What Just Happened? An Interview with Shazaf Fatima Haider
Or How Shazaf Poked Fun at Everyone and Got Away with it
Shazaf Fatima Haider’s book How It Happened has garnered constant attention since it hit the stores in December 2012. A warm, crazy family drama reminiscent of the much-loved 1980s Pakistani TV plays, Haider’s story plots the trajectory of two weddings in a Syed Shia family in Karachi. The novel has received extreme responses ranging from the rapturous reader who finds her redemption in it, to the feminist who thinks it supports regressive stereotypes of women. In this interview, we try to peel away those layers of opinion to get to the heart of the book. In the process, we find a writer of great heart behind the book.
A.A. How did you decide to write this novel?
S.F.H. I think I chanced upon it rather than decided. To write a book, there’s a particular kind of state you need to reach, when things just align. For me, it was a combination of restlessness, boredom and anger, and that’s the state I was in, in the last year of university. I was also, to a certain extent, very lonely. My brother had moved abroad, my sisters were married and after years of being cosseted and spoilt as the youngest sibling, I suddenly felt like an only child. I think I wanted to recreate that fullness of family, which you see in the book.
Somewhere along the way, I had a traumatic rishta scene, and then I heard that someone had called to ask after my friend for her hand in marriage but wanted to know first if she had an American passport! That’s when I decided it was time to write a rulebook for marriage proposals. It was supposed to be a very journalistic piece when I started writing but before I knew it, I was in this trance-like state, with no sense of time. After about five hours my mother came in to ask where I was and I said, “I’ve just written these fifteen pages.” That was the beginning of the story.
A.A. This book’s been a long time coming, from what I’ve heard.
S.F.H. It was a huge secret initially. I wrote the first quarter of the book in fairly little time. I was convinced (like many first writers, I imagine) that this was the most terrible piece of writing ever to grace paper. So I stopped. But the characters kept coming my way, until I finally said, “This is serendipity. The universe is pushing me to write this story.” So I wrote another big chunk.
After that, I went to the US on a Fulbright to do a Master’s in Literature. It was only when I got there that I realized that this novel had become too much of an addiction. I really wanted to write professionally. So I tried to transfer to the creative writing programme, which they didn’t let me do (but they did offer me therapy since I felt so strongly about it).
At this point my father became very ill and I decided to come back to Pakistan. So I was actually in between jobs and this monumental decision to discontinue my Master’s degree. This book was all I had, really. So I kept working on it. Except the ending – that came two years later.
A.A. Why the long breaks?
S.F.H. Life kept intervening. You’re either processing a story or you’re processing life.
A.A. But life inspired the book as well, didn’t it? Tell me some of the incidents that inspired you.
S.F.H. I know someone who went to meet a girl’s family, ate dinner with them, were getting along rather well… and then produced a weighing machine and asked the girl to get onto it, please. This is not many years ago, by the way; it’s within the last decade.
I also know that, with many other girls, the family would arrive and when the girl walked in, if they didn’t like what they saw, they’d just get up and leave. And there were so many people who came hours late and then just stayed, and stayed. Once, a family came to see me at 11 o’clock at night without informing us. We were all in our sleeping suits. They said later that the match was unsuitable because the girl wasn’t dressed well. Go figure.
A.A. Do you feel you were privy to more interesting stories because of the particular dynamics of the Syed Shia social circle?
S.F.H. Of course. I couldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t Shia and I wouldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t seen the marriage circus taking place. Even the imambargah bride hunting escapade has happened to me a couple of times: people trying to find out about me, my sisters, or my friends during a majlis. It’s very entertaining, because you can see when the prey has been sighted (laughs). There’s a slow approach – the predator sliding close, trying to detect who the mother is so the mother can be approached too. Trying to see who the girl is talking to, then asking that person later, “Who is she? Is she single?”
I’m happy that I’ve got a sense of humour about it. I don’t let it outrage me. The imambargah plays a social function that is necessary. The issue is that the interaction between young people in our society can be incredibly claustrophobic. I mean, how do single people meet? Surely there has to be something a little more permissible – some legitimate, respectable avenues for people who are single and compatible, to meet each other and discover each other over time, slowly and spontaneously.
A.A. Do you feel the book as it stands today is a realistic representation of how things really work?
S.F.H. It’s too toned down for what happens in reality. I had to leave things out. There’s this one bit when Zeba is approached by a woman in a wedding (the obese woman who is throwing chicken bones under the table), and while a lot of people think that part entered the realm of farce, it actually happened exactly like that. Reality is actually much stranger than fiction. I changed a lot of things because people would have recognised themselves and would have gotten hurt. You don’t want to hurt people through your writing. You want to prick them into some faint recognition, yes, but you don’t want to stab at them. The whole point of my novel was to show society a mirror of itself but in such a way that it would be able to digest it.
A.A. You have received some criticism for not developing a few of the characters enough, for instance Zeba.
S.F.H. To me the main character of the book is not Zeba, the girl who’s getting married; it’s the grandmother and the narrator. I loved creating them. It was almost as if they came to me. They were like characters sitting next to me, interacting with each other, and I was just recording their interaction.
The book is not just about the girl getting married, although a lot of people will read it like that. It’s about men and women and what they go through. What goes on, how people react, how relationships come into that combination and how stories of the past are also very much a part of this process because of our addiction to tradition. The past is still alive for us. And, really, how can we not be fascinated by such a rich, ludicrous, colourful past? To leave it and move ahead is difficult for a lot of people.
A.A. How do you feel about the reviews? And in retrospect, do you think publishing’s all it’s made out to be?
S.F.H. Bad reviews are like a stab in the heart. If an author tells you they don’t read reviews or don’t care about them, they’re lying. But I think I’ve grown through this process. After you’ve been through the emotional roller coaster and you think about it maturely (which is very difficult to do because this is like your baby) you realize that what DH Lawrence said years ago was true: your story is not yours. It’s only yours when you’re writing it. The minute it becomes a book, it’s the public’s.
From the writer’s perspective, it can be scary. But this process of writing and being published teaches you patience – patience to be accepted, to be read, to be published; patience with people who’re going to read your book. It has also given me a lot of hope… and it’s taught me something: you have to ask or fight for what you want. Just literally keep throwing yourself at that impenetrable wall and one day, you might find the door.