(Published in the December issue of Fountain Ink magazine, retrieved from http://fountainink.in/?p=667)
The prospect of interviewing Mohammed Hanif is a daunting one. The Air Force officer turned journalist turned author has an air that suggests he doesn’t particularly care what impression he leaves his audience with. He tramples over pseudo-intellectual questions with the deadpan sarcasm that makes his writing such a treat, and shrugs off requests for advice on writing with an expression that suggests he is laughing as much at himself as at his interlocutors. His Booker-nominated debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, speaks of young Army officers being punished by being made to read the Quran after they are overheard singing the dirty version of a folk wedding song and casually reflects that Rainer Maria Rilke’s visions of a tree growing out of a ear (from Sonnets to Orpheus) would “sound crazy in Urdu”. In an exclusive chat, the author speaks about his first book, his latest offering Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, his writing style and more.
Maybe I should start off by asking you to tell me the one question you wish journalists would stop asking you, and the one question you wish people at readings would stop asking you?
(Laughs) God! Okay, I’ll keep thinking about that as we move on. But at readings, people tend to ask – in fact, somebody was just saying it, that with Pakistan, people think that there are either facts, or gossip, or rumours. So, people sometimes don’t really have an idea that something can be absolutely fictional and made up. So, mostly, people tend to ask ‘What is it based on?’, ‘How did you get the idea?’, ‘Is it true?’, those kind of things.
One part of it is writing a book and getting it on the shelves and selling it. But then, there’s a whole lot of marketing activity surrounding it now – promotional book tours, going to literature festivals, and the like. Is that something you enjoy, or something you wish you could do away with?
Well, I think there’s part of it that I enjoy, which is that if you are a writer, you are mostly by yourself; you don’t really get to go out much, and don’t really meet people. So that part, I enjoy. But then, it obviously comes with the whole package that you have to turn up, and you have to do your piece, and you have to answer whatever you’re asked. And frankly, lots of the time, we don’t really have any answers, but you’re sitting there on the podium, and you’re expected to say something. (Laughs) And you end up making stuff up as you go along, and you later wonder ‘What the hell was I saying?!’ I don’t really know, but I’m sure there’s money in this, because suddenly, literature fests are happening everywhere. I’ve attended two in India in just the last couple of weeks, and there are four more coming up in the next two months. So, I don’t really understand why there are so many literature festivals and book festivals; but I’m sure somebody is making some money out of this. I used to get freaked out, initially, because as a reader – and I’ve been a reader all my life – I never had a desire to go to any literature festival, or to meet writers whom I like. But I think this is a relatively new thing – everything has become interactive – but most of the people who turn up for these fests, I can tell that they’re closet writers, or trying to write, or you know, basically looking for tips and trying to learn the tricks of the trade. Which is all fine, you know, they make an effort to go out and hear what you have to say. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you run into somebody who is really brilliant and nice, and have a nice chat. But mostly, it is a bit like being a travelling salesman in that you turn up in a strange town and try to sell your wares, and next thing, you’re disappointed and at home, you say ‘Okay, I won’t do this again.’ But then, you get another invitation, and you get tempted, so that’s how it goes. (Laughs)
With so much writing from the subcontinent – and specifically from Pakistan – getting published, people both from your country or region and the West expect you to be something of a representative or ambassador for the region you write about. And does this annoy you, or do you think labels can be useful?
It mostly annoys me. But, as a citizen, sometimes you might have something to say. So I’m grateful on those days, which are very rare, when you actually want to say something. And then somebody asks you your opinion about the country, or the state of the nation, or a certain kind of aspect of whatever is going on in the country. So that way you’re lucky, in that you wanted to say something, and somebody asks you about it, and you’ve said your piece. (Laughs) But mostly, there are these kind of expectations, and I find them boring because I’m not the official spokesperson of the government of Pakistan, or the state of Pakistan, or the nation of Pakistan. I can’t even speak for my city; I can’t even speak for my own household, you know. If I said something, the other two people would disagree with it. So, when you’re kind of put in that kind of position, I find that to be quite a trial.
