This is her third visit to Calcutta and she finds the city completely changed. “It’s much cleaner, for one thing,” says Ameena Saiyid, the chief of Oxford University Press (OUP), Pakistan. But what amazes her is the similarity between the changes in Calcutta and Karachi, where she lives and works.
“The retail boom with its huge malls and shops, the cineplexes and the flyovers is also happening in Karachi. This kind of development, catering to the growing purchasing power of the middle class has brought about a complete change in Pakistan.”
Today, she says, the young in Karachi are not looking for jobs with the government or private companies. “They are eager to start their own business, open restaurants, coffee shops, retail chains.”
Saiyid is the first woman head of a multi-national in Pakistan. She had thrown up her job with OUP to start her own business in 1986. “I would travel to the far-off provinces with bags full of books and catalogues,” she recounts.
She was running an agency for leading UK publishers and within five years, her business was booming. Not difficult to imagine of Saiyid, who despite her air of gentleness, seems to be made of steel. Going against family advice, Ameena wound up her business to re-join OUP to head the company where she had started off “as a sales representative”.
It has been a long journey of over two decades for Ameena and OUP, Pakistan. “From doing a book a year, we have grown to doing 60 new titles each year on Pakistan and Islamic studies.” Starting with English Language Teaching texts, she built up impressive lists in social sciences, humanities, literature and higher academics.
“English language centres proliferated in Pakistan as more people could access the media with the electrification of remote villages.”
The press started to become free from the time of Benazir Bhutto, the darling of the media. “Before that, during Zia’s regime, there was strict censorship,” says Saiyid. “It was during Pervez Musharraf’s time that the media in Pakistan came to its own.” Musharraf started giving licences to the electronic media in a big way that led to its proliferation.
“Today, however, the tables have turned against Musharraf.” The gunbattles in the streets of Karachi on May 12 over the suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ifthikar Mohammed Chaudhry by Musharraf left 30 dead. The President’s popularity nose-dived. “The Aaj studio was right at the corner where the gunbattles took place. It filmed the entire rioting and showed it live.”
She feels that the silent majority in Pakistan is secular, but the fundamentalists have the “street power”. “As human rights activist Asma Jehangir says, the fundamentalists have three per cent of the vote but make 300 per cent of the noise.”
Yet the society is opening up in a way as never before. Films like Khuda Ke Liye, a commercial film that speaks out against the mullahs, would not have been possible even a few years back. Saiyid had to book tickets in advance to catch the movie.
Literature, too, seems to have been freed from the shackles of censorship a lot, though the resistance was always there. “We have come a long way from the time when poet Fahmida Riaz, who expressed women’s innermost thoughts, was driven out of the country. Today we have outspoken writers like Parveen Shakar and poet Kishwar Naheed.”
Writing about adulterous relationship was blasphemous then, for the Hudood Ordinance under which raped women had to produce four male witnesses or be prosecuted themselves, could be invoked against the author.
“In such circumstances, Feryal Ali Gauhar wrote The Scent of Wet Earth, which is set in the old city of Lahore and tells the story of a young maulvi’s affair with the daughter of a sex-worker.”
Talking of her own list at OUP, Saiyid, however, has to remain cautious “avoiding the 3Bs of boobs, bums and bacon”. But she has had to face objection to a book on women’s movement from “surprisingly not the government, but an NGO”.
Ameena laments the lack of encouragement for writers in Pakistan . There are no literary awards, either from the state or private organisation. Yet writers like Mohsin Hamid, whose The Reluctant Fundamentalist finds nomination for Booker this year, continue to write.