DWL interviews Bilal Tanweer at GALF 2013

The scatter here is too greatOnwards with our exclusive coverage of the IV Goa Arts and Literary Festival!

Somewhere between sessions and panel discussions, we caught up with Pakistani writer Bilal
Tanweer who was launching his debut novel The Scatter Here is Too Great at GALF 2013. Bilal is a writer, teacher and translator. He holds an MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Columbia University, and is the founder of the fantastic LUMS Young Writers Workshop and Short Story Contest, now entering its third year. The Scatter Here is Too Great was published by Random House India in November 2013.


Farheen Zehra (FZ)         Tell us a little about the book and the title. Why “The Scatter Here is Too Great”?

Bilal Tanweer (BT)           Among the various themes of the novel, one of the themes is our need to tell stories. My book is composed of short inter-related stories, through which I have tried to make sense of Karachi’s reality. Life in this city is overwhelming and I think we use stories to make sense of our own stories, which is a major theme of the book.


(FZ)        The blurb on your book says, ‘This is a love story to Karachi’. Is it really, and if so, why?

(BT)        We travel to many cities but there is always one city inside us that we care about the most, which becomes a primary reference point for us to make sense of the world. For me that city is Karachi. It is the city I care about the most. But it is also a madly, ruinously complex city and one may never find a story that does complete justice to it.



IMG_8212(FZ)        Have you focused on any particular area of Karachi or written about it as a whole?

(BT)        Karachi is such a huge city that it is impossible to think of the complete picture. My narratives are as limited as they can possibly get. Each story is from the point of view of a particular character. The first story is from the P.O.V of a child from a middle class family. Then there is one sketch of a boy from Nazimabad. The book depicts stories of everyday people living in the chaos that is Karachi and I hope readers from Karachi might be able to relate to the stories.


(FZ)        So who is your intended audience?

(BT)        I think the whole question of ‘audience’ is very muddled.  As a writer, I’m not focused on the audience. The reality of publishing is that the people who are paying you to write are abroad. In my case, all my intellectual training is in English but that doesn’t mean I was thinking of a reader in New York while writing the book, because that reader can never understand Karachi the same way.  As far as I’m concerned, I am the first and foremost audience of my work.


(FZ)        Why launch the book at GALF?

(BT)        The organizers invited me to launch my book here. It’s a great festival with brilliant conversations on the margin so I think it was a very appropriate setting for my book launch.  Also, I love Goa. It makes me think of Karachi of yore, which comes as no surprise as both the cities share strong connections and similarities.


The Scatter Here is Too Great is the DWL Karachi Readers’ Club’s first read for 2014.


DWL shines at GALF Day 2

Even though our journey to Goa was fraught with drama (read Omer’s post Goa, Goa, Gone for details) our first session was a success. DWL started off its first day at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival with a performance by Nimra Bucha and Adnan Jaffar of the play Yesterday An Incident Occurred, by Mark Ravenhill.

The play, with its dark humor and satire, went down very well with the audience and both the actors were commended on their performance. Initially the play was to be performed at the Inaugural Gala but it was postponed at the very last minute due to lack of time. But as our crazy 24 hour journey to Goa taught us, all’s well that ends well, and we were very pleased with the positive response from the audience. Kudos to Nimra and Adnan for putting up such a great show!





Interview: Saad Shafqat on his debut novel ‘Breath of Death’ – a medical thriller based in Karachi.

Saad Shafqat is a neurologist by profession, a cricket writer/columnist and the author of the medical thriller, Breath of Death. We caught up with him recently to talk about the book, terrorism, and his future projects. Breath of Death is his first novel.

How did you decide to write this novel?                                                      


I’ve always enjoyed telling stories and sharing anecdotes, and for a long time I’ve also felt drawn to the craft of writing. I felt an urge to write this novel at least partly because I wanted to combine these two inclinations. I’d been writing on cricket and on social issues for a while, but I hadn’t done fiction before. I think if there is a story inside you, it has to come out somehow. It’s in our nature as human beings, and it has the effect of easing a burden. I guess at some level I just felt there was a story somewhere inside and I had to express it.

