An echo in the wilderness

March 28, 2021

A conversation about Desi Collective’s latest anthology and the thirst for creative outlets with the literary magazine’s editor-in-chief, Arsalan Athar

It is understandable why creativity and endeavours related to it are either misunderstood or undervalued in a country like Pakistan, where phrases like “hand to mouth” have common currency and the purpose of life, in most cases, is to survive. Simply put, we have little to no time and scant resources to spend on things that are seemingly trivial and unhelpful towards a practical end (which, in most cases, implies a career). This is a reasonable argument to make, particularly in situations where survival is at stake. Of what use is a poem or a story, if you can’t think past where your family’s next meal will come from? Add to that, the fact that the proverbial radioactive spider of creativity, burden or blessing, only bites a relatively small minority of people, and you will find yourself wondering why even bother with it anyway?

The answer should be self-evident. Creative people are needed most often as a cure to institutional or cultural entropy. As entrepreneurs, they solve market problems. As inventors, they birth revolutionary products. As poets and artists, they convey qualities and colours of experience and life in ways unheard of before. As musicians, they create and transform notions of beauty. As authors, they tell stories that inspire, guide and motivate. It might also be the case that for such people it is absolutely necessary to incorporate creative outlets into their lives. Scholars in the field of psychology have found that in the pursuit of contentment with their lives, it is often the case that creative personalities do not attain it without an indulgence of their creative capabilities. Additionally, researchers have found that the inculcation of creativity, namely the capacity for flexibility, originality, risk-taking and complexity within the lives of individuals is negatively correlated with negative emotions i.e. it has the capacity to reduce the negative emotions that we are all susceptible to in our daily lives. After looking at these findings, it becomes clear that at the very least within the context of personalities naturally inclined towards creative output, and perhaps even to the population at large, it is important to highlight organisations, people, and outlets that provide these platforms.

It is in this context that I had the pleasure of conversing with Arsalan Athar a few weeks ago, for The News on Sunday. Athar is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Desi Collective, a quarterly digital and print literary magazine, the third and fourth issue of which are out now. He began developing his idea for a magazine tailored towards writers in Pakistan in the latter half of 2019.

“I started the Desi Collective while I was working at a digital media company as a content writer. In the August of 2019, I left that job. I realised the lack of platforms in Pakistan where I, as a writer of fiction or nonfiction, could contribute. I tried looking at international publications but it didn’t work out. One day I was having tea with a friend, pouring my soul out essentially, and he responded by saying that it was possible for me, now with the way digital technology worked, to create a space for myself. This is where the basic idea stemmed from.”

In the year and a half since then, he has been able to obtain submissions, edit and publish four issues. The magazine, still in its infancy, has generated enough interest for a steady increase in both readership and contributions. “When I put out the call for submissions, I had no expectation of getting submissions from people I didn’t know. I planned to engage my writer friends to fill up slots in the magazine in my head. Call it the magic of social media or whatever, but I got way more submissions than I could have ever hoped for. It was a really good learning curve for me. The first issue, I think, was purely learning through experience.”

I asked Athar if he ever felt that his magazine could be satiating a creative thirst. “Definitely yes. I think this satisfies two things. The first is what you mentioned, that there’s a lack of platforms and this provides exactly what is lacking. We had 26 submissions for the first issue. This increased to 35 for the second; for the third one I had over 50. Our latest issue, the fourth one, which is digital, had around 60 submissions. I wasn’t expecting this at all. Up till now the numbers have increased steadily, which shows that there is a need for a [literary] platform. Secondly, I think there’s a lot of demand in terms of the readership as well. Particularly, people from the subcontinent who live abroad are interested in how young desi people think; what they experience and what they believe. There are voices that want to be heard and there are people who want to hear those voices and sort of stay connected to the ‘homeland’.”

