in completing a painting. It captures Tahira’s enjoyment, and how painting is her happy place away from her marital problems.
She uses her painting to mourn the death of her brother Waseem, and best friend Andaleep, by painting them in a happy setting. Tahira exclaims how, after completing this artwork, she ‘cried for the first time since their deaths’.3 The fact that her painting is a way for her to remember them, links to David Aberbach who states that through creative work:
‘The artist may confront and attempt to master the trauma on his own terms and, in so doing, complete the work of mourning’.4
Creative artwork and writing, can help one to release their emotions, and grieve over a loss. Tahira cries after the painting is finished, as her creativity has allowed her to let out suppressed feelings, over the loss of her dear friend, and beloved brother.
Struggling to paint.
Indeed, Tahira’s painting liberates her. However, she faces a constant battle with struggling to allow her creativity to flourish. After motherhood and giving birth to both her children, Tahira finds it difficult to reinstate her painting ability:
‘She heard her children and wished she could join them. The thought surprised her. She had wanted for so long to be able to do this. She had even resented her own children, she thought with prickling guilt, as if her inability to paint were their fault’.5
Whilst trying to concentrate in her room, Tahira displays mixed emotions. Whilst she longs to play with her children, she blames them for being the reason as to why she is unable to paint. She repeats this feeling when she says that after her pregnancies, she ‘wouldn’t even draw because I was unhappy’.6 Perhaps this is a sign of post-partum depression, as she is constantly sad and has no energy to paint, or to be with them.
The Empty Room.
However, once she overcomes this, Tahira creates a series of paintings and titles it ‘The Empty Room’. Sound familiar? Well it’s the name of the book! Now what is symbolic about these paintings is that: ‘each of the painting would have an open book, and each book would have some script, a signature, lines from different novels, short stories or poems visible on the open pages’.7 As well as having a desire for art, Tahira adores literature and incorporates both her passions into one series. In one painting she includes poetry by the famous Pakistani poet, Mirza Ghalib:
‘When there was nothing there was God, had there been nothing there would have been God’.8
This line adopts religious imagery to discuss the existence of God. Ghalib says how before anything on this earth, there was God, and even if nothing existed, God still exists. The second line reads:
‘Existence took me under, but had I not existed what would it have mattered?’.9
Ghalib states that his being alive, has ‘took him under’, so it has worsened him. This denotes that humans in themselves have caused harm in the world and are accountable for it. Yet, the second half suggests that even if he was not alive and did not exist, there would have been no consequences for his behaviour, not even with God existing. He is almost challenging God’s authority. The poem may be significant for Tahira as she is questioning her existence in life, which involves God. This questioning may be down to the hardships she faces, which is why she incorporates it into her painting.
The character of Tahira is an interesting one, through which we as readers are provided with another side of Pakistani culture, it’s art. The novel takes you through a journey, and almost becomes a bildungsroman novel as Tahira grows as a Pakistani woman in the 70s.
 Rabbya Naseer, “Zubeida Agha,” Aware.
 Abbas, The Empty Room, 199.
 Ibid., 319.
 David Aberbach, Surviving trauma: loss, literature and psychoanalysis (London: New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 3.
Let’s take a step back and discuss, what literature really is. Have you ever really thought how novels and poems are classed as literature? It may seem too broad of a question, but everyone has their own opinions.
In the 1930s, Queenie Leavis suggested that: ‘the effect of the increasing control by Big Business… is to destroy among the masses a desire to read anything which by the widest stretch could be included in the classification ‘literature’’.1 In simple terms, she believed that literature is read by select groups like the elite and not the masses. She was fearful of big businesses commodifying literature by making it easier to read and turning it into something other than what is being read by higher culture, and is easier to read. But this view is outdated.
The more contemporary voice, Arthur Krystal says that ‘although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature” or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level”’.2 Thus, literature must provoke thought, and have an impact on how one views the world. Or it should deepen our understanding towards time periods in history and issues which occurred. This makes us question ourselves and how we view certain things. It jogs our mode of enquiry and maintains our interest. Whether it’s classical Shakespeare, or Harry Potter, if it challenges your mindset, then it is indeed literature.
How do you define what is literature, and what is not? Do you agree with Leavis’ view, or Krystal’s?
Picture this. It’s 1977 in Pakistan, the heat is scorching hot as always, and you hear the news of Pakistan’s new president being elected. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. An officer in WW2, who worked with the British and then fought during India’s Partition, now the sixth president of Pakistan.
Haq wasn’t the best of leaders. He organised a military coup, and overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Straight after he was appointed, he fixed the martial law, which allowed the military, as part of the government, to control civilians. With this came restrictions and abuse of power including censorship of the media and oppressing human rights. He put in place laws which allowed the publical stoning of women, who were accused of adultery or pre-marital sex. The novel is set around his regime, where the rising political tensions overlap into the personal relationship amongst characters, and their own individuality.
Waseem and Safdar.
‘Intense and passionate and absorbed’. 3
Three words which describe both Waseem and Safdar perfectly as characters.
Waseem, Tahira’s brother, and Safdar, his best friend, are both rigid political activists who oppose the restrictions of the new military administration. They both attend and organise protests against the government, and boldly chant:
‘Nahin lenge hum yeh rusvai’.4 (We will not take this humiliation)
‘Khun paseene ki kamaai. Khun paseene ki kamaai’.5 (‘“The earnings of our blood and sweat, blood and sweat”’.) 6
This reflects the reality of 1970s Pakistan, where Haq took acres of lands from citizens, who worked hard and put their (as the saying goes), blood, sweat and tears, into forming assets. Both characters rebel against this repression, and are passionate with their views.
Safdar states how: ‘“too long have we let the military run this country. There is too much injustice in this land. There is unconscionable, intolerable poverty in this land”’.7 This novel deeply informs you of the issues with Haq’s reign, in which he allowed poverty to increase and the people to suffer. The characters recognise this injustice and try to make it right.
However, how the political affects the personal is that, Waseem’s passions for his political beliefs, lead him to staying unmarried and results in his death. Safdar also gets caught up with the protesting, and lives with the ache of losing his best friend. He is also unable to unite with his lover Andaleep, who loses her life to the protesting as well.
Abbas brings light to Pakistan’s historical past, and broadens the reader’s understanding of this juxtaposition between the political and personal. According to Krystal, this would then qualify The Empty Room as a piece of literature. The political freedom was left missing for the residents of Pakistan, under their new government, which then strips them away from their personal freedom. Freedom of equality. Freedom of expression of opinion. All taken away.
 Queenie Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (Pimlico, 1932).
 Arthur Krystal, “What is Literature?,” Harper’s Magazine, 2014.