Monday, July 30, 2007

Exclusive Review – Pervez Musharraf and the Deathly Hallows

PM

We’ve read the unreleased book purchased illegally from a Karachi store.

[Imaging by Shashwat Saxena; text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

27 July 2007
ABU DHABI — Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister and Pakistan People’s Party chief Benazir Bhutto held talks in Abu Dhabi on Friday, according to informed sources.


Jamia Hafsa beware. The heart-failure finale to Daughter of the East’s spellbinding novel, 8 years in the making, is not for bearded sissies (or for chicks-with-sticks) --such secrets await in Pervez Musharraf and the Deathly Hallows that no Lal Masjid cleric will make it to the end unbombed.

Luckily, Oxford-educated Benazir Bhutto has prepped loyal Sindhi readers by doling out dark and dangerous tales of 10% Commissions, shot through with tips about family honor and feudal husbands, coups and hanging, and bribes and more bribes. Fear not, you will find no spoilers in our review--to tell the plot (and Abu Dhabi deals) would ruin her Return, and Pervez Musharraf and the Deathly Hallows is a jihad the likes of which Bhutto’s fans have not yet seen, and are not likely to forget. But before you embark on your final adventure with Mushie--bring plenty of tissues.

The heart of the Book is a dictator's fatalistic mission--not just in Mushie's quest for perpetual power, but in his final journey from Army House to Abu Dhabi--and Mushie faces more danger than that found in all 11 Presidents combined, from the direct threat of Indians and He Who Must Not Be Named (his name starts with O), to the poignant peril of losing faith in his own nuke-maker.

Attentive readers would do well to remember President Bush’s warning about making the choice between "us and them," and know that Bhutto applies the same difficult principle to the conclusion of her thriller. While fans will find the answers to hotly speculated questions about Sharif, Aziz, and He Who Must Not Be Named, it is a testament to BB's skill as a storyteller that even the most smart-alecky and sarcastic Pakistani columnist will be taken by surprise.

A spectacular finish to a (admittedly) predictable tale, Pervez Musharraf and the Deathly Hallows is a bitter-bitter read for fans. The journey is rugged, filled with events 90% tragic and 0% triumphant, the battlefield constantly In the Line of Fire, but the final chapter is as brilliant and sudden as a well-executed coup, and Americans will emerge from the confines of the story with heavy hearts, and hopefully feeling 100% sorry for the experience.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Karachi Chronicle – Slow Journey to Nationhood

Tracing the nation’s struggle for a common identity.

[Text by Gaurav Sood; picture by Light Hunter]

Pakistani politics cannot be understood without paying close attention to the deep ethnic cleavages that line its polity. The seminal moments in its brief history – the 1971 war with India which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the horrific violence that rocked Karachi in the mid-90s – are a reflection of the inability of politicians to transcend narrow ethno-linguistic boundaries, be it in revenue allocation or in crafting policies around language and culture.

Here below, I explicate how the vicious ethnic politics in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan and a city which contributes 35% of all revenue to the central coffers, has come to define the ethno-political dysfunction that has marked the country’s history.

Mohajirs

The Arabic word Mohajir means a refugee and in Pakistan, it generally refers to non-Punjabi Indian Muslim immigrants. One of the reasons why Urdu speaking are still seen as Mohajirs and Punjabi immigrants not is that while the Punjabi Muslim immigrants were able to assimilate very well within Punjab, the educated Urdu speaking immigrants from the Gangetic plains and elsewhere formed a culturally distinct group in Sindh.

The Mohajirs formed the educated ’salariat’ in the nation’s capital city, Karachi. They were overrepresented in the bureaucracy, media, and managerial positions in the private sector. Politically, they were ardent nationalists who studiously avoided ethnic politics and favored Islamist parties until the reorganization in mid 1960s.

Mohajirs today constitute about 12% of the population of Pakistan and 40% of Sindh. Just to give you a flavor of how much things have changed for Mohajirs - over the past two decades, in fact since the Bhutto era rule of rural-urban quota, they have been underrepresented in state educational colleges and jobs. This has proven to be a bit of a death knell for the economic prospects of a primarily urban group.