Even when you were in London, your writing – as seen in A Case of Exploding Mangoes – didn’t reflect a nostalgic yearning for the motherland, or make it seem like a fuzzy paradise, like a lot of expat writers do. Is it journalistic cynicism?
(Laughs) Yeah, well...No, it’s just cynicism in general! I mean, I know a lot of journalists who kind of romanticise their motherland. I don’t think it has much to do with journalism. It’s just the kind of person one is. I used to be quite homesick when I lived abroad, and even now, when I’m away for even five or six days, sometimes I get very, very homesick. But being homesick and missing home doesn’t really mean that it should screw up your perception of what that home is, or what goes on there. So, I think these are two different things – you can be homesick, but that’s not essentially always a romantic thing to do.
As a journalist you’re writing articles, getting them out the next day and drawing in comments or letters within the next few hours. But writing a book is such a long-drawn process, where there’s first the writing period, and then the editing, where you discuss the content with a whole lot of people, and then the sales, and finally the reactions. Was that transition difficult for you?
It was difficult in the sense that when you’re writing, then mostly, you don’t know what it is that you’re trying to achieve, what it is that you’re trying to do. So, everyday, you live with this doubt. But after you do it long enough, you kind of get used to it, because it’s all very private. All your uncertainties, all your fears, are completely your own, and then you become used to it, and it becomes rather nice. In fact, when you actually finish, or when you think you’ve finished, it becomes a bit difficult to let go, because whatever it is, good or bad or boring or thrilling, that is all yours. And when you give it to other people to read, you’re basically sort of letting go of that whole private universe that you’ve created and lived in year after year after year. So, that part is difficult, you know – telling yourself that it’s done, I’m finished. And after that, it’s fine, it’s not in your hands anymore, it’s the whole publishing machine and they can do whatever they think should be done with it. So, I don’t worry about that too much.
When asked about whether you censor your own writing for fear of repercussions, you said at a literature festival recently that half the people in Pakistan can’t read, and of the ones that can, most don’t, and the ones who do think pretty much like you do, and laugh even if you’re making fun of them. But, let’s say in a case like Salman Rushdie’s, it’s usually the people who can’t or don’t read that kick up controversies. Does that ever worry you?
I don’t know, I mean, if you started worrying about what people will think, then that can be quite paralysing. You can’t really write anything; you can’t really commit a single word to the page, because even if you look at people around yourself, sort of like if you know two dozen people, and you think, ‘My God, what will they say if they are ever to read this?’, then obviously, you’ll never be able to write anything. So, at some point, I think you have to get rid of this notional audience and their reactions and what they might make of it, because you can’t really second guess what people are going to think. I don’t think it ever occurred to Salman Rushdie when he was writing whatever he was writing that his life will turn into this nightmare. You’re right, in the sense that most of the fuss is created by people who haven’t really read the text, and if you start worrying about their reaction, then you shouldn’t actually be doing this, you should be doing something else. You should actually be in politics, and try and force them to think in a certain way, rather than sitting by yourself and writing a story! (Laughs)
But how about reactions from the establishment itself? In 2008, right after Musharraf had been ousted, you spoke of his action in Kargil as a “moronic venture”, in your author’s notes in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Can you be as critical of Pakistan – especially of real people – in Pakistan as you could in London?
No, actually, I wrote it when I was in Pakistan, and I think most people completely agreed with me on that count. (Laughs) I didn’t hear anyone say ‘Oh, it was a brilliant tactical move’ or anything, you know. I think people mostly said, ‘Yeah, right, yeah, absolutely.’ So, yeah, you can write stuff like that living in Pakistan, and there are other people who like stronger and more critical things, and they’re here.
