Young Pakistani author Ali Sethi finds lots of similarities in lifestyle between India and his homeland
On a monsoon afternoon, the Ambassador’s Yellow Brick Road restaurant is a pretty happening place. There are lots of happy faces, many of them mobile advertisements for carrying on multiple conversations at the same time. Others could as well be brand ambassadors for some anti-ageing creams. Into this motley group of women walks in Ali Sethi — suave, slim and, for somebody so young, quite a picture of repose. The tables are all occupied, no, all but one.
As we take our places at the table overlooking the greenery by the glass window, and within whispering distance of the entrance, many secrets start fluttering out. “I don’t look for solitude. I like being with people, like being in a crowd,” says the talented son of Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi, and author of “The Wish-Maker”, brought out by Penguin. As Sethi settles in he takes a sip or two of the lemon soda that makes an appearance on the table. His eyes look out of the window, and inevitably, draw comparisons between Lahore and Delhi. “I went to Karim’s yesterday. It is like Lahore, the same kababs and tikkas. Even in the five-stars there is a sameness. I have often found a colonial menu in five-star hotels in India and Pakistan. The only difference is we don’t have South Indian food in our hotels. No idli, no dosa.”
This young man is actually a big dal fan. “I am majorly into dals. I can cook dal, shrimp curry with tomato ketchup. I can cook if people pay me for it, otherwise it is more convenient to eat out!” That is exactly what he has had to do on this promotion trip for his debut novel. “I never thought of being my father’s son when I started writing this book. If I did think like that, I would further complicate my life. I want full, absolute freedom. My book is not about my parents.” As he talks passionately of his freedom, we soon discover his weak spot: dal soup with lemon topping makes its way to the table and Sethi loves it, forgetting for a few minutes his debut book that presents slices of Pakistan from the eyes of many generations.
Adding pepper to his dal, Sethi takes only small morsels of tandoori bread specially ordered for lunch. He uses a spoon for the dal, then backs it up with a morsel or two. There is paneer pasanda with even more crisp bread. Sethi though, refuses to be tempted. That is until he finds a chicken preparation. The gravy is thick, and the spices not too hot. Sethi is convinced and happy. And almost on cue, starts drawing comparisons between the two countries. “Personally, I prefer home food: subzi, all kinds of dal, saag. I like tandoor roti, not rice. But I have heard here most people prefer non-veg. food. Is it true?”
Well, it may not necessarily be true, but Sethi finds a little difference in the way the media handles everything. “The media on both sides of the border reacts differently. I have been following the Kasab story on television here but there are very few independent stories. Almost all of them follow the government version. The Pakistani press is critical of 26/11. We share the same sentiments on the terror attacks, as people on both sides are victims. But it is different with respect to Kashmir. The media there, whether English, Urdu or vernacular, wants a referendum.”
Talking of many languages, Sethi himself knows three. “I write in English, Punjabi is my mother tongue and Urdu is our national language. So I know all three. Initially I did think of writing in Punjabi and some day I do want to write in it. But for that I will have to exercise my Punjabi more, read and write more.”
As for reading more, his readers in India are doing a good job of going through “The Wish-Maker”. As for writing, well, after the first book, it is tempting to wait for the next. Meanwhile, ice cream in mango and vanilla flavour rounds off a meal that has continued against the backdrop of constant talk at other tables. Life at YBR is indeed pulsating with energy.