The Rulers and the Mohajirs

Pakistan as a nascent nation got off to bad start. Its ‘father of the nation’ (Baba-e-Qaum) – a Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi rolled in one for that country – died a little more than a year after its creation. Whatever little chance the nation had of enlightened leadership vanished as Liaquat Ali Khan, a close confidant of Jinnah, was assassinated merely four years into his reign as a Prime Minister. Then after a period that saw 6 prime ministers in 7 years.

Mohammad Ayub Khan grabbed power in a coup and steered Pakistan into an alliance with US. Midway during his rule, he fought and won elections against Fatima Jinnah in 1964, which were widely seen as riged. Mohajirs sided with Fatima Jinnah in that election and suffered targeted violence at the hands of Gohar Khan, son of Ayub Khan, for such temerity. (Just as an aside Ayub Khan’s son Gohar Ayub Khan was Pakistan’s Foreign Minister in the Nawaz Sharif government and Gohar’s son, Omar Ayub Khan, is Pakistan’s current Minister of State for Finance.)

Ayub Khan in 1964 moved the capital city from Karachi to Rawalpindi on an interim basis and then to Islamabad. The move was widely seen by Mohajirs as a way to marginalize them. In 1969, he turned reigns over to the only second Shiite after Liaquat to lead Pakistan, General Yahya Khan.

Yahya Khan famously led Pakistan into another losing war with India in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Following the 1971, nearly half a million Bihari Muslims, who had moved to East Pakistan in 1947, demanded that they be expatriated to Pakistan. Out of the nearly half a million refugees, Bhutto – the successor to Yahya Khan – only allowed 100,000 before his Sindhi constituency forced him to abandon the rest. The stranded Biharis live in refugee camps in Bangladesh till today. The issue of these abandoned Biharis further alienated the Mohajirs who had vigorously campaigned for them.

Bhutto, generally considered an enlightened statesman within Pakistan, was a closet Sindhi nationalist. Bowing to his native constituency, the Sindhis, he instituted urban-rural quotas that resulted in a precipitous decline in the number of jobs to which the predominantly urban Mohajirs were eligible.

After Bhutto’s execution, Pakistani politics was run by Zia-ul-Haq singly for about 10 years. Haq’s rule is legendary not only for his fateful decision to involve Pakistan in Afghanistan, but also for his full throttle Islamization that he unveiled to support the prior cause.

Haq, a Punjabi, also deeply reviled Mohajirs. The war in Afghanistan led to another refugee influx in Karachi that was to change the dynamics within Karachi to the worse once more. This time the influx of Pathans was also accompanied by wide availability of small arms. Between 1986 and 1989, the prices of guns went down by 40 to 50% in Karachi. The TT-pistol sold for Rs. 5500 in 1987. In 1989, it was priced at Rs. 3000. In the Frontier, the price of an AK-47 went down from Rs. 40 000 in 1980 to Rs. 16 000 in 1989.

End of 1988 saw Benazir Bhutto being elected as the country’s first woman Prime Minister in a much feted election. The time period of course ties neatly with the ‘end of Afghan war’ and the reduced utility for US of a military regime in Pakistan. Bhutto, daughter of Z.A.Bhutto, rode to power with a coalition government that included MQM.

Post election, Benazir is widely alleged to have run one of the most corrupt regimes. Just to give you a flavor of the bankruptcy of the regime, Madam Bhutto appointed her mother, Nusrat, as a senior minister without portfolio and her father-in-law as chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee. In addition, ever the Sindhi nationalist and eager to firm up her credentials there, she didn’t throw much rope to Mohajirs. The relationship quickly soured and MQM in turn found an ally in Nawaz Sharif’s Punjabi IJI.

It is important to note that this really proved a death knell in terms of Sindhi-Mohajir relations against what many saw was Punjabi dominance, especially post Zia, at the center. Bhutto oversaw the worst of rioting in Karachi in the mid 90s.
After moving through an interim prime minister, Sharif eventually came to power in 1997. He in turn was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, a Mohajir, in 1999 – which brings us to nearly the end.

