I wish I could say I’ve been listening to your show since forever and had a fond childhood memory to evidence that. But I don’t.
I set foot on the American soil for the first time in 2003 – fresh off the night flight via JFK – from Pakistan. I had no clue what NPR was back then. CNN and Fox – sure as hell I had my favorites in place there and by 2008 I also knew who I’d vote for as President (if I could vote). January 20, 2009 was an awesome day and not only because it was my birthday either.
I think it was late 2009 when I actually paid attention to the Diane Rehm Show. Susan Page was interviewing the young author Ali Eteraz regarding his book Children of Dust. The guy was of Pakistani descent and held obvious interest for me and it was a brilliant interview, too. Susan let the writer express himself in fearless ways as she queried him to explore his perspective. I enjoyed that except I was also very disappointed. Not with Susan or Ali or his book but the fact that that was all I ever heard coming out of Pakistan.
Bombs, al-Qaeda, suppression of women, religious fanaticism, warlords, political corruption – you name the evil and it will track itself back to my homeland. Very exhausting and annoying especially when I see a somewhat different land. Hence, I said to myself that day: if I ever wrote a book, I’ll send it to Diane and request her to read it; only to provide a little variety, a little deviation from the usual controversies surrounding the term Pakistan, and a little perspective on the other unexplored side of the picture.
October 2012, I co-authored and self-published a fantasy novel with a friend. It will not give you any details regarding how gory and suffocating life is for women in Pakistan neither will it talk about why we hate or love this religious ideology over that one nor will it seek to explore the complexities of Pak-American relationship. However, it will take you into the minds of two young Pakistani women who were born and bred there, went to school, learnt English and can write and speak it like they were born into that language, and were nurtured by their parents to think, explore and express. Good part is we aren’t a novelty where we come from. There’s an entire population that can appreciate our mindset.
So please, go ahead and read our book. You have nothing to lose but a bit of your time and who knows, if you actually like the book we might gain an important reader. We are only trying to break the mold here.
I remember when I first thought of writing a novel (and this was way before I’d even met Shami), my mother dished out a few names to inspire me since they were of course the North Stars of my region. Write something like Arundhati Roy, she said. I haven’t read Roy and I don’t think I ever will – not my genre totally. So that ship sank before it could set sail. I did, however, brave Blasphemy by Tehmina Durrani. She is milder than Roy and her association with the Pakistani political scene had whetted my interest enough to try her. I wasn’t disappointed, and for a while I thought I should write something like her.
This was the 90’s when we had an immense need for our voices, the oppressed voices, to be heard. The world had to know what our ruling class subjected us to and etcetera and it felt so brave and right to talk about the issues that mattered, to paint a picture that wasn’t rosy so that truth would prevail. The world had to know about us.
And so the world did. And it went in overdrive – like a never ending run of the mill misery fest that would be dished out of my region for the universe to sneer at. And while all that was still true and needed to be heard, I felt my voice being ignored and crushed.
Durrani and writers like her tell the truth but it’s a sad truth. What about the happy truth? Their books don’t portray me or the woman in my world (or niche if you may call it but even so we do exist). Nor do they talk about men like my husband or my father or my grandfather who sent his daughter to college in a day and age when most girls couldn’t even get elementary education. Their books don’t talk about women like Shami who would pitch forks and stand a post guarding the houses of minorities in the face of an angry mob. And if you think she wouldn’t do it then you don’t know Shami. They don’t talk about Sharon who would rather die than give up her green passport simply owing to a funny gene in her body called patriotism. They don’t talk about Saima, who runs out of cuss words (very fluently in English but more flavorful in Urdu) to express how mad she is at the current situation in her country, or Humzy, who is devastated all the same but rarely expresses it and yet, come Monday morning and they are ready to take on the world with renewed energy to stand up and make their land a better place to live in. Nor do they have an Ambreen or Janil or Laila or Shah Bano reflected in their writings – independent, generous, supportive and always among the first ones to see the silver lining in every storm.
These are all educated, career oriented women. Some of them are married, some of them single, some of them scarred by men but some of them are treated like queens by the men in their lives. But they do not feature in the books I see being promoted as the face of Pakistan when I look at literature about us that has made it across geographical divides.
And that is all fine.
Durrani and writers like her are strong, commendable women (and men) who had the courage to say what ailed the land they loved. It is fine that the woman they talk of, the men they describe are not me or mine. Surely, I too have heard plenty ghastly stories of tyranny, murder, oppression happening to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend – but I never knew them personally. Some would say I was lucky; I didn’t stay in Pakistan long enough. I wouldn’t argue with them. I am happy to be lucky. But the question of who shall tell my tale remains.
Someone needs to tell stories about our weddings, yes we still have them and they’re an event more colorful than the rainbow. There still are roadside bistros brewing morning coffee and breakfast, kiosks selling hot sandwiches and corncobs and maize beads roasted in scalding silt, and fancy restaurants boasting of exquisite local food and international cuisines (sometimes with a kick of our own flavor). We have malls, bazaars spilling out merchandise and packed with shoppers (mostly women) and we love fast food (Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and KFC to name a few), movies, music and kite flying.
Yes, there are problems – mammoth sized and here to stay for longer than we’d anticipated. I can almost see my father shaking his head at me and smiling his honey-you-are-so-naïve smile as a tribute to my optimism. But my mother wouldn’t. She’s the one who taught me to see things this way – to smile and strive and never give up and be who you are and tell the world about it too. And don’t hate because it’s toxic.
And so, I have a quest.
I shall write stories embedded in Pakistan but not so you can know exactly how filthy or devastated it is. But just so you know what romance we have going on amidst all the chaos. I did that in Aoife & Demon too. Remember Gustak? To quote a friend, ‘this reminds me of my village back home’. She too is from Pakistan. And if you need to read about the filth and chaos in gory detail – please refer to a documentary on National Geographic or stay tuned to our news channels. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
But I have a different quest. And I hope to remain true to it. And not hate because it’s toxic.
Here's a glimpse :)