The narrator in A Case of Exploding Mangoes compares Asha and Lata’s voices to “teenage sex kittens”. Did this appear blasphemous to the cult of their followers in India or Pakistan?
(Laughs) Let me think...nobody’s really objected to it or anything. A couple of people told their own stories of how they’re always comparing Lata and Asha. And some people said, ‘Oh, my God, this is exactly what we thought’. But strangely enough, I haven’t had any sort of negative reaction from lovers of their music, who are many in Pakistan.
What is the most hostile reaction you’ve had to anything you’ve written?
I think the most I’ve had is certain anonymous phone calls. I mean, slightly threatening phone calls, sort of just warning you, ‘We know where you live’. And that is quite usual in Pakistan if you’re a journalist or a writer. At some point in your career, you’re likely to get those kinds of phone calls. So I don’t think that I’m specially singled out or anything. I think once I received a phone call from a sort of senior army officer, who pretended that he knew me. And he was calling from one of those obscure numbers, so I asked him for his cell number, and then he said, ‘No, I’m sitting underground, so I can’t use my cell phone. I’ll call you when I come out of my bunker or whatever.’ (Laughs) So these kind of bizarre people, or some jihadi or someone may call. But I haven’t had to deal with anything worse, thank God for that!
Is there a downside to a successful first book, one that ends up being considered literary when you set out to write a thriller with a comic element? Do people expect you to churn out a certain kind of writing after that?
(Laughs) Yeah, I guess it happens all the time, with everything that involves a period of gestation, where for three-four years you’re doing something, then some people will wonder. I mean, some people – it’s not like the whole nation is sitting and wondering what this writer is going to write next, but people who’ve read the book or liked it or have certain expectations may think about these things. Now, some people may believe that the publishers dictate to you and say ‘This is the kind of book you must write; this is what will sell, this is what your niche is’, but none of that happens, I think; at least, none of that has happened to me. I wish there was someone who would tell me, ‘Write this kind of book, and you will make loads of money.’ That would make life much simpler. I just have to figure out everything for myself. But you’re right, people do get into having expectations, and some writers may fall for this kind of expectation. But I don’t know what people expected from me, if they had expected anything at all, because I’m sure there are bigger and better things to worry about than wondering what I’m going to do next.
All your characters are rather eccentric, or at least the way you write about them makes them appear caricatured. Do you believe that everyone is a little mad, or that slightly mad characters make a better book?
I don’t know. I think the only thing it proves is maybe that I am slightly mad, because all those characters work through me. They kind of go through my brain, and then end up on the page. I think somebody, some very famous and important writer whose name I don’t remember, said that when you’re writing a character, you’re basically trying to work your own madness through it. And since you’re a writer, you have this option where you can say this is not me, it’s a fictional character. But I think writing these characters is a way of working your own obsessions, and your own madnesses. Why I make them like caricatures, I don’t know; sometimes, I think realism is slightly overrated. Also, when I was growing up and when I started in journalism, I was good friends with some really brilliant cartoonists, and I spent a lot of time with them. So that may have had an impact on me.
In your author’s notes, you speak of how the library at the Air Force base was the only place you could access when you were disciplined for helping a classmate cheat in his exam, and that’s where you started reading per se. Now, for people who grow up reading books or who study literature, there’s a very clear distinction between literary and popular fiction. But in your case, you chose titles and genres completely at random. So, has this method of reading and your background in the armed forces rather than academic circles, razed down some of these borders?
Yeah, I think since I didn’t have that properly structured literary education, like most people who go through posh liberal schooling systems have, well...there are drawbacks to that, I may have missed out on some very basic texts. But yeah, for me, it was an advantage, and it’s the kind of advantage that people who are self-taught would have, in the sense that they are free to make up their own minds about something, rather than following some received wisdom, or putting things into some pre-decided category. If you think ‘Okay, this is what this is, this is what that is’, when you sit down to write, you also kind of already know that ‘Okay, I’m writing a thriller, or I’m writing humour, or I’m writing chick lit.’ So I didn’t really have those kinds of issues because I read what I liked, and I think I try to write what I would hopefully like to read, I think.