Most trace the ascent of Musharraf to the top in a Punjabi dominated military exactly because of his status as a Mohajir - the Punjabi military bosses promoted him for they felt that a Mohajir would never attempt, and much less succeed, in a coup d’etat.

Musharraf’s relations with the Mohajir community have been on warm terms but that has attracted the ire of nearly all others. The Karachi riots hence can be seen as a stage managed confrontation between PPP led Sindhis and MQM.

Karachi Demographics

Sindh’s urban society was dominated by Hindus before 1947. The native Muslim population was primarily rural. The emigration of Hindus post partition left a vacuum which was filled by the educated Muslim immigrants from India. In the 1981 census, only 6% of the population identified themselves as Sindhi.

The relative affluence of the Mohajirs was always a rubbing point for the Sindhis.
Post 1971 war with India during which Bangladesh was created, nearly 100,000 Bihari Muslims who had migrated to Bangladesh during partition immigrated to Karachi. Another 300,000 Biharis were left stranded in Bangladesh in over 60 refugee camps as political will ran out and Bihari immigrants became a political liability in Sindh.

The Bihari immigrants who speak Urdu have traditionally been seen as part of the Mohajir community.

Then starting with 1980s, Afghan refugees starting pouring into Karachi as Afghan war got underway. The Afghan immigrants were widely alleged to have brought along with them the ‘drug and arms’ mafia and the number of small arms in city just ballooned as ethnic conflagrations became deadlier. The Afghans threw their weight politically behind the Punjabis, and the nexus worked effectively and to deadly effect in the riots in the mid 80s and then again in the mid-90s.

Language and Cultural issues

Urdu was instituted as the official national language at the inception of Pakistan even though only a pitifully small fraction of Pakistanis spoke the language. In the widely cited 1961 census results, it was reported that Urdu was the mother tongue of a mere 3.7% of all Pakistanis (7.5% in West Pakistan), and only 15% of West Pakistanis were able to speak Urdu at all.

Language has been a key issue in Pakistani politics. In fact one of the major rallying points for East Pakistanis was recognition of Bengali as one of the state languages. In Sindh, there was widespread resentment against Urdu. In 1972, Sindh province passed a resolution instituting Sindhi as the second official language. The act led to ‘language riots’ as Mohajirs, concerned about losing economic privilege that emanated from their ability to speak Urdu, rioted. Language riots are often seen as a turning point in the city’s history and the relation between Mohajirs and Sindhis.

This is Part I of a two series article. Click here to read the Part II.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Time Out Lahore - Dancing, Smoking and Crashing Out in Pakistan’s Sin City

Sharing a slice of the most happening city this side of the Indus.

[Text by Maryam Arif; picture by Reza Gilani]

Lahore is happening, baby. So much going on here that it is impossible to be everywhere at the same time. Not a single day goes by when there isn’t a concert, exhibition and movie screening I have to skip for a theatre or music performance. Don’t believe me? Check out danka.com.pk.

Compare this to Amritsar where I was a few days ago. I went with my family for a theatre production that my sister was a part of. Yatra 1947 was an interesting, if extremely sentimental play. After two consecutive days of the same sad songs, I was hungry for some excitement. Of that there was none. After having seen the Golden Temple and Jallianwalla Bagh, and overdosing on the famous Aaloo Kulchas, there was no more action to be found in the Indian Punjab’s supposedly most happening city. I ended up spending five hours straight in Barista café - reading local newspapers (yawn!).

Uh, give me my Lahore anytime. The city is much more than its Badshahi Masjid, Anarkali Food Street and MM Alam Road cafes. It’s now too much non-stop action. Gigs and conferences; soirees and protest meetings; and then those Jazz, Sufi and Ghazal nights at Peeru’s café! You need just too much energy to keep the pace. And there is always Papu Sain’s dhol.

What’s behind all this exhausting excitement? An America-based friend blamed it to that super-jazzy Lahori spirit. We don’t even care for the seasonal scares. Recently, in spite of the warnings by Geo and ARY newscasters about five (or was that six?) suicide bombers who have apparently entered the city, Lahoris did not stop flooding the Mini Golf to smoke their usual dose of mint and double-apple sheeshas. Ah, the show must go on.

