The Element of Play: An Interview with Mohammed Hanif
I was 10 when General Zia-ul-Haq fell to his death in a C130 fresh off the runway from Bahawalpur. We were visiting my aunt in Lahore. The television had been running when the transmission was interrupted. Everyone knew immediately that something was wrong but no one was quite sure what. After eleven years under Zia’s rule, I don’t think anyone could really imagine (or dare hope) that he could just die like that. A while later, my mother received a call from a friend of hers who worked at PTV, and a few minutes after that the transmission resumed with a tearful newscast. That’s all I remember from the day when everything changed.
Twenty years on, a book titled ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ appeared on the shelves of Mr. Books in Islamabad. Apparently, someone had revisited that fateful day of 17th August 1988 in a novel. Frankly, I’m not sure if anyone would’ve cared if it hadn’t been for the mangoes. But the irreverence of the title was intriguing. People picked the book up and started talking about it. The foreign press picked it up and started talking about it. Then it got longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Now everyone was talking about it. ‘Exploding Mangoes’ (the book and the term) took on an almost cult-like status.
Three years later, the author’s ready to serve up his next offering: a novel called ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’. Evidently, Mohammed Hanif isn’t one for boring his readers with staid titles.
A.A. What’s the new book about? Give me a synopsis.
M.H. Ugh. That’s the hardest thing to do. After all, if I could talk about something or tell you a story or an anecdote or tell you how I feel about it, why would I write the book, right? Sometimes you have to go through this whole process of writing to try and capture something that is not everyday, that is slightly more complex. I’ll tell you what I can tell you.
I think it’s a love story. It’s about a working girl and her life and her struggle to improve her lot. The main character is a nurse and she’s had a troubled past. She’s been to jail and is trying to find a job. She’s very independent minded and doesn’t take things lying down. She falls in love with somebody unexpectedly. That’s what it’s about.
A.A. You picked up on a number of topics in Exploding Mangoes that were considered taboo – morally and politically. Is that something you’re doing again in the new book?
M.H. One doesn’t set out to break taboos when one’s trying to create a work of fiction! You create your own little world and obviously it doesn’t have to be very realistic, but it has its own internal rules… it has its own weather… that you have to stay true to. You were mentioning Exploding Mangoes. That has a little boy-on-boy action (pauses for thought) which I thought was very tastefully done (laughs). While I was writing it, I had to stop and think whether I could do something else here. But whatever I’d done before that was in a way leading up to this moment. They were teenagers… nothing but hormones… there was no way for them to interact with women because there were no women for months and months, and they had no family either. Obviously in these kinds of situations (especially when you’re in a bit of trouble) physical interaction becomes more intense. So it had to be done. It made sense. If I break some taboo in that, I do. But I don’t write that way: I don’t sit down and think, “This is my plot, these are my characters, these are the taboos I’m going to break.” Having said that, there is a certain kind of childish joy in writing about something that is forbidden.
In a way, the basic act of creating fiction is forbidden, especially in our society where it’s not considered very productive. You’re already breaking some taboos when you decide that today you’re not going to office or making dinner for the family – instead, you’ll just sit in a corner and think up of bizarre stuff and write it down.
A.A. So you don’t know the plot or characters before you start writing. How do you set down the basics?
M.H. I don’t. I write in a very chaotic way. I don’t go from chapter 1 to 2 to 3… that’s not how it works. I usually start with an image or a half-remembered line or a vague character I might have seen somewhere twenty years ago. That kind of stays with you and you get more curious: who is this person, what’s happening, what’s she thinking? And out of that blurred memory, something emerges. It starts to become clearer. And after doing this for about six months you realize it’s not going anywhere (laughs). You think, “I really loveher, but she’s not doing anything.” Then you forget her for a while and start imagining other significant people in her life. That’s where the element of play comes in. You build up a para here, a page there, and slowly things start to connect and suddenly you realize that this is the story.
A.A. That does sound like a very unstructured way of writing! How much rewriting do you do?
M.H. When I have something on paper, I like dismantling it and polishing it and repolishing it. I can’t rewrite on screen. I have to print it out and read it. I must have a big cupboard full of printouts of this novel. I really believe in burning the forest (laughs). It’s a kind of basic rule that someone mentioned recently and it’s so obvious: every time you take a printout and you go through one page of what you’ve written, the chances are that with every rewrite you’ll find ten things in it that you can do better. This is true for me… in fact I consider myself lucky if I only find ten things.
A.A. The characters in Exploding Mangoes were known people in the political domain. Was that choice affected by the fact that in journalism you have exposure to so much real-time politics?
M.H. I’m sure it was, but not in the way you’re talking about. Yes, there were characters who were real but I just borrowed their names and public identities. I have no idea who did or said what. In a way I just reached into this collective memory (General Zia’s face, his voice) and then completely fictionalized it. Now, good journalism shouldn’t teach you to do that!
Journalism helps because it trains you to write without overstating things, finishing a para, starting another section – technical skills that you take for granted that are very important in fiction. It can also completely destroy you because as a journalist you get used to instant gratification. You write something and the next day somebody will say, “Oh how nice” and somebody else will say, “What nonsense.” And now because of the internet, you’ll have thirty people commenting instantly on what you’ve written. Fiction writing is a very lonely process.
