An interview with Fatima Bhutto.
Set in Mir Ali, a small conflict-ridden town in Waziristan that lies close to the Afghanistan border in north-west Pakistan, Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, revolves around three brothers and three momentous hours of their lives.
The novel begins with the brothers leaving separately after having tea together one morning and it knits their stories together, weaving past with present, to create a tapestry of a place where there are a million mutinies now and where the ordinary business of life — love, work, survival — exist under multiple shadows. They are cast by the presence of the Taliban, by the constant threat from U.S. drone strikes, by a paranoid military-intelligence apparatus that orchestrates disappearances like a “beautiful science,” and an intolerant Pakistan state.
Almost everything — trust, friendship, love — is compromised in such a situation, except memory. This manifests itself particularly vividly in the two women in the book — Mina, the wife of one of the brothers, who is unable to get over the death of her son, killed in a terror attack. It is her clinging to this awful memory that unexpectedly becomes a source of strength in a difficult situation. There is Samarra — feisty, independent, headstrong — with such a strong attachment to a place that she forsakes her lover and the promise of a comfortable life elsewhere. “I don’t want to walk on roads that have no memory of life,” she says in this warm and lyrical book about people caught in a tinderbox of an environment.
Granddaughter and niece of two Pakistan Prime Ministers — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto — Fatima is the author of a book of poems and an explosive memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, which has a chilling account of the murder of her father, Mir Murtaza Bhutto.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Mukund Padmanabhan, the Editor of The Hindu BusinessLine.
A piece of fiction after a book of poems and a volume of non-fiction. Have you finally found your genre?
I have enjoyed writing fiction the most because it is not only the hardest and most challenging, but the most free. I was very happy to get away from the constraints of non-fiction, where you always have to be on some kind of side. Even when you are writing a book review, you are compelled to say you like it or not like it. In fiction, you are compelled not do this. You are compelled to try to understand as many perspectives of possible.
True, there are many more shades of grey in fiction. But your novel is still one with a strong and singular political point of view.
Certainly, but I think the ability to look at three very different perspectives of life in a turbulent environment is possible only in fiction. To talk of women in more than one voice I thought was very important. In non-fiction, it just becomes your voice. You can’t explore the myriad voices of South Asian women, their problems. It was an exercise to script characters whose actions you don’t agree with but you can’t condemn. You just have to follow through, be an observer and a witness, and not a judge.
You have lived in Old Clifton, Karachi, ever since you moved to Pakistan. What made you set your novel in Waziristan? Was it because of its conflict-ridden nature?
I was really struck by the north when I visited and travelled around it. In Pakistan, we have prejudices, of it being a closed place, where there are dangerous people and where women have no visibility, no voice. Everywhere I went I found myself to be completely wrong.
I remember, on one of my trips to the Kalash Valley in 2007, we were staying in a small guest house run by a man and his daughter. At the end of the evening, I went to the room and there was no lock on the door. I asked, “How do I shut my door?” They thought it was a bizarre question, [and] asked me, ‘Why do you need a lock on your door, what are you afraid of?’ And for me it was curious that they are not afraid of each other.
There are parts of the region which are very matriarchal — the Kalash Valley is totally matriarchal. The men are sort of furniture — they keep them somewhere in the back and nobody really talks to them and it’s the women who decide everything and do everything. That stayed with me and I wanted to write about it.
I wanted it to be located somewhere which makes us uncomfortable and leads us to ask why.
So were you trying to bust a stereotype, correct? The kind of reports you read, particularly in the western press, are invariably about a region overrun by the Taliban. In that context, it was surprising to read that a strong and independent woman like Samarra could even exist there.
The press, especially the western press, when it looks at Pakistan is so singular and so one-dimensional. There is never an explanation of why we have these forces. Or in what context have they grown?
There are women like Samarra everywhere in Pakistan. But I have never seen them in the popular portrayal. Pakistani women have one description — victim. Or privileged. But the voices of the millions and millions of women who suffer and survive and carry the turbulence of their country, their communities and their villages, are not heard. I wanted to focus on them.
Pakistani women have taken the brunt of this violence — in any conflict area, it is always the women who are the first point of attack. But I think the more they have seen of oppression and violence, they have gotten more brave, more strong, more fearless than they were. You see this refusal to just keep quiet and do as you are told.
It used to be a country when you had to be from a certain background to do this. That is not true any more. Look at Mukhtar Mai or Malala. Even in India, where I have been watching the news, I get the same sense. You don’t have to be English-speaking, urban or upper middle class to fight back. Women are fighting back all over this region.
What kind of reception do you think this novel will receive among the Pakistan establishment?
(Laughs) I guess we will find out. I don’t really know. What I find interesting from my limited experience in India is that even though it is a political book, it has strong themes, people really identify with other people. People have come to me and spoken about Mina or Samarra — it’s always the women. There is always something that they empathise with, they worry about, or are disturbed with. And I do hope that people in the novel will be seeing over the anxieties and the politics.
But there are certain political messages, and I hope that people get them whether they are comfortable with it or not. And one of them is that the only thing violence will do for Pakistan is to destroy it. It doesn’t matter who you are or why you use it.
You describe yourself as a secular person. Is there political space for this in Pakistan today?
Well, secularism in South Asia is not at all like the western version. In the West, there is a certain fear or suspicion for religion. It has a certain allergy to the notion of spirituality or religion being present in people’s lives. In South Asia, it is so connected to how we are and who we are, to the rites of our day. For me, secularism in this part of the world means tolerance. It is the inclusivity of these really syncretic ideas.
When you go to a Catholic church in Sindh, in my hometown Larkana, there are no pews. They sit on the ground with their legs crossed, in a yogic position. And they don’t have candles, but diyas. And they put rose petals on the picture of the Virgin Mary. We come from a region where we mix all these ideas and have done so for centuries beautifully. Again in Sindh, we have Jhulelal, who Hindus and Muslims worship together.
So you are against fencing off religion from the state?
I think religion has its own space and we can’t cut it out of our lives because we are in a part of the world where it is infused. We have to build our own kind of secularism, one that doesn’t exclude anyone.
You have ruled out getting into politics. Yet you are a supporter of your mother’s party, the PPP (Shaheed Bhutto). Do you see yourself as a party member? Or is your connection a little more tenuous?
(Laughs) That’s a really good one. Well, obviously if you are looking at who is speaking for the ideas that I believe most strongly — ideas of brotherhood, inclusivity, justice — then certainly I have someone very close that I hear these ideas from.
We don’t have many political voices in Pakistan. We have two or three, and they agree pretty much on everything. It’s just the grammar they use that is slightly different. I wouldn’t call myself an activist — that is what other people call you and then it sticks. But if you do care about people around us, if you want equanimity, you can’t but be political. So we are all political in that way, aren’t we?
You spent the first 11 years outside Pakistan. So Fatima Bhutto 10 years down the line — would she be principally a novelist based in Pakistan?
I would like to say yes because I enjoy fiction. But I am frightened of saying so because if I did then I would probably end up writing an opera or something (laughs). But I knew what I always wanted to do with my life was write. And yes, I would love to do more fiction. There is something about telling stories and reaching out to people through them.