The story is based in Boston and Karachi, the action takes place in a hospital and the protagonist is a neurologist. Did your professional surroundings inspire you?

Yes, very much so. A hospital is really a miniature human society, with life-and-death drama at its core. There is no shortage of emotional triggers. On top of that, physicians spend a great deal of time in their professional milieu, so there’s constant exposure – I would even say bombardment – from the daily realities of the medical experience. The setting and surroundings of our work have the potential to play havoc with the mind, and it seems some of that gets translated into fiction-writing. Many novelists have in fact been doctors (there’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to that category).

You’ve written about the taboo of pirs and fakirs, not once but twice in the book. Is this something that you’ve observed in your patients?

Yes we see this from time to time. It’s very depressing, because it’s all about deception and exploitation, and about innocent people getting badly misguided in the search for good health care. I think it’s also true that these negative influences are on the wane. There’s an increasing degree of transparency in our society now, with the proliferation of media, mobile phones, internet, etc. Patients and families are becoming savvier and better informed.

 Religious extremism and anti-American sentiment seems to be at the heart of most terrorist operations. Both the villains (if we can call them that) Malik Feysal and Hamza Kadri also display these feelings. But so do the doctors at Avicenna Hospital. Were you making a larger point about American foreign policy by showing this?

I think there’s a lot of ambiguity in the way we relate to America and its various aspects, and I’ve tried to portray that in the book. America’s foreign policy and military outlook, for example, are deeply unpopular with everyone, and this sentiment cuts across socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, and even international barriers. Yet there is also no denying that there is much about American life and society to admire and emulate – freedom, justice, prosperity, intellectual ferment. This is what makes America fascinating, and draws us to America as an iconic idea. I also think that, as a writer, it is important to create ambiguity. You want to try and keep the reader guessing whose side you’re on. When discussing America, that kind of approach comes naturally.

 As a first time author, what kind of publishing hurdles did you face?Pic for Mail Today

Getting fiction published by a first-time author is uphill anywhere, but perhaps especially so in Pakistan, where there is no credible fiction publisher. The only multinational publisher with local offices is Oxford University Press, and while they’re doing a terrific service through the literature festivals in Karachi and other cities, they’ve stopped accepting fiction from Pakistan. This is in marked contrast to India, which has local presence of some of the big publishing houses such as Penguin and Random House. So you naturally have to look outside the country, and many of us have focused on New Delhi, which has fast become the publishing center for desi fiction in English. I initially sent out my manuscript to literary agents in the US and UK, but kept getting rejected. A few did give encouraging comments, which was very heartening, and that strengthened my resolve. Eventually I started exploring options in India, and got lucky with Wisdom Tree, an emerging Delhi-based publisher who decided to take a chance.

 How has the response been to the book so far? 

It’s been very encouraging. The book launch received coverage in the local press, which was very flattering. In Karachi, the book sold out from Liberty Books a few times already, and it’s also done well on internet outlets like Amazon, Goodreads, and Biblio. There was a very positive review on the Dawn website from Fatema Imani, although the one in Dawn’s print edition was more lukewarm. I’ve been told a couple of other reviews are in the works. I was also very pleasantly surprised to see an endorsement for the book from John Upton, a popular science blogger based in the US. He called it “an exciting story” and a “well-composed thriller.”

John Grisham, being a lawyer, writes law thrillers. Is it safe to assume that you will continue writing medical thrillers?

I’ve started work on a dark comedy in a medical setting. This one too is based in Avicenna Hospital, but the central character is a woman. She’s a trauma surgeon who gets into some trouble, and then she has to get out of it. Asad Mirza, the protagonist in Breath of Death, might come in at some point, but peripherally. The series I would like to create is on the unpredictable nature of life in Karachi, with Avicenna University Hospital as the common theme. Medicine is full of drama, and when you situate it in a city like Karachi the possibilities are endless.

DWL Readers’ Club takes off with ‘American Gods’

This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.

Neil Gaiman (American Gods)  


The life cycle of a book is strange. A book is not born until the writer puts down the final full stop (or finishes off with the ultimate authorial flourish: The End). A book can be ready for the world to see in a few short weeks, or it can spend a lifetime in that incubator known as the writer’s desk. A book’s longevity depends on others: its pages may survive, but for the book itself to truly live on, it needs readers. The magic of the written word fades if there are no wide-eyed believers willing to sacrifice time and effort to read it.