When did you know you wanted to write a book, and not just keep reading what other people wrote?
No, no, I still want to continue reading what other people have written! Well, it’s a bit like this. I think it’s pretty common; this is how people start writing. When they read and read and read and read, they get to a point where they start thinking, ‘I might have a story to tell’, or it could be as banal as ‘I want to see my name on the book cover’ or ‘I want my little bio on the back flap of a book’ or ‘There’s this voice in my head that’s telling me things, and maybe I should put them down on the page’. So there’s no one kind of particular reason. For me, I’ve tried writing in different forms – I’ve written for theatre, I’ve done a couple of screenplays, and of course I’ve done a lot of journalism. And all those kind of forms have their rewards and their punishments, but most of them are collaborative things, which you do with directors and actors and editors. So, there is a lot of teamwork involved. And when it works, it’s absolutely brilliant, nothing like it; but if it doesn’t, everyone ends up blaming everybody else, like ‘The script was sh**’ or ‘The director doesn’t know his job’. So I think that’s when, when I was going through those experiences, that I realised that writing a novel was a way in which you could take charge also and let yourself go also, and take the whole responsibility for it, and there are no deadlines. So, you can take as long as you want, and you can do whatever you want without thinking whether this can be put on a stage, or somebody will film it. You can just do your own thing, basically.
Your titles have a sense of irreverence about them, which continues throughout the book; do you believe it’s the title, rather than the first page, that sets the tone for a book?
Yeah, I guess it says something about the book, and it may not be accurate sometimes. It may not be the best title for a book. But sometimes, it’s like those lyrics that get struck in your head, and much later, you realise that actually, they’re incorrect lyrics, and you heard the song wrong; but it’s been stuck in your head for year after year after year. I think titles are a bit like that – when you get stuck with them, you get stuck with them. I usually start with a working title, and keep hoping that you know, while I write this book, something better will come along. But that doesn’t usually happen, and you’re just stuck with whatever you started with. And since you’ve lived with it for such a long time, it almost becomes like that wrong lyric that’s always in your head.
You use the simple present for the narrator’s parts in the first book, and throughout the second. Is there any reason for that, or is it just the way it comes to you?
I’m sure there was a reason when I started, but I have completely forgotten what it was. (Laughs) I think the only lesson I learnt from my first book was that I’m never going to write in first person again, because that restricts you a lot, and it’s very challenging. So that’s one thing I decided. I don’t know why I started writing in present tense. It just seemed right for the first chapter, and when you’ve done that kind of thing, you’ve set yourself up for failure, basically. (Laughs). Because then, you have to abide by that rule, and I’m not the kind of person who in the middle of a book will try and change some of the fundamentals that I had started with. So I just got stuck with whatever I had started with, and now I’m thinking I should never write in present tense again.
Your subject in A case of Exploding Mangoes is something you knew all about – drills, flying aircraft, the life of an Air Force cadet and a junior officer. But you’ve based Our Lady of Alice Bhatti in a hospital, and you throw in medical parlance so liberally. You even put in details like “every third heartbeat, you should let a drop of blood spill, you let the vein breathe.” How did you research this?
It’s a complete lie! And it’s quite a bizarre lie, and I’m really surprised that no one’s come and asked me ‘What the hell are you doing here?!’ I don’t know of any medical procedure that works like that, and I don’t even know why I said something so bizarre. But I don’t really do much research. I bought a sort of working nurse’s dictionary, in the hope that I will learn something. I don’t think I did learn much. Like everyone else, I have friends who are doctors, whom I’ve grown up with, and I’ve overheard their conversations. And the hospital is a very familiar place in all our lives, especially in urban lives. Even if you’ve been very healthy all your life, chances are that you’ve ended up in a hospital for a relative or a friend or a colleague and you’ve seen lots of hospitals on TV. There are lots of bad hospital dramas. So, in a way, it’s not that unfamiliar a place.
