Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Our writing is older than the creation of Pakistan itself" - Ali Sethi, Novelist

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

"Our writing is older than the creation of Pakistan itself" - Ali Sethi, Novelist

Exclusive interview with a new Pakistani novelist.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

I caught up with Mr Mr Ali Sethi, a young Pakistani novelist, in the lawn of Delhi's Ambassador Hotel during the last week of July, 2009. He was visiting India for a book tour of his first novel The Wish Maker. Mr Sethi's parents, Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, run The Friday Times and Daily Times, two of Pakistan's most popular newspapers. He lives in Lahore.

Hello, Mr Ali. You are 25 and already a novelist. At this age people just dream of one day writing a novel…

I think I was lucky. I began writing when I was at Harvard, surrounded by people who were writing for their living. All my professors had published books behind them. Amitava Ghosh and Zadie Smith taught me creative writing. I attended the classes of Amartya Sen. I had other professors also who might not be wildly famous but are read seriously in the academic circles. So, you know, I didn’t feel uncertain when I began to write the book. Perhaps it all came because of living in a writing environment. We would talk about writing, read about writing… I was also contributing articles to some of Pakistan’s newspapers which, of course, were my parents’ publications. But I was also in the editorial board of Harvard Advocate, our college magazine.

What were you doing in Harvard?

I majored in South Asian studies in 2006. That was the year when I started writing this novel…

…Coming to which… well, how to put it… I mean, you are the son of Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin. They are powerful people. They know powerful people. They run some of Pakistan’s most popular newspapers and magazines. That must’ve made it easier for you to become a published novelist.

This fact didn’t help me in any way as far as getting the book published was concerned. My parents don’t know literary agents. They are not familiar with the world of fiction publishers. But yes, being their son helped in a very different manner. When I was back in the country, they let me stay in their house in Gulberg, Lahore, without me paying rents for the room and food. In fact, my mother finished reading the novel a few days ago, while my father has just started it.

Thanks to its troubles, Pakistan has become hot. Everyone from The New York Times to South China Morning Post has got something to write on your country. The world is now hooked to Pak’s problems. Doesn't this renewed interest makes it lucrative to be a Pakistani writer?

Yes, there’s more buzz on Pakistan due to the new global suspicion about it. Anything you touch on Pak is a potential subject. But there is a trap in that as well. You start to festish-ize your themes. You began processing them in certain ways for peoples’ consumption. It’s easy to start performing for a post 9-11 audience. But that’s not how it should be. Some things are better communicated through news reports, you know.

Isn’t it that suddenly we have Pakistani authors like Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam making it big in the global circuit?

While I’ve read all these authors and they all are good, this is not the first time that Pakistani writing has come of age. Our writing is older than the creation of Pakistan itself. Why, it’s even older than the creation of the novel. Haven’t you read Bulle Shah? He was a Punjabi poet, still widely recited in Pakistan through the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen.

Mr Sethi, you’ve written your novel, published it; what now?

I’m looking on a project for research. I’d recently made a documentary on student politics in Lahore. It was good. I mean why just write when you can combine writing with music and camera. We’re living in a multi-media age and can explore the world in interesting ways.

What about just writing books?

They take such a long time and then writing is a completely solitary process. I feel there is a time to be in solitude, and there are also times when you ought to go out into the world. If you stay cooped up in your own fantasies, how will you find new subjects? You’ve to acknowledge that there is a world beyond yourself. That is where, hopefully, my next subject will come from.

You are presently visiting India for a book tour set up by Penguin India, your publishers. How has been the experience?

Well, I've been to Delhi twice before...

Is it like what they say, same as Lahore’s?

No, Lahore is different from Delhi. It’s getting different everyday. The fact is that the reality of the rest of Pakistan is gradually becoming the reality of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. It was inevitable. You can’t isolate the country’s big cities from the anger of our towns and villages, like those in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province). It’s the same in India. What’s taking place in the peripheries, like Kashmir and Chhatisgarh, would sooner or later come around to Rajpath.

