Magazine article World Literature Today

The Missing Picture

Magazine article World Literature Today

The Missing Picture

Article excerpt

A novelist reflects on writing the story a photograph purports to tell and, sometimes, the one it doesn't.

Memory plays tricks, of course, but I could swear that it was in the moment of looking at those images that the character of the activist mother in my novel Broken Verses started to form.

Afew years ago, I gave a Pakistani friend of mine a copy of the satirical novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif, which spins a fiction around the death of Pakistan's military dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. My friend said she couldn't read it, and asked me to take it away. When I insisted it was brilliant, she said she didn't doubt that but she couldn't bear to look at the cover with its black-and-white close-up of Zia-ul-Haq. My friend and I are the same age-we were four when Zia came to power in a coup and fifteen when the plane in which he was traveling was blown up-and we both spent our childhoods seeing Zia's image everywhere (on the way to school, street vendors would knock on the car window, trying to sell pictures of Zia's unsmiling face while my mother was stopped at a red light, quite likely behind a truck that had the very same image painted onto it). Did my friend have a problem reading a novel in which Zia appears as a character, I asked? No, that was fine, it was simply the image she couldn't endure. Finally, she put a brown paper wrapping over it so she neither had to see nor touch Zia's face.

That black-and-white photograph had me thinking back to the images the newspapers carried in those years of dictatorship when censorship was in place-and I found that rather than recalling a series of pictures that captured different historical moments, I could only think of two images, replicated time and again in newsprint: in one, Zia-ul-Haq, in military uniform, sits at ease on an armchair in the Presidency talking to some visiting dignitary; in the other, Zia-ul-Haq, in a sherwani (formal national dress) cuts a ribbon or presents a medal. Sometimes the sherwani appeared with foreign dignitaries; sometimes the military uniform cut ribbons and handed out medals. That was the official version of the history I grew up in-ribbons and medals and dignitaries on sofas. By the time I came to think self-consciously of this, I was already aware that, as a novelist, I was interested in silences- those periods of history that don't enter official narratives or are pushed to the margins-but thereafter I started to say that I was interested in the missing pictures: all the photographs which should have been in black-and-white newsprint in place of the uniform or the sherwani in any time period, or any place, about which I might choose to write.

Missing pictures fall into two categories- in the first category are the pictures that exist but weren't in the newspapers at the time they should have been the main story. In this category fall the now-iconic pictures of women activists attacked by police during their march onto the Lahore High Court in 1983 to protest Zia's "Law of Evidence," under which the testimony of a woman was equal to half that of a man. The protestors included many members of the campaigning group Women's Action Forum (WAF), which had on hand its photographer Azhar Jaffery to document the police abuses. The photographs of women attacked by police officers of both genders were subsequently pasted in public places in Lahore and other parts of the country. It was a time when most democratic politicians were either in exile, in prison, under house arrest, or silent; floggings and hangings took place in public to show citizens the price of trying to undermine the law (in many cases those being flogged were political prisoners). In the midst of all this, the photographs had an electrifying effect, and WAF very quickly found itself propelled to the position of being the most visible opposition to Zia's regime.

I was ten at the time and remember listening to conversations about the march, probably between people who had seen the photographs; many years later, when trying to come to grips with a novel I was trying to write about a woman whose mother was a political activist, I managed to track down some of the pictures. …

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