I confess I’m quite the typical Lahori in that sense.

We don’t even let minor, okay major, emergencies interfere with our chill out plans. Recently my friend, S, and I were about to turn on M.M.Alam Road when a pickup crashed into my car, smashed the front door, shattered the windscreen, broke the interior including the dash board, speedometer and all. I escaped death only to spend the next four hours in the Ghalib Market Police Chowky.

After dislodging broken pieces of glass from my arm, I wasted no time in inviting S for Mango milkshake, his favorite. It was his birthday after all. We then took a rickshaw to the Alhamra Art Center to distribute fliers for a youth convention we were organizing. There we heard a bunch of underground bands playing rock music in Hall 2 and saw a different (but still cool) crowd watching a Punjabi flick on a huge screen right outside. Later a friend took us to Chatkhara where we enjoyed cheap bhelpuri and Punjabi thali.

That night we went dancing to a café in Defense. Since we are ‘nice kids’, we were the first to leave - at 2 a.m! S was looking happy in his shiny shirt. It read Lahore Lahore aye.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Viewpoint - Mr. Musharraf Stuck in Golden Temple Trap

Lal Masjid farce is over but it could have devastating results.
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Not far from Lahore, across the international border at Wagah, in the Indian town of Amritsar shines the Sikh holy shrine of Golden Temple. More than twenty years ago, a bearded fundamentalist had established himself there. He would use the temple as a base to spread his virulent version of religious bigotry.

Just as General Pervez Musharraf, as well as his predecessors, backed the Lal Masjid mullahs all these years to strengthen their respective dictatorial regimes, that bearded fundamentalist in the Golden temple too was initially supported by a powerful Prime Minister - Mrs. Indira Gandhi, democratic India's first dictator. Just as Mr. Musharraf would later do, she too sent her army into the holy hideout to finish off her former ally once he became an all-destroying Frankenstein. Just like Abdul Rashid Ghazi, Jarnail Singh Bhidnranwale too was killed. All that had happened on June, 1984 when General Zia-ul-Haq and the intelligence agency ISI were actively building close relationships with the mullahs of Lal Masjid.

As it happened, Operation Blue Star, the bloody assault by the Indian army on the Golden temple to flush out Sikh terrorists, turned out to be a complete success. Around 492 terrorists were killed. But its consequences were devastating. Within five months Mrs. Gandhi was dead; murdered by her Sikh bodyguards. In the ensuing decade, India's soul was irreversibly scarred as it battled the atrocities of Sikh terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives.

Now let's fast forward to 2007. Operation Silence, the bloody assault by Pakistani rangers on the Lal Masjid to flush out Islamic terrorists, has also been a success. Around 160 terrorists were killed. But the consequences could be equally devastating.

Would Mr. Musharraf and his supporters realize that the past has a frustrating habit of repeating itself in the future? Be it Amritsar or Islamabad; Mr. Bhindranwale or Mr. Ghazi; Sikh terrorism or Islamic terrorism; bullet-scarred Golden Temple or bullet-scarred Lal Masjid; Operation Blue Star or Operation Silence; Indira Gandhi or Pervez Musharraf; assassination…and another assassination?

However, it is not only Mr. Musharraf who is living on borrowed time. His actions have dumped Pakistan too in a delicate situation. Every minute of his continuation as the country's President could bring more chaos and tragedy to the nation.

The hard fact is that Mr. Musharraf is ruling this country as his own man since the 1999 coup and has failed spectacularly in all the fancy posts he glowed in - that of CEO, General and President. He could not weed out corruption as promised. He was never interested in bringing genuine democracy. He exiled a Prime Minister, forced a President to resign, and dismissed a Chief Justice. Most importantly, he could not free Pakistan from Islamic terrorists. That the Lal Masjid farce went on dangerously for all these years is a clear proof of his willful incompetence in dealing with religious extremism. What Mr. Musharraf really achieved was to bring disrepute to the fair name of his army, once the country's only holy cow. But enough is enough now. The dictator must abdicate - for his sake and for Pakistan's.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Lal Masjid Editorial – Flushing Out the Religious Blackmailers

