Source : The Indian Express – EYE
Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif on his new novel Red Birds and the war that will go on forever.
What made you embark on Red Birds (Bloomsbury), your new novel?
It must have been about seven years ago. I was grieving at the time. I had lost some very close friends. I was also reporting on people in Balochistan who had been abducted by intelligence agencies and were labelled ‘missing’. I was spending time with their families, who were going from press clubs to courts, protesting, year after year, without finding out what happened to their sons and brothers. Those were the kind of personal circumstances in which I started writing. I didn’t set out to do anything different. It is in the process of writing a novel that I discover a story.
One of the most interesting voices in the book is of the Mutt. Do you have a dog?
Yes, his name is Pako. He is a mutt. We found him at Empress Market in Karachi, where there were a lot of butcher shops. I have actually spent a lot of time sitting with dogs, talking to them. They do talk back somehow, through their ears, tongue, eyes. Or, maybe, I just hallucinate. I was very reluctant at first (to have that voice in the novel). It seemed too bizarre. But the Mutt was very determined and he barged in.
The red birds are real but invisible to those who don’t want to see them. Are they the warnings humans won’t heed?
It was more like…people go away and die, and you have to bury them. But you still have their things, their phone numbers are still on your phones. Similarly, the families of people who have been abducted imagine that they are in a job somewhere, that they are living somewhere. Those emotions of absence, this kind of primal anxiety — somebody is gone, where are they? Do they miss us? — those are the kinds of things I was trying to hint at.\
War is a very business-like thing in your book, a source of livelihood, of food.
I am 50 years old. There was a war that started when I was in high school, in the 1970s in Afghanistan. Various superpowers have now declared that the war is over. But it has never stopped. Bombs have been falling, villages have been blowing up. I am pretty sure that when I am dead, this war will still be going on. Increasingly, you see this war replicated elsewhere — in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen. I am sometimes horrified that this business of life and this business of war have become inevitable. I also think about our own complicity. I watch war unfold on TV, but I am taking my child to school, my dog for walks. That kind of colossal contradiction — that we can be at peace, when there will always be some people who continue to get bombed — that is what I was trying to get at.
You are from Okara in Pakistan. What kind of a place is that? Did you come from a family of readers?
I come from a family of farmers, who were never very big on reading, writing or education for that matter. It’s only after I escaped from the village that I found libraries and books. When I was a child, I went to a primary school, which had one room and no boundary walls. Buffaloes and cows would roam around while we were being taught. Last time I was there, there were five private schools. One had a swimming pool.
Which books set you off on becoming a writer?
Initially, it must have been religious texts, some translations, books about holy men. Every village would have someone who would have a couple of these books. Then I discovered novels in English — war novels initially, because I started reading properly when I was in the air force. It had a very well-stocked library, and, obviously, no soldier read them.
One thing common to all your novels is the black humour. Does that come from never believing the official version?
I have always been sceptical of authority. Villages have set hierarchies. There is the imam in the mosque and whatever he says, you follow him. In a family, there is a patriarch who makes the rules. You follow those rules but you also see that they, like everyone else in positions of power, are completely and utterly hypocritical. So, I had that scepticism from an early age. My inspiration also comes from the people in Pakistan. At every street corner, someone is spinning elaborate, irreverent stories about what is happening in the street, in the country, what Imran Khan is doing — and it usually is very funny. This is how we explain things we don’t really understand. A lot of my humour comes from these jokers who sit at a chai ka dhaba and make up stuff.
From the air force, you moved on to being a reporter with Newsline. Was that an important phase in your life?
Totally. I had a fabulous editor who died very young, Razia Bhatti. She not only cared about journalism, but also about writing and editing. She would sit down with a printout of your story, 20 pages long, with a red pen and a pair of scissors. She would take a sentence out of page 15 and cut it out and paste it on page 3, and ask, ‘What do you think now?’ While it was excruciating then, she did it with a lot of love and care. Those six-seven years taught me the value of a sentence, of clarity and also that you must take risks, that you must go where others are reluctant to go. That is the best education I have got in my life.
When they see the lynchings and garlanding of killers in India, we imagine our friends in Pakistan saying to us, ‘Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle…’
How different could we have been? We drink the same water, pretty much the same food, we breathe the same air. I think back to the time of Partition. We didn’t have WhatsApp then, we didn’t have Kalashnikovs or RDX. We still killed millions of people with bare hands, machetes, kitchen knives and dandas. Some of my friends now say, ‘Look at what democracy and the absence of military rule has got India’. I really don’t find any satisfaction in that. It makes me sad, for ourselves and those across the border. Apne ghar me aag lagi hai, saath wale ghar me bhi lag jaaye toh ….I don’t find any divine justice in that. It’s horrendous here, it’s horrendous there.
What kind of energies have brought Imran Khan to power?
The major force that brought him to power are young people. Everyone who voted for the first time voted for him. Moreover, the Pakistani establishment wanted somebody like Imran Khan to be Pakistan’s civilian face. But having said all of that, despite this mantra of change, if you look at the people around him, they are the same people I have seen all my life.
Is it difficult being a journalist in Pakistan now?
If you are a critic, you are not allowed to go on television. You are shut out of the mainstream. And, if you write for some foreign publications, it is seen as maligning your country abroad. Even at the worst of times, the Pakistani press has been very boisterous. But I think that this is the worst time it has seen. Journalists have been declared traitors, pursued through court cases, taken bullets.
Your novels are intensely political. Why?
It’s a curse, I guess (chuckles). I usually start out by writing something which is full of nice things. I do know people like that, you know, who go through a life of material and emotional comfort. They live in nice houses, have loving families. But, by the time I get to page 5, something horrid has happened.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes was powerful because you turned a dictator into somewhat of a clown. And yet, here we are in 2018, with Donald Trump as the president of the US.
I think we are living in times when it has become very difficult to do satire. What we have in real life is beyond any weird imagination. General Zia-ul-Haq seems like a proper statesman as compared to Trump. Similarly, Vajpayee seems this really benign, endearing person as compared to Modi. In Europe, we have Theresa May… We see this array of leaders, who seem to have walked out of some really f***ed up cartoon book. It is very difficult to make fun of them.