Every issue that the magazine prints has a broad theme that the submissions should adhere to. For the third issue, the latest print issue, the theme was Letters to My Inner Child. The collection, published by Zuka Books, includes essays, short stories and poetry, mostly in English but true to its mission statement (promoting and becoming a platform for young writers), it also has submissions in Urdu. Athar says, “this issue was particularly intense and people have dug deep and given really personal stories.” It’s a fabulous insight into the lives and minds of the modern desi, delving into an array of subject matter, from an intimate exploration of life in a modern Pakistani city in Damitra Sheikh’s I Breathe Karachi, to a personal account on the rich history of the subcontinent from the perspective of the modern man living across the border by Harsh Aditya in The Shared History of Two Lands.

Stories communicate with people long after the demise of those who told them. They form the chains that intertwine the past and the present. It is in this way that we can still communicate with our ancestors, and in this way that the authors of the Odyssey, Mahabharat and Faust still speak to us through their works.

“In selecting a theme I am wary of stuff that has been talked about to death. It is always something fresh, or a fresh take on an old topic. What I expect and keep an eye out for in submissions and potential selections is the general idea of what makes a story work. What I have really liked so far is that whatever theme we have come up with or set for a particular issue, the writers have run with it and taken it as far as it can go and to places where I, personally, hadn’t really thought it could go,” says Ather.

Not only does this provide a chance for the voices to be heard and experiences to be shared, it gives the best possible chance to the writers to improve their skills. “Even those who have made submissions for all three issues, and were not published initially, have been keen on feedback. Some have improved and have come back to get selected for publication. For me, it is not just about the magazine that I’m going to be publishing, but also about the writers who need encouragement to get better.”

People have been telling one another stories for as long as we can go back. Whether they are stories of gods and monsters or epic tales of conquest and adventure, these stories are our oldest way of communicating. Stories communicate with people long after the demise of those who told them. They form the chains that intertwine the past and the present. It is in this way that we can still communicate with our ancestors, and in this way that the authors of the Odyssey, Mahabharat and Faust still speak to us through their works.

For a plethora of reasons, there are numerous dark spots in the collective memory of us Pakistanis – where the stories are unheard or untold. It is great to see that some of the stories in Letters to My Inner Child seek to illuminate some of those areas. Harsh Aditya’s story and Zara Imran’s An Unremembered Past come to mind in particular. The latter evokes the sense of wonder and amazement akin to that of a child listening to granny’s tales.

Not only have there been submissions from Pakistani writers, home and abroad, many writers from India and Bangladesh too have taken the opportunity. This not only adds meaning to the desi part in the title but has also provided an opportunity for the desi diaspora to share experiences.

“I think the pandemic is a big factor in this, because I started this thing in February and everything shut down soon after. In the following months, I was able to conduct a lot of live discussions on Instagram and interact with a lot of writers from different areas, not only established writers but also some amateur writers with social media pages for poetry or ‘Bookstagrammers’. That allowed me to access a wide variety of people. Through all of that, we got submissions from a lot of overseas Pakistanis, and NRIs (non-resident Indians) as well. Obviously, when I started this I had an idea that this was not going to be limited to Pakistan, but open to people from all over South Asia. But I had believed that was something that was going to happen later.”

Letters to My Inner Child is full of brilliantly crafted writing. There’s Alizeh Gheewala’s Don’t Give Up, which explores the idea of childlike wonder and genuine awe, juxtaposing it with the mundaneness of adult life. Then there are pieces like Pitri by Nawal Haider, which is short, laced with tension and bone-chilling imagery, putting to use abstract, absurdist concepts with great skill. Some of the pieces are delightfully, deeply personal and almost therapeutic like the wonderfully titled, Of Libraries, Lawns and Acquiring the Love of Reading by Paras Abbasi. While being as simple as a personal retelling, it oozes with personality and an innocent honesty that instantly endears the author to the reader.

Asked about the future of the magazine and whether he thinks that the quality of submissions has improved since he began his journey, Athar answers in the affirmative. He says he believes that there is plenty of evidence that the writers will continue to get better and that this along with the increasing number of submissions will ensure that they keep helping one another on to become more skilful.

The writer is an editor and researcher with an undergraduate degree from the University of Buckingham. He can be contacted at

An echo in the wilderness