Mr. Musharraf’s government finally showed its belated courage in dealing with the fanatics.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; picture by Mian Khursheed]

Once again Pakistan’s detractors, and there are many, must be flailing their arms in disappointment. This was their latest fantasy. The firebrand mullahs of Islamabad’s troublesome Lal Masjid would defy the army siege and unleash their hundreds of promised suicide bombers into the capital’s green avenues to launch fiadyeen attacks. The hassled government would be forced to retort. The resultant massacre of the mullahs, telecast live on Geo TV, would enrage the pious Muslims throwing Pakistan into turmoil. President-General Pervez Musharraf would, hopefully, be assassinated or at least be toppled and the country would come down to its knees.

Alas, dreams are such unreliable stuff to bank on. On 3rd July, the country’s military-led government, outraged by mortar firing from the seminary’s students on its army rangers stationed outside, finally resolved to end the Lal Masjid embarrassment.

Since the beginning of 2007, the Lal Masjid students, both men and women, had repeatedly carried provocative acts like burning of movie DVDs and kidnapping of Chinese masseuses in the name of Islam. Till recently Mr. Musharraf dithered and trembled in his cowardice in dealing with the law-breakers but no more.

With apologies to the loved ones of the dead (21 people have been reported dead), the bloodbath remained severely circumscribed in its scope. More than 1200 ‘militant’ students surrendered, rather meekly. The burqa-clad women who were always seen threatening jehad while humiliating supposed prostitutes ended up merely as “chicks with sticks”, an apt term coined by columnist Irfan Husain. The chief mullah Maulana Abdul Aziz who fancied Prophet Muhammad personally ordering him to raise the sword of revolt was himself caught fleeing in a burqa! Only recently the poor man had termed the practice of men shaking hands with women as unIslamic.

At the time of writing a few students, supposedly the hardened variety, were still cloistered inside. They too would be flushed out.

By now we have discovered just why burqa remains so popular among the bearded conservatives. There are more lessons to be learnt though. Strong determination and assertive action by the authority usually weakens the courage of unreasonable fanatical conservatives. Mr. Musharraf and all his opponents, which include the nation’s future rulers, must note down this useful truth.

The belief of this website that mullahs must recite azaans and madrasas should exist for education alone was further crystallized when a taxi driver whose two nieces were trapped inside the besieged seminary said, “We sent our daughters for education, not terrorism.” A short, simple, strong, and a stirring statement needing no further elaboration!

Lal Masjid farce is over but these are no times for celebrations. We realize many battles lie ahead in the struggle against religious blackmailing. Still, we must have faith in the country's strong in-built system capable of surviving and overcoming various fault lines. Pakistan would conquer all the battles and win the war too. The dreaming detractors are wasting their time. Pakistan Paindabad.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bina Shah - "I Want to Foster a Future Booker Prize Winner"

The country's most promising young writer talks to Pakistan Paindabad.



[Interview conducted by Gaurav Sood]

Bina Shah, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna, is a noted Karachi based author, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories.

Her first collection of short stories, Animal Medicine, was published by Oxford University Press in 1999. The collection was followed by a well received novel, Where They Dream in Blue that catalogued the return of an expatriate to Karachi.

Ms. Shah currently edits the Alhamra Literary Review along with Illona Yusuf.

Biographical

Gaurav Sood: How was it growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s under Zia-ul-Haq?

Weird and tense. I remember the day Bhutto was hanged; I was only five but everyone was terrified that there would be some sort of reaction. And there wasn’t. The streets were quiet. Later, I remember “Black Days”, but I didn't understand what they were about. I touched on those days in my short story “1978” in Blessings, where this young boy grows up in the Zia era – the feeling of being out in some sort of wilderness physically echoes what it felt like in this country back then.

Gaurav Sood: You have spent a fair amount of time in US. You spent your "early years" in Virginia and then spent upwards of five years in Massachusetts getting educated first at Wellesley and then at the School of Education at Harvard. Can you tell us a little more about your time in the US?

