August Issue 2009
Interview: Ali Sethi
“The truth is that fiction, whatever form it takes, is not a representative act” — Ali Sethi
Q: What was your objective in writing this novel?
A: I wanted to document the things I recalled from an urban, middle-class childhood in Lahore.
Q: The phrase in the title of the novel, ‘wish maker,’ is mentioned in the epigraph from Middlemarch. How has this idea been used as a theme in the novel itself?
A: The epigraph refers to a consciousness that is made up of other people’s wishes. That gradually became the main theme: the relationship between yourself and others, the first person and the third person.
Q: How has the technique of killing off your protagonist’s father served you in maintaining the novel’s theme?
A: The absence of the father was a literary device: it forces young Zaki to imagine him into being, even if it means relying on two very different versions provided by his mother and grandmother. Most of chapter two is about this imagining. And it enables the third-person reveries that follow.
Q: Your novel has some strong female characters. Two of them, Nargis and Zakia, are strong women who courageously stand up for their convictions, until both drift their own separate ways. Why was Nargis’s character, which was really responsible for mentoring and molding Zakia, not given much space in the latter part of the novel?
A: A character’s importance is not determined by her convictions alone. Nargis is a mentor to Zakia, who is a mentor to Samar, who, in turn, is a kind of mentor to Zaki. What is interesting, or worth exploring, is the way in which these characters go about getting what they want, and the ways in which they deal with the world.
Q: Is it a good idea to mine family history for fictional material? This is a method evident from some of the central characters in the novel, which bear a striking resemblance to people in your own well-known family, e.g. Zakia, the editor of Women’s Journal, etc.
A: Zakia is, like my parents, a self-employed journalist and magazine editor. But she comes from another milieu being the child of Karachi-based Mohajirs, and is a widow and a single parent. In those ways, she does not bear a resemblance to anyone in my family.
Q: Politics is always somewhere in the background of the novel. So many characters in your novel end up saying “It’s all political,” rather cynically, with reference to events ranging from the Partition to the confrontational politics in Pakistan in the 1990s. Why not write a straight romantic novel without the reference to politics?
A: What Daadi and Zakia do in the end — travel to the heart of feudal Punjab and rescue “what is theirs” — is political. And love itself has a politics in Pakistan, since it is punished by both state and society (stoning to death, harrassment and arrest, the adultery and blasphemy laws, karo-kari and ‘honour’ killing). So it’s not as though you can write a romantic novel about Pakistan without being subversive. In fact, almost all of Urdu and Punjabi political poetry, including the nazm “Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang,” which appears again and again in the book, is expressed in the language of romantic love.
I would consider what you call political, ideological. And I don’t think novels have to be ideological. In fact, a novel that can be reduced to an ideological thesis is not worth reading or writing — why not write a straightforward essay instead?
Q: Two women’s struggles occur simultaneously at different levels: one in the household for supremacy among Zakia, Mrs Shirazi, and Samar and that of Chhoti’s in the extended household; the other on the broader, national stage, culminating in the election of Benazir Bhutto as the country’s first female premier in 1988. Do you see one as symbolic of the other?
A: You are right to suggest that Benazir is, like Amitabh Bachhan and Noor Jehan, a symbol and an icon in the story. And the romance of Benazir, like the yearning for Amitabh, ends in disillusionment and a subsequent sobering-up of the wish maker.
Q: Minor female characters in the novel like Chhoti and Naseem are not empowered in any real sense, being crushed by the same old forces of patriarchy, feudalism, fatalism and class. In your opinion, were such class contradictions fairly typical in households despite the presence of ardent advocates of women’s rights, within the broader struggle for women’s rights in Pakistan leading up to 1988?
A: Yes, and the contradictions persist. But it is too simplistic to think of Chhoti and Naseem as typically crushed. Chhoti makes an attempt at a romantic-heroic life, fails, and then becomes a sharp-tongued matriarch who punishes her daughter for transgressing in ways that are all too familiar to herself, and finally dies out of medical negligence. Naseem, while a servant, acquires a car and ends up going to Saudi Arabia, which gives her a comical but also slightly disturbing affection for Wahhabism. I wouldn’t dismiss either of them as typical or over-determined by their circumstances.
Q: Which writers have inspired you in the course of your writing?
A: I like Ghalib, Daagh, Faiz, Tolstoy, Woolf, Naipaul, Hollinghurst and Arundhati Roy.
Q: You are much younger than other recently published Pakistani writers. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: Advice to young writers: research your subject before you start writing about it. And yes, every subject deserves to be researched, even if you think you know it like the back of your hand.
Q: Many literary critics have recently questioned the lack of an explosion in Pakistani fiction in Urdu to match the recent phenomenal success of Pakistani writing in English. What explanation can you offer?
A: The Urdu-English divide generally reflects the class divide in Pakistan. If you went to an Urdu-medium (government-funded) school, you are likely to have less money than someone who went to an English-medium private school. So the language/literary divide is hard to overcome because it amounts to a kind of class mobility.
Also, the recent appearance of a handful of Pakistani novels and story collections in English is, I think, largely a reaction to the intense post-9/11 global gaze that is now focused on Pakistan. The evidence is in the books themselves, which, at one level or another, are addressing the impact of Cold War dynamics on Pakistan’s culture and politics. Thus, the Cold War is offered as an explanation for 9/11.