Another thing, and one which research can’t help you with, is the woman’s perspective. Your first novel was such a macho male novel. It had only two female characters – Blind Zainab and General Zia’s wife – and their thoughts were restricted to a few pages. But in this case, a lot of your novel focuses on Alice Bhatti’s thoughts. How did you make sure you were getting it right? Did you get your wife to check?
(Laughs) Yeah, she reads my stuff, so...you know, she used to say about my first book that it was swimming in its own testosterone, because it was such a...sort of, male book. But here, well, some of my first readers are women. And I was pleased that there wasn’t much that they found objectionable. Because I was, frankly speaking, quite concerned about writing so closely from a woman’s point of view. You know, as a man, you just assume things, that this is how a woman in a certain situation would react or think. But I was quite pleasantly surprised when three or four of my close friends, including my agent and one of my editors, read it and they didn’t object to anything that I had written.
When asked about the notion of minority, in the context of the Christian setting for your book, you’ve said in interviews that maybe that notion is an exaggerated one. But then, over the last year, there have been two assassinations of politicians – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti – over their stances on minority rights, so to speak, and a judge has fled after sentencing Taseer’s killer. Is the country getting less secular now?
It was never a secular country. What was the point, why did they make it then if they wanted a secular country? India was secular enough, no? But if you’re asking about whether it’s becoming less tolerant, well, yes, it is less tolerant now than it was when I was a child.
Pakistan is perceived by outsiders as being divided into two societies – the irreligious upper class, and the religious lower class – and books largely foster or reiterate that. But in your novels, there are characters who’re the other way round, and in the country itself, there seems to be something of a class crossover in terms of this equation.
(Laughs) Okay, I think that answers your very first question, about what it is that you don’t like reporters asking you! Because it’s a massive kind of subject, and it’s a very complicated one as well. And I can talk about it a bit, but I’m no authority. As I said, Pakistan is less tolerant now than it was when I was a child. That’s not to say that when I was a child, Pakistan was some kind of secular haven. I think our whole continent was sort of...umm, we remember the partition right, and we lived together for thousands of years, and look what we did to each other. But Pakistan in particular is less tolerant, but what worries me is state-sanctioned intolerance, where there are laws that discriminate against people who are not Muslims, or people who call themselves Muslims but are not allowed to call themselves Muslims (like the Ahmadis). So, I think that’s more dangerous than any kind of intolerance that we have in our society, because we’ve always had our differences, we’ve always been a sectarian lot, and somehow we can work through that, we can argue about that, sometimes we fight about that. But when you have laws in place that discriminate against people on the basis of that, it’s very dangerous.
A lot of Pakistani and Indian writers tend to market their countries to the West, and showcase everyday life in a manner that seems to say ‘Look, this happens in our country too, women smoke, people drink’, for instance. That aspect isn’t there in either of your novels. Is it anathema to you, or is that just incidental?
I haven’t really thought about it, because I don’t really know what my reader wants from me. I mean, if I knew this is what a Western reader wants, then I’ll give it to them. I am really not concerned at that I’m not setting out to write a state-of-the-nation novel, and I’m not being a tour guide for any outsider that this is what my country is like. There is a lot of both fiction and non-fiction that does that. If some writers think that this is the best way to write about their country, then that’s up to them. I am generally more consumed by my characters and my story and where they come from and where they’re going, those kind of banal things. And if their lives say something about the place they live in, that’s really quite incidental. But that is not my purpose.
But that’s the kind of thing you sometimes do refer to in your journalistic writing. You’d written a piece on moving back to Pakistan from London, where you spoke of once coming across women in burkhas making out with bearded men on motorcycles in the beach. One would have thought you’d have saved that for a novel.
