Speaking to Mohammed Hanif can be an exhilarating experience. His understated humour comes laced with sharp wit. Every moment presents the possibilities of a new look at things past and present. One is just captivated, wanting to soak up on every word. But given the geographical divide, it is easier, and much wiser, to read the Karachi-based Hanif than to meet him. A few pages into his latest novel, Red Birds, and one realises that all the attention he garnered with his debut, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was richly deserved. The novel, a scathing take on the turbulence in Pakistan during the reign of Zia-ul-Haq, was longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and, in many ways, widened the vistas for Pakistani authors writing in English. It was also the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2008.
Once associated with the BBC, London, Hanif moved back to the country of his origin a few years ago. Now he divides his time between writing about the chaotic world of Pakistani politics for Urdu newspapers in Pakistan and English newspapers in the United States and retreating into the world of his own characters for his novels. Not one to hold back, Hanif clearly states that it is not an easy time for journalists in the country. It might be safer for English authors, though! Excerpts from an email interview Frontline had with the celebrated author:
I think what I was trying to say [was] that like most Pakistani journalists I feel it’s becoming difficult to breathe. Things that I could write in Pakistani papers last year I can’t any more. My last editor was an assistant editor at Dawn, he is facing treason charges; now can I really pitch him a piece about how our state uses this treason weapon against journalists? So instead of pitching him a piece, I end up writing about him and treason in a U.S. paper. There are still some brave, and very smart, editors around, but do you want to put their jobs and lives at risk? This is how self-censorship works, that even before you have thought through an idea you start thinking what’s the point of writing this if nobody is going to publish it here.
My life’s trajectory is pretty simple: I am a working writer and till I can figure out another way of making a living I have to write for anyone who’ll publish me. I also have to worry that I am not committing some kind of treason by writing for a foreign paper. Because, you know, if you live in Pakistan and write for foreign papers it’s already understood that you are a potential traitor.
For me writing a novel is about being as fearless as you can be. In fact, when writing a novel the only fear that you have is that you shouldn’t bore yourself and your reader. Writing books, and I guess reading books, is a way of freeing yourself from your everyday fears. As a novelist my biggest fear is that he’ll never finish the novel that he started.
Risks for writers in Pakistan are far less than risks for journalists or risks for the educated Baloch or for Hazaras and for any number of religious and sectarian minorities. If you are one of them and a writer, then there might be some serious trouble. Also, novelists, because of the nature of their job, disappear for a few years, which is always a good survival strategy. Because of being a journalist I don’t have that luxury, but otherwise I fall in probably the safest demographic in Pakistan, I am a Muslim, a Sunni Muslim, a Punjabi and also a man.
I think you exaggerate, but, yes, there are some military people and some military hardware in my books. There is some in our lives as well. What was that French fighter plane that some rich Indian kid was trying to manufacture in India? We are all repulsed and riveted by the Saudi dissident journalist’s saga.
But we also know that it wouldn’t change anything because his killers are the biggest military hardware buyers in the world. But no, that’s not what I was thinking, on my street there are three armed men sitting outside most houses. I go to school and the guy who opens a five-year-old’s car door has got an Uzi in his other hand.
There is this myth, a gora myth, that the more trouble you have at home, the better writers you produce. And I keep saying what troubles does Norway have? It has produced some pretty decent novels. Is 40 years of Afghan war worth having for a Khaled Hosseini? I am sure he would want his normal, boring, country back rather than have a wreck of a homeland so that he can use it as his material. How it affects us is that certain people become rich, very, very rich, the economy becomes addicted to war. If you are not bombing the shit out of people, you are not a viable state. If you are not hunting those rebels in the jungle, you are not a proper country. If India doesn’t kill a few Kashmiris every few weeks, it can’t tell itself that it’s about to be a superpower. If Pakistan doesn’t kidnap its own citizens, it starts feeling that it’s losing, it is becoming a bit impotent.
I completely and absolutely agree with you.
I try very hard to make sure that every single bias of mine creeps in. The biases that I am proud of and the biases I pretend I don’t have. I’ve got nothing against biases, some of my best friends are my personal biases.
We have already passed on a better world to the next generation. We have made them oblivious of pain, indifferent to the less privileged. We have become used to atrocities as dinner-time entertainment on television.
I see less and less empathy. Maybe I am one of those bitter uncles who are always moaning about the new generation, but I really don’t see us leaving them a better world. People are saying we have already consumed all the water and killed most of our polar bears.
I think this rural-urban thing is wonderfully mixed up now. I grew up in a village when it had one grocery shop, one primary school and one mosque. The last time I counted it had more than 20 shops and five private schools (one with a swimming pool you can book for private parties). My friends in the cities still insist on calling it a village. I think what is probably not being written as much as it should be is this thing about cities swallowing up villages, whole economies, and ways of life. You are right; not much gets translated into Urdu or Punjabi. My first book’s Urdu translation is due out early next year. Some of my friends and family who don’t read English have no idea what kind of fiction I write.
My mother tongue is Punjabi and I have for the first time in my life started doing some journalism in Punjabi. Going back to your first question, I have had to go abroad to do that. There is BBC Punjabi now, which is run out of Delhi, and because of Punjabi separation of scripts I do it as a video blog. And now people in my so-called village who don’t read my commentary in Urdu or read my books in English do listen to my rants in Punjabi on their WhatsApp groups and I feel at home finally!