Perhaps. Which are the cities you visited here?

Besides Delhi, I went to Bombay, Chennai and Bangalore. I really liked Bangalore. Maybe it was the newness of South India. Or because I had my first Idli-dosa there!

Unbelievable. You don’t get that in Lahore?

No, not even in the food street at Anarkali.

That’s a shame. Thanks for talking, Mr Sethi.

Meet me when you’re in Lahore.

Mr Ali Sethi

"Our writing is older than the creation of Pakistan itself" - Ali Sethi, Novelist

Monday, July 20, 2009

High Life – A Pakistani in Sri Lanka

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

High Life – A Pakistani in Sri Lanka

Columnist Irfan Husain finds a new home.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

A rare newspaper columnist from the subcontinent who doesn’t betray that widespread subcontinental pettiness while writing about Pakistan and India have found a new nest in the south of the subcontinent.

In July, 2008, Mr Irfan Husain, an ex-civil servant, a gourmand, a bibliophile, and also a columnist with Dawn, finished building Thalassa, a snug family cottage, on a remote beach in Sri Lanka.

About a 5-hour non-stop drive from Colombo, Mr Husain’s two-floor home has a piano, a barbeque, a stainless steel chandelier, a swimming pool, a ‘massage temple’, seven sea-facing bedrooms, 25 palm trees, and of course, books and mosquito nets.

“Actually, this is a family home which will be used by us for holidays but we intend to rent it for a few weeks a year to cover the running costs,” says Mr Husain in an e-mail interview to Pakistan Paindabad. By ‘us’, he meant himself and his English wife Ms Charlotte Breese, an author whose biography of a bisexual Grenedian musician, rumored to be a lover of both Lady Mountbatten and Princess Margaret, had once created talking points in the London society. Negotiations are going on to adapt it into a film.

It was Ms Breese’s aesthetic sense that went into the making of this cottage. While Mr Husain supervised the construction, the plans for the interiors were entirely his wife’s.

“Me and Charlotte went to Sri Lanka for the first time in the millennium and we immediately fell in love with the beaches there,” recalls Mr Husain. “Since Lanka is close to Pakistan and one of the few countries that does not require a visa from Pakistanis, and since Charlotte hates the winters in England, we decided to build a home here.” Having recently celebrated their 10th anniversary, the couple thoroughly enjoyed the winter in their new pad.

One might as well get envious of Mr Husain’s charmed life. With bases in Karachi, UK and Sri Lanka, he is a globetrotter having no day-job like you and me. He buy books in Hay-on-Wye, dines in London’s iconic Kensington Place restaurant, writes for Pakistan’s most respectable dailies and now has a beach house in one of Sri Lanka’s most exotic beaches.

However, Mr Husain had a tough time in setting this establishment. “There were many challenges in building a house so far from Colombo,” Mr Husain notes. “We had an awful contractor to begin with, and had to get rid of him after he tried to rip us off.” But it all ended well.

Ms Nandi, the housekeeper and the cook with several years of work experience in Saudi Arabia, must be an asset. She was the nanny in the Karachi household of Mr Husain’s brother. The lady speaks good Urdu and is said to come up with reasonably delicious korma and rotis.

On her days off, Mr Husain could as well be a tolerable substitute. Besides being a fine food writer, he is also an accomplished cook. In 2003, he threw a party at his London home in honour of friends visiting from Lahore - Najam Sethi and wife Jugnu, the proprietors of the venerable The Friday Times. Mr Husain himself prepared pasta in duck sauce. “Yes, I do cook now and then for ourselves and guests,” the columnist confesses.

Truth to be told, a few newspaper readers who do not agree with Mr Husain’s political views actively encourage him to focus more on his gastronomic skills. A few years ago, an angry gentleman sent this fiery e-mail:

Hello Mr. Husain:
In your recent diatribe against Mullah and Islam…
… May I suggest that you leave the serious subjects of life alone and write on the lighter ones? You do well describing your cooking adventures and dream vacation home in Sri Lanka. Your column on the boiled eggs and sausage lunch you prepared on your mother-in law's death anniversary was good. Stay in those precinct, you will do well.
Bint Waleed
Asst. Prof. Mathematics and Computer Sciences

But Mr Waleed, our columnist is doing well. Thank you very much.