Oh, they haven’t stopped. They still make out on beaches. (Laughs) Well, I think I have the advantage that I work in both mediums. There’s a certain kind of person who saves up every detail for their novel, and I don’t, because sometimes something is more immediate and needs to be said immediately. But you’re right, I should have saved it for my novel.
You made a mention of the mujahidin and the connection between America and jihad in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. You even brought in Osama Bin Laden, and thus the connection the Middle East had with the Soviet war in Afghanistan. But there is no reference to their spinoff in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. I’m not suggesting that you should bring in everything that’s going on in the country, but surely, the Talibanisation of regions in Pakistan today must be on your mind?
(Laughs) No, no, not while writing a novel. I mean, those characters were there in A Case of Exploding Mangoes, because it was set in Islamabad, it was set around a President, a military dictator, a General, and this sort of power politics was going on in that novel; that was the central theme. So that’s how you had a party where some distinguished people turned up, as you would if you were in a Presidency in a situation like that. Here, it was a completely different set of people, living quite unremarkable lives, and the fact of the matter is, most people from that class, from that background, when they sit down in the evening over a meal, they do not discuss the Talibanisation of Pakistan. (Laughs) They have more interesting and immediate things to talk about. It does affect their lives in a certain way, but this is not how they will articulate it; they will live with it, or fight against it. You hear about it on TV talk shows, and upper class, literati gatherings, but that’s not the theme of my novel.
You spoke once of how A Case of Exploding Mangoes would work better as a stage musical than as a film. If you had the liberty to cast anyone, and not necessarily actors or singers, whom would you give the main roles to?
(Laughs) I don’t know! I think well, it has a lot of pageantry going on, people in groups, the army life is a bit of a costume drama, isn’t it? So I thought it would make a nice musical. But, I think to play General Zia...(laughs) Well, I think they just don’t make them anymore like him!
You speak with a lot of detail about terrible torture techniques – what is the source of your interest in them?
(Laughs) I guess it’s just as I said, those obsessions that you have. I haven’t really read up on them. But I think I must be one of those terrible people who, you know, think in their room, and envision various ways of torturing people they don’t like! But it’s quite disturbing that it’s becoming a kind of recurring theme in whatever I write.
There’s also this very vivid recurring image of worms eating someone’s innards in both your books. Where does that come from?
Oh, no, that’s an old Punjabi curse that I just recycled.
You’ve said you prefer to write on paper and then key it in. Now, when one thinks of conversations happening at a tea stall or a police station, it’s often in the native language. Are there times when you write parts of conversations in Urdu or Punjabi, and translate later?
Well, sometimes, I have scribbled lines in Urdu or Punjabi which kind of go on to make the bases of a line, or paragraph, or even a sub-plot in a book. But mostly, my notes are in English.
Your books are in the process of getting translated into Urdu. Are you handling that yourself?
No, no, I’m not translating it. For one thing, I would be very bad at it, and for another, I would start writing a completely different book, which is not what I want to do!
A Case of Exploding Mangoes has a lot of religious flippancy, and one scene where there’s boy-on-boy action. Will these be acceptable among people who don’t belong to the English-speaking elite?
Oh, yeah, I’m sure they will love it! I mean, I’ve read stories in Urdu that are far, far raunchier than anything I could ever hope to write, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
What kind of subject, title or first page would make you put a book you’re browsing through back on the shelf of a bookstore immediately?
(Laughs) Anything with a self-help sounding title, which promises to improve your life. Anything with the word ‘Positive’ in it, I think.
Let’s close with cricket – one of your characters feels Imran Khan is “a failed batsman masquerading as a bowler”. Is that your opinion too?
No, no, I don’t know much about the history of cricket. It’s just this thing the character says. You know, a lot of people in Pakistan and in India as well are frighteningly knowledgeable about cricket! And they have their opinions on cricketers and the game. And since Imran Khan has got a country to run, I don’t think he’s too bothered. (Laughs)