Those were the years that formed me. From zero to five, you are absorbing everything and understanding how the world works. Getting your initial programming, so to speak.

When I returned for college and graduate school, it was a time of great freedom, of experimentation, trying my wings. The contrast between a sheltered upbringing in Pakistan and being in the hothouse environment of a Boston education couldn’t be greater. Both of those times in America made me who I am today.

Gaurav Sood: What was your experience like attending an all women liberal 'Liberal Arts' college in Massachusetts?

Absolutely fantastic! I would send my daughter there in an instant. You have your whole life to spend with men; you only get four years to spend it in an all-women environment. The amount of support, the building of self-confidence and self-esteem is unrivalled anywhere else. It was a very special time.

Gaurav Sood: Your book Where They Dream in Blue, published in 2001 deals with an ABCD's (American Born Confused Desi) visit to Karachi. How much of the book parallels your own journey? More generally, how hard was it for you to readjust to Karachi when you came back to Pakistan in the 1990s? Can you tell us about some of the specific challenges?

The book attempts to deal with the questions that any person visiting their homeland would feel, especially Pakistanis who were raised in America. The questions that a Pakistani raised in Britain would have might be slightly different, but I think there’s a universality that applies to everyone. Certainly, I grappled with many of those questions myself. Adjusting back to Karachi in 1995 was nowhere near as difficult as adjusting to it in 1977, when the differences between the two countries in terms of culture and environment were far different. In 1977, there was nobody like me – a person who’d been raised in America. In 1995, there were starting to be lots of kids like me, who had gone for school there and came back. However, the challenge was the same here as it would have been for any young adult attempting to re-enter the real world after college: what am I going to do with my life?

Gaurav Sood: You began your career as a Features Editor for Computerworld in 1996. That is fairly early time in terms of the web revolution, and even the Computer revolution when it comes to Pakistan. Can you tell us a little more about the 'technology scene' in Pakistan at that time? How has the new technology scene evolved in Pakistan over the past 11 years?

The technology scene in Pakistan was it its embryonic stages. The Internet had just come to Pakistan that year; and those of us who had been in America and used email got really excited about the Web and what it meant. People who were based here, especially traditional sorts of businesses, were suspicious and terrified of the new technology. So you had pockets of great understanding – we were like this little team, spread out across the country but keeping in touch through email and being astronauts in a way: “the Internet, the brave new world” – and then the larger landscape of resistance. But like they say in the space movies “resistance is futile”.

Now everyone’s using technology in much the same way they were using it in the United States around, say, 1999. Mobile phones are part of that boom, by the way. We could be doing more – applying technology more to our everyday lives, rather than making an effort to integrate Blackberries and Wifi, it should all fall into place naturally – but it is always going to be that much more of an effort here.

Authorship

Gaurav Sood: The heroes of both of your novels, Where They Dream in Blue, and The 786 Cybercafe, were men. Arati Belle, in her review of Animal Medicine, writes, "Curiously, she seems to get into the skin of the boy in this story than any of the girls in the other stories" in reference to the story 'Going Fishing'. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to use male protagonists? Can you expand on the reasons behind it?

Yes, it was a deliberate choice. When you are starting out with your writing, the last thing you want is for everyone to ask you, “Well, is this about you?” Making the protagonist a man was the easiest way I could think of to sidestep this question, which gets very annoying to answer after the twentieth time.

The other reason for using men as protagonists is that there’s a practical consideration: in this society, men simply have more access to certain situations and locations than women do. I don’t like it, but it is true. How many women of a middle class background do you know who would be able to set up a cybercafé on Tariq Road? So I bring women into the narrative, but then I try to highlight their positions/situations in society.

This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways – at least at that age – than a middle or upper class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.

Gaurav Sood: "In the novel there is room for poetry, for tenderness and violence, for description and investigation, for analysis and synthesis; there is room for portrayal of the countryside and of characters and of non-characters. That is, man from within and from without." Camilo Jose Cela, Nobel Prize winning Spanish author once said in an interview when asked about the novel. Do you agree with what he says? What do you think is the range of the novel as a medium? What are its limitations?