It’s not as though there’s nothing happening in Urdu fiction. Some of the most radical Pakistani fiction (about feudalism, religion, class, gender, sex and sexuality) is presently being published in the Urdu women’s digests. And they do very well: Khawateen Digest alone has a circulation of 160,000 copies per issue, which is more than the circulation of the largest English-language daily newspaper in Pakistan. But we dismiss this writing because we assume it’s pulp, which comes from the impression that it deals mainly with romance and/or love, a subject seen as apolitical. What is certain, of course, is that the post-9/11 gaze will go, and the novels that deal only with that gaze will become dated and obsolete, like artefacts, while the stories that are ultimately metaphysical and moral in their approach to human relationships — whether they are written in English or in Urdu — will survive.
And it’s not right or fair to say that there has been no interaction between Urdu and English literature. I know Mohammed Hanif reads Urdu books and has been influenced by Urdu writing. Nadeem Aslam’s books make explicit references to Ghalib and Faiz and weave their poems into novelistic patterns. And my own book is, at one level, the wail of the virahini, who is the protagonist of most Punjabi Sufi poems (Heer, Sassi, Sohni, the love-mad woman protagonist who insists on going with the beloved (“jogi de naal”) and also, of course, the Urdu ghazal and nazm. Similarly, the Urdu novelist Abdullah Hussein took a lot from the European novel when he was writing Udaas Naslein. And Kishwar Naheed has a poem called “Sunno Jane Austen!”
Q: How would you respond to the accusations that your novel basically chronicles an elite group of Lahoris and that class contradictions are reflected in strong terms, making it unrepresentative of the population at large and, that being written in English, the novel can only reach a limited readership?
A: Zakia is a journalist and magazine editor. Daadi is a housewife who earns a monthly income from the rental of her property in Anarkali. This is how their household is run. I think you will agree that they are more middle-class than elite, or “too poor to be rich and too rich to be poor,” as Zaki muses in the first chapter, when their car is about to be stopped by policemen in the Cantt area of Lahore.
That is an interesting class because it is constantly glancing both ways: it is looking at the class below it and at the class above it. So Daadi encourages her husband to abandon his perfume business and become the manager of a rubber factory, and endures the taunts of her friends until she has a house of her own. She sends her son into the Air Force because she thinks it will bring “many benefits.” And she marries her sister off to what she thinks is a rich and therefore ideal husband. Similarly, Zakia is intimidated by Nargis’s friends from America but also seduced by their ideas and mannerisms. And Samar Api is enthralled by Tara Tanvir, just as Zaki is sucked into the world of a powerful politician’s son. But there is Mazri, who owns only a bicycle, and Naseem and her son, who are both transformed by the acquisition of a wagon and their subsequent encounter with a Wahhabi preacher.
Another way of measuring the novel’s internal diversity, is its references to other communities and individuals: women, Ahmadis, Mohajirs, Christians, poets, painters, singers and homosexuals all go in and out of the book. But is it enough? And can it ever be enough? The truth is that fiction, whatever form it takes, is not a representative act. It makes the promise of plausibility (allow me to persuade you) but not the promise of factuality (this happened and is therefore worthy of your attention). And behind that promise of plausibility is an assumption: the writer is assuming that he can communicate with his unknown reader. How is that possible? Like this: I will show you a character, and I will then show you how that character behaves in a given set of circumstances, and you will be able to see yourself in that behaviour. Of course, a rikshaw driver will not always be able to relate to the dilemmas that an industrialist faces, but sometimes he will. And the opposite is also true.
We can’t know what it’s like to be other people, strictly speaking, because we can’t ever exit ourselves. And yet we read novels about other people who are not like ourselves, and are often able to respond emotionally to their crises. So the question is really one of human experience: Can one person’s experience ever be representative of anything more than itself? The answer is yes and no.
If, on the other hand, what you are wondering is about the statisticality of the world disclosed by this novel, then yes, you are probably right; this novel mostly chronicles the yuppy Lahore of the 1990s, and should have no meaning or relevance or resonance beyond that world, since only those people have the purchasing power to possess this book and the linguistic training required to read it.
Q: An appealing part of your novel is the frequent references to cultural and political figures from Pakistan’s recent past. By this I mean brief cameos of Pakistani intellectuals, poets and artists like Eqbal Ahmad, Faiz and Roshan Ara Begum. But wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to introduce them (Faiz and Eqbal) by name, in order to introduce their life and work to a younger Pakistani audience having little knowledge of their legacy?
A: The point of including Faiz, Eqbal and Roshan Ara Begum is not to introduce them to an uninitiated audience. Their ideas and modes of expression are a part of the novel. In that sense, the names of these people are almost irrelevant, since it is the essence of what they are saying that is important. So Roshan Ara Begum’s rendition of the raga Shankara, for instance, is an enactment of the simultaneously creative and destructive nature of Shiva, so that the melody ends always on the second-last note, the almost-there-but-not-quite note, which is the idea at the heart of the novel.
To a listener of Hindustani classical music, of course, this does not have to be explained. Others can look it up on Wikipedia.
Q: How do you think non-Pakistani readers, having limited or no knowledge of Urdu/Punjabi or even the Pakistan zeitgeist would relate to your references to local untranslated Punjabi and Urdu idioms, without a glossary, rather like Amitav Ghosh in his recent Sea of Poppies (though he was wrestling with much more difficult languages). Is this a technique you have used consciously?
A: Yes, this is a persisting dilemma. But I don’t care about it anymore. I never complained when I encountered Latin or Hebrew or Yiddish in European writing, and I grew up without a Hindi dictionary, but I somehow knew the meanings of film words like “raksha” and “shiksha” and “bhasha” and “twatcha” and “chita.” That’s because I cared enough to watch those movies (and read those books) more than once. And you always learn more when you look at something a little longer.
Read Raza Naeem’s book review of The Wish Maker.
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.