See Thalassa by clicking here Note Since it is a family house and not primarily a business venture, excellent references are required to rent a room in Thalassa Contact

Ms Nandi

High Life – A Pakistani in Sri Lanka

The Lankan home

High Life – A Pakistani in Sri Lanka

The Lankan home

High Life – A Pakistani in Sri Lanka

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dateline Karachi – The City’s First Monsoon Rain

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

Dateline Karachi – The City’s first Monsoon Rain

When the tough weather surrendered to the people’s will.

[Picture by Ali Adnan Qazalbash; text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

On the late morning of July 18th, 2009, when Mr Kazim Aizaz Alam, a young journalist in Karachi, woke up at his third floor home in the city’s Defence Housing Authority, he found there was no power - as usual. Yet, he could not feel that typical Karachi-esque stickiness. Since the bedroom windows were open, Mr Alam put on his glasses, peered out and discovered the reason behind this unusual pleasantness: it was raining. Karachi was having the first rain of this monsoon season. “I immediately went to break the news to my Abbu but he already knew it,” says Mr Alam.

The showers were not a surprise. There was a hint the day before when the sky was overcast, the weather nippy and the air windy. In quite a few offices, including Mr Alam’s, the shutters were drawn open so that everyone could breathe in the fresh air. Many Karachi-ites were out in the evenings; on their bikes with their women on the backseat. The traffic was heavy towards Sea View, Hawksbay, Sands Pits, Quaid’s mausoleum and Paradise Point. It was a good day for those who sell bhuttas, ice creams and papads on the beaches.

“You know people also go to Nissar park near DCL and to Bagh e ibn Qasim Park, just next to the samandar,” says Mr Kazim. However, there is a rule that doesn’t let people go alone inside these parks. Having a woman by your side is a necessary requirement. Apparently, the logic is that if there are too many single men roaming around, then the few girls who do brave themselves to enter these recreation spots would stop going in. “But we are single,” complains Mr Kazim. “We don’t have girl friends. We want to go out. But we can’t.”

This indeed is a matter of much restlessness for the city’s loners. Mr Muhamamd Haseeb Khan, a young actuarial assistant in a management company, too, is single. His disappointmens are fewer. He has no plans to go to any park to enjoy the mausam’s first baarish. “I like walking in the streets when it rains,” says Mr Khan who lives in Malir, near Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah airport. “The khushboo of the wet earth, the flowing water, the uninhibited happiness of the children abandoning themselves to the elements… all these sounds, smells and sights give me great delight.”

Such monsoon delights are not universally shared. On the morning of the first showers, the website of the newspaper Daily Times reported:
As usual, the first few raindrops caused the electricity to disappear, causing severe suffocation indoors. All the people who could manage to get out of the house, did so, while those who couldn’t, including mostly the women, children and the elderly, suffered at home.

To quite a few Karachiites, there is nothing pleasing about the rain’s aftermath that inevitably results in clogged drains, power failures, flooded highways, stranded traffic. “Yes, it’s raining, the weather is beautiful but the aftermath is generally not pleasant,” says Mr Junaid Zuberi, a marketing professional in a financial services company. “However, it doesn’t normally rain in Karachi and this time the rains have finally come after it has rained everywhere else in the country, so one may as well enjoy the moment.”

Mr Zuberi lives in Defence Housing Authority and he plans to drive around in the rains with his car’s music stereo tuned to Indian classical music. He may also go to the seaside with friends. “I will go to a qawwali in the evening,” he reveals.

Meanwhile Mr Alam enjoyed a breakfast of plain parathas and balai-waali chai in his balcony. “My abbu made both the chai and parathas,” he says. “They were as good as the rains.”