His first novel was Season of the Rainbirds, followed by Maps for Lost Lovers, The Wasted Vigil and the most recent The Blind Man’s Garden. He talks to Poulomi Banerjee about what influences him as a writer and more.
You were born in Pakistan, but your family moved to UK when you were in your teens. How has your exposure to these two very different cultures shaped you as a writer?
My family moved to England when I was 14-years-old. I was traumatised by their act of racism. Till then, if someone didn’t like me it was because they didn’t like my character or ideas or something else. But now I found that someone could just look at my face, or not look at me and just read my name and decide that they didn’t like me. It was shocking. But it was easy for me to get over it. I had had those 14 years in Pakistan.
I knew that some of the greatest poets, writers, artists came from our part of the world – from India and Pakistan. So when they told me ‘you are inferior because of where you come from’, I said ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’. It was important for me to have had that knowledge of this part of the world and then move confidently in that other part. There are machines which say ‘made in China, assembled in Germany’. As I have often said, I was ‘made in the east and assembled in the west.’ A lot of important things happened to me in Pakistan, but a lot of important things happened to me in England as well.
But even though you left Pakistan quite early, you have returned to it in your novels – Season of the Rainbirds is set in Pakistan and Map for Lost Lovers revolves around Pakistani immigrants.
Of course. And how could it not? If I had spent 14 years on the moon, I am sure I would be writing books on the differences between the moon and the Earth. For a very long time after I moved to England, I couldn’t afford to go back. And I missed Pakistan badly. Thought I’d never see a bulbul again or a peepul leaf again, so much so that I wrote to my cousin in Pakistan to go out of the house, pick a peepul leaf, put it in an envelope and send it to me. After 20 years, I could finally afford to come back again. And come to India too. I would come to India oftener, but getting a visa is difficult. When I come to India, when I go to Pakistan, I am hungrier in India and Pakistan. I sleep deeper. As if something has been restored to me, something I knew I had lost, but only vaguely. So yes it is great to be here. It is my land – both India and Pakistan. I want to write a novel set in India one day.
In all your books the place where the story unfolds is fictitious. Why?
I always like my landscapes to be a little abstract. The fictional identity of the place makes it more universal. It could be true of any place. It gives me freedom to play with the landscape. If I gave my locales a real name there is always the chance of some reader saying, but there is no such building where you have mentioned or so and so bus does not run in this city. Also, often my locales are a symbol for something. For example, in Blind Man’s Garden, the story is set in this town called Heer. For the general people Heer is a symbol of love, but for her people she was someone who brought shame to the community. She was a disgrace. When the movie Heer Ranjha was released, the descendents of her family wouldn’t allow it to be screened in their village. For me, she was a symbol of resistance. So I name a town after her. Also, it allowed me the scope to connect with the legends of my land. I have made a map giving details of the place. From now on, all my stories will be based in Heer.
Again, at a time when most young authors are direct about their tackling of social and political issues, your books follow a more old-world style of story-telling.
All my novels, right from Season of the Rainbirds – my first novel, have had multiple perspectives. I am never interested in one view point. Writers don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about. It’s been an extraordinary decade beginning with 9/11, ending with the Arab Spring. There’s been a clash between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West. A writer has to present as many of these elements as possible in his work without losing its worth as a work of art.
Your works are so detailed, it must take a lot of research. Also, it is said that you take a long time over your books. Are you a fussy writer?
My most recent work, Blind Man’s Garden took four-and-a-half years to write. And of this I worked everyday for three years. That is my speed, a lot of work goes into it. People don’t realise that, they just see the end result. The books are so complex and one wishes to understand every aspect, every idea. For The Blind Man’s Garden, which is set partly in Afghanistan, I read every available fiction book on Afghanistan. I went and spoke to people who are blind to understand their perspective. But I am not someone who can ask personal questions unless I really know the person well. A year on, I still had nothing. So, for a week I taped-shut my eyes and felt the world as a blind person would – well, as nearly as I could. I followed it again the next year and the next.
So writing is not a ‘spontaneous outpouring of powerful feelings’ as Wordsworth said?
I can’t say for other writers, but not for me. What is spontaneous is journalism. In fiction, we have the luxury to think and take time over presentation.
Any writer who has influenced your writing or whom you identify with?
Pakistani writer Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Man Booker nominee Intizar Hussain ... and old timers like Conrad, Faulkner, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
Have you started work on your next book?
The news is the most emotional programme for me. Anything that disturbs me, my way of coping with it is to say I’ll write a novel about it. I am going to tackle Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law in my next novel.