I had to look up the novel in my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms to answer this question. The great strength of the novel is its freedom from limitations: style, structure, length, content. It is like this form that can absorb and make its own all the other literary forms around. If there are limitations to the novel, they exist in the limitations of the writer. A bad writer is going to write a bad novel, sure, but even a very good writer can be limited by her own limitations of experience, geography, knowledge of other disciplines, lack of world view, and so on. The novel really challenges you to dig deep within yourself as a writer and bring out everything you know. It will totally exhaust you as a medium if you are not up to the challenge.

Gaurav Sood: There are a variety of novels – the intellectual novel in the vein of Joyce and Sir Rushdie, an elemental novel or the simple novel, the kind of novel written, for example, in the style of Dickens, or Balzac. And then there are of course myriad hybrids. You, to me, have crafted two elemental novels. Firstly, do you agree with the statement and if so then can you tell us a little more behind what went behind the choice?

Yes, I agree with your statement. My first two novels were very simply written. I think I simply was not ready to write a very intellectual novel. I was young, I was inexperienced, and I was not confident. I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion. I wanted to concentrate on my stories and my characters, and do a good job of that; I felt I owed that to the reader first and foremost. My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?

Gaurav Sood: Most authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly. Their inability to come to terms with their own ghosts, their psychological traumas, and their inability to forgive themselves and others, often creates perversions that surface in the form of misplaced viciousness with which they deal with some characters. They are also trying to 'understand' the world and often 'fail' to understand it. Let me provide an example to illustrate the point. You listed "Oh Human Bondage" as one of your favorite books in one of your interviews. The book is also a great favorite of mine. My friend Chaste recently provided a wonderful analysis of the thing I talked about and I paraphrase his analysis here- Philip Carey's character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham's stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred's debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Can you comment briefly on the unduly broad statement with which I start with by first pruning it and then analyzing it?

For me, writing is a therapeutic process, not to try and heal the writer of any psychological demons, but to understand the world around them in some way. By writing about issues, especially ones that bother me, that nag me, that are complex and not easily categorized or understood, I grapple with them and eventually arrive at a better understanding of them. As for being vicious towards a character, that is an odd thing to do. As a writer I have love for all my characters, even the ones that aren’t particularly likeable, because they are my creations. I try to make them play out the complexities of life that I see going on in the real world, not the ones in my head.

Gaurav Sood: Can you now answer the question that I raise above with regards to your novel, The 786 Cyber café, that in the words of one of your prior interviewers is "centered on a story based on the infamous ‘other side of the Clifton bridge’." In response to which you said, "I think people on this side of the bridge are more narrow-minded in many ways."

People are hemmed in everywhere by their preconceptions and prejudices. Just because you are rich and you are educated doesn’t mean you lack those preconceptions and prejudices. Nor does being rich or educated make you any more open-minded or tolerant. I believe the rich, the elite, those that live on “this side of the Clifton Bridge” – which is a bridge that connects the richest parts of Karachi, Clifton and Defence, to the rest of the town on the Saddar side and beyond – think that their intellectual work is done once they have gotten their college degrees and taken the reins of their fabulous destinies as the nation’s leaders. Intellectually they are some of the laziest people I have ever seen: content to expound forever on whatever theories they formulated thirty years ago, without taking in anything else and considering whether their views are outdated or inapplicable today. When you are hungry, in all sense of the word, you stay humble. And humility goes hand in hand with open-mindedness: the ability to realize that your view is only one of many, and only an opinion at best.

Gaurav Sood: Both of your novels and your current collection of stories have been published by Alhamra publishing. And you edit Alhamra Literary Review along with Ms. Yusuf. Al Al-Hamra in Arabic simply means "the red". It is of course usually used to describe the 13th Century "crimson castle" or Alhambra in Granada. Do you see the name 'Al Hamra' apt title for a Literary Review or for that matter a publishing house based in Karachi? And if so, why?

You would have to ask the publisher, Shafiq Naz, what was in his mind when he chose that name. I think he wanted to capture the idea that the Islamic world and Europe once had a rich, intertwined history in Moorish Spain. Literature is part of that cultural tradition. Maybe it is an oblique association. Going back to a time when art and literature and poetry was very grand and respected by kings and emperors. It is a good vision for a publishing house.