The same holds true for the superhuman beings in Gaiman’s award-winning fantasy novel and the DWL Readers’ Club’s first read, American Gods. The story’s protagonist, ‘Shadow’, is a recently released convict who finds that the life waiting for him outside the prison walls is very different from what he had envisioned. An encounter with a mysterious stranger (named ‘Mr. Wednesday’) leads Shadow on a journey across the United States, which reveals some pretty unsettling truths about him and about the characters he meets along the way. The vulnerable nature of divinity is a central theme in the book. No matter how great their powers, deities can only live as long as there are mortals who believe in them.

It took quite a superhuman effort for us mortals to finish this rather large book (approximately 600 pages) in time (approximately two weeks) for the Readers’ Club’s first meet. The two-hour discussion on a balmy summer evening at the Roadside Café touched upon gods (American or otherwise), Gaiman’s influences, his new book (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), movie adaptations, Tolkien, Dean Koontz and world peace. Emotions were running high when we sat at the table and our voices rose several decibels within a very short time. Afia had the good sense to ask our neighbour, H.M. Naqvi (who seemed to be busy at work on his next novel, or so we would like to think), if the noise level was bothering him. Apparently he was leaving, and so we were free to scream our disgust or delight over the book as we pleased.

The verdict: American Gods had its brilliant moments but overall, it did not live up to the hype. Rahedeen found Gaiman’s ideas to be thought provoking and imaginative, and she enjoyed the witty dialogues, but she did not feel wholly engaged or immersed in the story. She thought that the author added too many elements to follow through on/ to remain consistent and so, in her opinion, the scenes fell flat. Omer felt this could have occurred for practical reasons. He said he could imagine Gaiman getting carried away with the elaborate story universe that he had created but eventually being restricted by editorial pressure or time constraints. He likened the author to J.R.R. Tolkien and Anne Rice, both of whom were known for having created massive worlds with extremely in-depth characters and settings, which could never have been done justice to within the confines of print. And because Gaiman is a natural-born short-story writer, Omer’s theory was that he may further have structured the book as three or four novellas woven together by Shadow’s plot, thus leading to multiple, seemingly standalone sub-plots.

Afia found the book engaging and the narrative well-paced, with a good buildup of tension towards one climactic event. But we all agreed that the pace fizzled out when the climax came around.

Death, redemption, resurrection, sacrifice, guilt, love, loyalty and, of course, faith were themes that featured prominently in the novel. The general concept was that  gods of the traditional faiths were fading away in America because there was a dearth of believers to perform the rituals required to keep them alive. Afia felt that this expanded her view of the god/believer relationship and was quite empowering from the individual believer’s point of view.

IMG_0340As the name indicates, American Gods was overflowing with gods of all shapes and sizes from a variety of cultures and countries. There were Native American gods, Egyptian gods and European gods whose origins were from mythology, folklore or old wives’ tales. A lot of these were unfamiliar to us and as Omer pointed out, he spent some time Googling the various gods and goddesses in the book just to understand the story better. (I did too and ended up jumping from one link to another because the origins of some of the gods made for quite an interesting read.)

The book had a very, to quote Afia, “American feel to it, given that Gaiman is not a US national”. The author seemed quite taken by what he saw during his travels around the US. The focus on the road, the cars, the motels, songs on the radio – all this was quintessentially American. But, ironically, the gods were mostly non-American. And America, as the book says, “was a good place for men, but a bad place for gods”.


The next meeting of the DWL Readers’ Club will be held on Tuesday, 16th July at 6.30 pm at the Roadside Café. For this session, we have agreed to read something by modern American fiction’s late blue-eyed boy, David Foster Wallace. Readers can pick up anything penned by DFW, and when we re-converge on the 16th, we will have a broad discussion on the author and his writing style. For readers who are not located in Karachi, we will be live tweeting the discussion and we encourage you to participate via Twitter.

Neil Gaiman Photograph: Google Images

Photograph 2: Farheen Zehra