Pakistani author and Lit for Life panellist Mohammed Hanif on his novels, his career as a journalist and Indo-Pak relations.
Pakistani writer Mohammad Hanif is just out with a new novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. Hanif's first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and generally received favourable reviews worldwide.
In this interview he talks about his new novel, his parallel career as a journalist, the Zardari government and how he sees Indo-Pak relations.
It is commonly believed that the second novel is the toughest, especially after you have had a first novel as successful as A Case of Exploding Mangoes. There is the inevitable weight of expectations. Did you experience some of that while writing Our Lady of Alice Bhatti?
The first novel is the hardest but its success doesn't make the second one any easier. I generally find writing quite difficult. It doesn't really matter whether it's the first one or the fifth one. It's all about living with permanent uncertainty year after year.
Your second novel departs from your first novel in many ways. The theme of love, a cast of characters that includes working-class Pakistanis and social outcasts, a female protagonist who is also a Catholic…Was that deliberate?
I was interested in certain characters, not really their social status. I think we middle-class people tend to think everyone else is a social outcast. A nurse is as mainstream as you can get. So is a police informer.
Catholics in Pakistan might be a persecuted lot but that's not my concern in this book. I am more interested in the ordinariness of their lives, their hopes, their struggles, their loves and lust.
Alice Bhatti will be a first for many people round the world who have no idea of Christian Pakistan. Is she based on anyone you know?
Not really. It's based on this memory I had of a nurse who took care of my mother in her last days. I remember her walking into the hospital room at all kind of odd hours, going about her job with a very uncommon grace.
That image stayed with me for more than two decades and this book was an attempt to get to know her. But obviously when I started writing my personal obsessions took over.
Exile, either voluntary or forced, has been a big part of many writers' lives. You have written about Pakistan whilst living in London. How has that impacted your vision of Pakistan?
I wasn't really in exile. I had a job, which involved covering Pakistan. So I was always going back and forth. I never really had a romantic vision of the home country that exiles usually have, neither the distance gave me any clarity. You are always concerned about your friends and family and that hasn't changed. You always live in fear but try to hold on to some hope. But increasingly there is more fear and little hope.
The last decade has seen the phenomenal rise of Pakistani writing in English. The talent was probably always there. What is it about the past decade that has propelled Pakistani writing on to the global stage?
I think this literary boom only exists in the media. Half a dozen writers from a country of 180 million don't really mean much. But I guess since Pakistan is permanently stuck in the headlines, these writers and their work get more attention than they would otherwise. Some of them are writing cracking stories as well.
There is a constant debate about how useful creative writing programmes are to a writer's career. You went and got a Masters in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. How did that impact you as a fiction writer?
I didn't really learn how to write but I did learn how to read my own stuff, how to rewrite it which is something that as a journalist you never do.
Also since you are surrounded by people who are trying to write fiction you can shamelessly talk about the fact that you are writing a novel and it's not considered pretentious.
Many journalists have become great fiction writers: Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to mention a few. You have also been a journalist. To what extent has that played a role in your career as a novelist?
In this day and age journalism is usually a hindrance. You can't work in a 24/7 news environment and find time to write fiction. I have been lucky that I have been able to make time for writing. I was also lucky to have editors in the beginning of my career that cared about writing as much as they cared about the news.
You have been a critic of the military dictatorships of Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. How do you think the Zardari government has fared in meeting the aspirations of the Pakistani people?
So far it has only focused on meeting its own aspirations, which seem to be nothing more than to complete its term. The difference from dictatorships is that we'll have a chance in a year's time to vote it out. With dictators we have to wait for them to either die or run away from the country.
In terms of people-to-people relations Indians and Pakistanis have always got along. That, however, has not translated into amicable relations between the two countries. Do you see anything that makes you believe that could change in the foreseeable future?
I don't see that changing because the military establishments in both countries tend to dictate our neighbourhood policies. In the case of Pakistan the military obviously decides much more than its India policy. But it seems even the political elite is still trapped in the trauma of Partition. The peaceniks on both sides are hopelessly outnumbered and sometimes downright naive.