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Interview with the Karachi-born novelist.
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]
Sehba Sarwar’s first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004. Presently, besides working on her new novel, she is also the director of a multi-media arts organisation in Houston. There she lives with her husband and daughter. She also has a website. This is the first part of the interview Ms Sarwar gave to Pakistan Paindabad. Click here to read the second part, here for the third part, and for the fourth here. This exclusive feature is an attempt to understand the alternative reality of Pakistan.
Ms Sarwar, your writing focuses on women and explores lives that span two continents – Asia and North America. You yourself have homes in these two places.
All this shifting and moving homes affects me. Luckily, I use my art - writing, performance and video - to express all the joy and pain that comes with having two homes. An essay that I'm working on is called Sliding Doors. Through it, I'm trying to explore the loss that comes with leaving the 'home'. In many ways, Mayank, I was born with a lost home already: both my parents were raised in India. They had to migrate to Pakistan after the partition.
Is your life as dramatic as your fiction?
I wouldn't say that. It is similar to that lived by many. One big difference, though, is that I married outside the Pakistani community. My husband is Mexican American and our daughter is ‘mestiza’, as they say in Spanish. I suppose that could be called dramatic. But then again, all of us are from mixed races. No one can truly claim to be of purely one race or another.
You married a Mexican-American? Isn't Pakistan a conservative land? How did your people took to it?
Look, I come from a non-traditional home and so does my husband. Both our families were - and continue to be - very open to each other. We had a court marriage in the States, and a reception in Karachi. Though his family didn't make it to Karachi for our wedding, a Mexican friend and her Lebanese husband joined us. We traveled north together to Chitral, Hunza, Shandoor for our honeymoon, and he continues to join me in Karachi as often as he can.
You are from Karachi?
Yes, I was born and raised in Karachi, off Jamshed Road, around a neighborhood called Guru Mandir.
My father, Dr. Sarwar, was a medical doctor and was heavily involved in the student movement during the fifties. My mother is an educator and worked in government colleges most of her life (now she runs her own NGO, Society for Professional English Language Teachers (SPELT), that specializes in training English teachers). Both of them were activists and had a passion for the arts.
How was the childhood?
At a young age, my brother, sister and I were enrolled in classical singing and dancing classes - though none of us stayed with those art forms. Our house was known for the gatherings our parents hosted, at which poetry, music and dance were performed. During my teens, when General Zia took over, my mother was involved with the Women's Action Forum (WAF), then just a collective of women organizing protests and rallies. My sister and I immediately also got involved with its activities. We would attend rallies, among other things.
How was Karachi then?
Karachi was a very different city during the seventies, prior to the Zia years. There were night clubs where alcohol was openly served. Even during my teens, after alcohol was banned, we would go to parties at the 5-star hotels that held disco nights on Fridays. We frequented movie theaters with our classmates. When I turned fifteen, our family moved to Clifton, where we went for walks in the neighborhood. The city seemed much smaller back then. It seemed as if we knew everyone.
How is the city now?
Today, even though Karachi's much more violent, and population continues to grow, there are some exciting changes. There are more institutions of higher learning such as the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and the National Academy for Performing Arts (NAPA). There are also amazing cafés and gatherings where literary readings, film screenings and protests take place.
Why you had to leave the city for USA?
See, I was always inclined toward the arts, social studies and politics. If one was studying medicine or engineering, there were some good choices in Karachi, but in those days, if one wanted to major in the arts, there were few choices within Pakistan for higher education. Most of the students in our school - especially those in arts and social studies - went abroad for higher education. I got a good scholarship to a women's college in Massachusetts, and I ended up flying to the States to get my undergraduate degree.
That was your first foray into a foreign country?
Till then the only other place I had visited outside of Pakistan was India.
Both my parents are from UP, and you know, I've visited Delhi, Aligarh, Allahabad, Kanpur and Bombay on two different trips.
What did you think of that country during your first visit?
India was foreign, but then, again, it wasn't. Of course, we had to report to the police everytime we entered or exited a city, but that's the same for Indians when they visit Pakistan. That felt strange. But on the whole, everything around us was familiar.
So, it did not seem any different from Pakistan…
We spent a lot of time with the Indian part of our family. My mother's chachas showed us around in Delhi, Agra, Aligarh. We also spent time with her first cousins in Kanpur, as well as my father's first cousin in Allahabad. In many ways our visits were just as we imagined. Our grandparents as well as our parents had already told us so many stories about them and it was wonderful to finally be in their houses.
Anything that made you feel India was some other land?
We visited India during the Indira Gandhi days - so there were Ambassadors and Fiats everywhere - and that was the most visible difference between India and Pakistan, which was flooded with Japanese and German cars. We didn't start manufacturing our own till decades later. We also went to Bombay with our mother.
When I went to India on my own during the late eighties to intern in a Calcutta newspaper, I remember being startled by the cycle rickshaws, which one never saw in Pakistan. Other than those minor differences, everything felt very familiar. The last time I was in India was in 2001, when my husband and I traveled around south India (Kerala, Chennai etc) - and that felt more 'foreign' because of the different languages spoken.
[The first part ends here. Click here to read the second part, here for the third part, and for the fourth here]
Dr Sarwar with children - Beena, Sehba and Salman
The novelist with her family