A.A. What contradictions do you see in Pakistan in terms of definitions of morality, what’s taboo and what isn’t, what’s okay and what isn’t?
M.H. There is something I’ve noticed. When big money started coming into Karachi in the 1980s, a lot of it was heroin money. A lot of big mansions and five star hotels you see were made on that. I don’t want to make this sound like a ‘good old days’ scenario, but initially people were reluctant to have any part of this – there was a sense of ‘they’re not like us’. I think that’s been completely wiped out now. And it’s gone beyond irony in some cases. You’ll see that every bank is offering some kind of halal financing or halal account or halal stock shares, everything’s labeled halal, whereas most of it is actually as haram as it can get.
I suppose this hypocrisy was always there but now it’s become way more pronounced and glamorous. The thought is that if we somehow put a religious label on something or behave in a certain way, we’re all going to be safe – which is probably not the case. Pakistan is on the top-ten list for corruption and the top-ten list for charity giving! Almost always it’s the same money – you get it wrongly from one place and give some to the masjid or go on Hajj with the same money.
A.A.Tell me something. Pakistani writers are all the rage these days. But they’re only talking about things that people outside Pakistan would be interested in. It’s almost like there’s a process of social mapping going on. How much do you think that has to do with the success of the books? And how much of it is actually good writing?
M.H. Are they all the rage? I thought Pakistani writers were so last year (grins). I think a lot of the writing is very good and would be considered good writing wherever it came from. Yes, there is a tour-guide approach to writing fiction on Pakistan through which an international audience can sample some of the delights and be surprised that these people have sex and they do drugs and drink. Why it should surprise people in the first place says more about them, and not about the writers, I would say.
To tell you the truth, after I finished writing A Case of Exploding Mangoes, I really started wondering who the heck cared about Zia-ul-Haq. Nobody except journalists, who trot out his name at every possible chance. But I know a few editors and I know that they judge work on literary merit while the publishers’ marketing departments judge it on marketability. So, yes, they are probably saying something along the lines of, “Someone must want to read something from this ****ed up country!” I’m sure that plays a role.
Some years ago, I met an editor who said, “Do you have a friend who can write a novel about Kashmir?” and I said, “Well… I can ask around…” So you see, there are people in the business who talk in terms of there being ‘a gap in the market’ and someone needing to ‘plug it’ and I’m sure that approach works in a certain sense. But my question is: there are so many more non-fiction books about Pakistan than fiction books. I’m sure anyone who wants to find out about Pakistan won’t pick up a novel first, right? If you wanted to find out more about Singapore, would you pick up a tour guide or look up their fiction writers?!
I hear this quite often – this ‘write for a certain kind of audience’ idea. My own experience has been different. I don’t have the figures but I would say that my book sold as much in India and Pakistan as it did in the UK and other countries. So I think the perception that we’re writing for a foreign audience is slightly exaggerated. I really wish I knew what some old English woman sitting in a London suburb wants so I could entertain her. But there’s no way of doing that. So you end up writing what you can.
If you’re writing in English, certainly you’re writing for a certain class. But I don’t think it’s necessary that if you write in English you have to write about certain subjects and not write about others. I was at the Karachi Grammar School – they have a Library Society – and since I’d never seen the inside of Karachi Grammar, I thought why not go (laughs dryly). So I went to talk to these kids and one of them says, “Listen, it’s all very good but basically you write for the elite.” And I said, “Yes… you!”
So there is this tendency for us to say, “Write about the real Pakistan; the real issues.” But what are the ‘real’ issues? I mean, if I come across what I think is a real issue during my journalism, I’ll write a rant about it as a good citizen. But when writing fiction, I’ll write what I feel like writing. I think all the Pakistani writers who write in English are all quite different in their styles and subjects. But yes, we grew up in an era and we live in a certain time and I think that’s bound to have an impact on what you write.
A.A. But Pakistan does attract international attention (for all the wrong reasons). No one expects to see this kind of stuff coming out of here and that’s what they pay attention to. There were so many top class stories in the Life’s Too Short anthology that sort of got lost along the way because everyone was talking about your translation of Challawah.
M.H. Yes, but that kind of attention for the real stories won’t be there until there’s a local reading public. When Exploding Mangoes came out, I thought people who were interested in politics or who had lived through that era would be interested in it, but mostly it’s kids – teenagers and people in their early twenties – who read it.
A.A. One of the really tragic things is the demise of the Digest. That was such a big part of our reading culture, don’t you think, and it’s almost gone.
M.H. Ah but you know what happened to all those authors who used to write for the Digests, right? They’ve gone to TV. All these soaps and dramas you see are written by those same people. So in a way they’ve just moved to another medium.
A.A. Do you think there’s a market for your kind of work in the Urdu reading public? Do you think they can deal with that kind of craziness?
M.H. I hope so. A friend is translating the book. Novels in Urdu have a very short history. People read poetry, non-fiction, travelogues, short stories. I’m kind of hoping that this will find an audience. Someone’s looking into translating it into Sindhi as well… I’m more optimistic about that because there’s more of a literary culture in Sindh. The problem is that there is so little in it for the translators that one has to push a bit for it to happen. But hopefully within a year!