Gaurav Sood: What is your vision for the Alhamra Literary Review?

We want to encourage Pakistanis to write; we showcase their talent and creativity. I would like to foster a future Booker Prize winner. That is my vision.

Karachi

Mayank Austen Soofi: Since you an author, it would be interesting to raise this query with you. I have twice traveled to Pakistan and extensively toured the cities of Lahore and Karachi. I came across many good bookshops but alas not a great one. Should I have searched more or is the bookshop scene really that modest?

The Liberty Books chain is doing great things for Karachi. They’ve brought the best of English publishing to the country, although at high prices. But I don’t really know how to get around that issue. I always find their bookstores a pleasure to be in; they’re relaxing, inviting places. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and they’re working on promoting Pakistani writers with their new Book Club, which has hosted some fairly well-received launches of books, including my own. But a country like Pakistan really needs to have several excellent sources in each city for sourcing and obtaining books, and not just in the English language. Right now you have to really hunt for good literature. One day there will be a better bookshop culture, I’m sure.

Mayank Austen Soofi: Every great city leaves some imprint in the work of its writers. How has Karachi contributed to your writing?

I would think that’s fairly obvious from my work!

Mayank Austen Soofi: Being a young Pakistani writer who writes about young people, how would you chronicle the changing values of the urban youths in the country? Is it difficult to strike a balance between the Islamic heritage and the McDonald culture?

It is not a case of either/or. It is a case of 'and'. Understand that and you have understood the young people of Pakistan. They want choices. They do not want restrictions. But they want to choose both options, not to have to choose between them. This is the strength of Pakistani people of all ages: they are open to everything, influences from the East, the West, from Islam, from America, from Britain, from India. We are like big sponges and we are hungry for all of it. We absorb it all and then we distill it into something that is unique to us. I think that is magical and it should not be contained in any way.

Gaurav Sood: Just following up on the title of your novel, Where They Dream in Blue - what color would you pick to describe Karachi today? What color would be the dreams of Karachites?

Again, that should be fairly obvious! These days, however, I think the color of Karachi is brown. There’s a lot of dust and mud and construction going on here.

Gaurav Sood: Karachi has a multiplicity of cross-cutting ethnic and class cleavages – Sunnis Vs. Shias, Muhajirs Vs. Natives Vs. Afghans, Urdu speakers Vs. Punjabi Vs. Sindhi Vs. Pashto, rich vs. poor etc. Add to all of this a military, whose role according to Ayesha Siddiqui's new book runs deep within the economy. What is the prognosis for its future?

Oh God, you’re really asking me the easy questions, aren’t you? Karachi will survive everything. We already have. We will go on. Underneath everything, the people of Karachi want two things: to make lots of money and to be happy. To achieve both, you’ve got to get along with everyone else. We know how to do that, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Picking Favorites

Mayank Austen Soofi: Which is the last great book by a Pakistani author that you enjoyed?

The two books I really enjoyed most recently are anthologies: And the World Changed which was edited by Muneeza Shamsie and Beloved City which was edited by Bapsi Sidhwa. I’m sorry I can’t give you a book by a single author. These ones were fantastic just for the sheer variety of good writing between two sets of covers.

Mayank Austen Soofi: You maintain a personal blog. What are some of the other blogs that you like visiting?

From the ridiculous to the sublime: a variety of friends’ blogs, including Jonathan Ali’s Notes from a Small Island, Greg Rucker’s Glossophagia, Jawahara Saidullah’s Writing Life, and the Second Floor’s blog (that’s the coffeehouse that I frequent). Then there are some gossip blogs I have to go to every day, but I won’t name them here because it’s too lowbrow and I am supposed to be this great Pakistani writer. I enjoy the PostSecret site. I like Anglophenia from BBC America. I used to go to Miss Snark, the Literary Agent every day too, but she closed that one down.

Gaurav Sood: Where do you get your news?

I heard it on the grapevine, where else? Just kidding!