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'I want to write a novel set in India, someday'

With his swagger and rugged looks, he would pass off as one, we thought as we caught up with the author at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival at the Diggi Palace Hotel. Here, he talks about his latest book, The Blind Man’s Garden, his growing up years in Pakistan, and why India and Pakistan should remain culturally in sync despite cross border tensions.
 

Nadeem Aslam
Borders, boundaries and books: Nadeem Aslam

Interview

What do you have to say about the snapping of ties on all counts between India and Pakistan at the moment? Do you believe that culture, sports and other areas should not be dragged into this?
When my book, The Wasted Vigil was released, I recall, it was in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. I was deeply upset to have to skip visiting the city – my favourite Indian city, for a reading due to the tension. My first reaction to this is that I understand but do not accept boundaries, frontiers or borders. Lives are being lost on both sides. However, culture and sports should continue. It’s the only way our people can learn to understand, appreciate and not resort to pre-judgments of any kind. Which is why, it’s such a great thing for such literature festivals to show that the reaction and response that we (Pakistani authors) have been getting has been phenomenal. So what a few say, doesn’t have to matter.

Your book steps right into the battleground of the repercussions of the 9/11 attacks. Why did you choose such a subject?
It has been an extraordinary decade. It started with 9/11 and ended with the Arab Spring. In between we’ve had tension in Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, Jihad, Guatanamo Bay, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the execution of Osama Bin Laden. The decade has seen a clash of understanding for the West and East. Today, if you type Pakistan in a Google bar, the first four auto choices that emerge are Pakistan is dangerous, is stupid, has terrorist activity and is evil. While the United States gets words like not the world, evil and not a country. Interesting, isn’t it? I wanted to find a story which would encapsulate elements that don’t make it a non fiction read but one where a writer is able to tell you what to think about. That’s why this story was born.

Your previous book, The Wasted Vigil, explored the devastation of Afghanistan – this book goes further addressing the trauma of not just Afghanistan but also Pakistan. Tell us about this.
I felt I hadn’t dealt with what happened to Pakistan’s people because of the Afghani Jihad. This book was meant to capture it. This is a companion piece to what people back home endured and lived through, and are living though at the moment.

Your family left for England when you were 14; what was it like for you to start afresh in a new country?
I went to an Urdu medium school. In fact, I wrote short stories for children’s publications until I was 12 and 13 years. I didn’t veer towards English writing immediately, while in the UK, though I did well in the Sciences. But by the time I was in my third year at the University, I felt I was pretty good in English, I dropped out, and wrote my first novel, Season of the Rainbird when I turned 22.

In The Blind Man’s Garden, how did you choose Rohan’s garden as a metaphor for the world?
Interesting question. The landscape of my novels is abstract. It’s like a fairy tale floating just an inch above the earth. It has a certain flight to it. That’s how I created Heena, the village in my book. It’s inspired from the legendary Heer-Ranjha love story. Heer is a symbol of rebellion; her village disowned her, called her a badmaash character for running away with her lover. In fact, there is a town called Jhangi, from where she hailed, and her clan lives there. In fact, the movie Heer Ranjha is never allowed to be screened in that village! I wanted to name a town after her.

How have you managed a sharp contrast of portraying beauty and war; especially in prose?
The reader will trust you. I’ll borrow from Toni Morrison and take it a step further – If they can live it, I can write it, and you can read it. As a novelist, I should put it on page, artistically.

Tell us about the intense research that went into writing The Blind Man’s Garden, and your thought process for every novel.
I did not have the temperament to suddenly start questioning the visually challenged about their lives. A year passed. One day, I decided to blindfold myself, and I did this for a week. When I removed my eye straps, I realised that I had bruises all over myself. I continued to do this for one week for the remaining three years. It worked. I was able to live those moments, feel those colours. I hope it strikes a chord among the visually challenged. I have 11 more novels to write. The day I finish one, I begin work on the next. Someday, I want to write a book that is set in India. Ultimately, it all boils down to basic human emotions, whether in the Indian subcontinent, Russia or America. Certain things are universal, the other elements are mere set designs, and can be worked upon.

Jeet has a prestigious ‘jeet’ at the festival
Jeet Thayil won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature 2013. Thayil won for his book Narcopolis, an ode to Mumbai’s rise as a super city. The award was announced at the ongoing Festival yesterday. There were 81 titles submitted by publishers and that meant no easy task for the jury of the prestigious prize. “I am just happy to have won, finally, after being shortlisted four times,” said an elated Thayil.

Thayil emerged triumphant from a field that saw tough competition from Jamil Ahmad: The Wandering Falcon, Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim, Amitav Ghosh: River of Smoke, Mohammed Hanif: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and Uday Prakash: The Walls of Delhi. The prize was presented to Thayil by Sharmila Tagore and Bhanwari Devi on a chilly evening that was well attended by critics, publishers and the general public.

Thayil won it for his portrayal of the rise of Bombay in the 1970s from its impact on the opium trade (he chose to refer to the city’s earlier name throughout the author introduction). Incidentally, Thayil, a poet, guitarist, and now author, was one of the four authors who read from Salman Rushdie’s banned book Satanic Verses last year, and who some wanted banned from this year’s edition. “The negative publicity that the book Narcopolis generated initially when published, makes this win even more worthwhile,” added Thayil, who dedicated the win to fellow nominee and “new friend” Jamil Ahmad.

Bigger is better?
We have 283 writers, 17 Indian languages in discussion. 174 sessions. 200 security personnel. R25 for a plate of samosas. While we loved that the festival has grown by leaps and bounds, a few tiny pleasures, including the humble snack and the ever-popular kullad chai, we heard, are no longer available for free. Guess, the trappings of being an integral part of Asia’s largest literature festival comes at a price.

Sex ‘n’ sensibility
Shabana Azmi’s discussion with Prasoon Joshi at the session on Sex and Sensibility: Women in Cinema, saw what was possibly, the biggest turnout so far at the festival. The discussion was arresting, engaging and earned huge applause as the panel, which included Sanjoy Roy, pressed all the right buttons. A group of Mumbaikars were heard remarking, “Arre, let the Dilli and Jaipurwallahs get a slice of Bollywood. After all, don’t we spot them every other day?” Javed Akhar and Sharmila Tagore also added to the filmi quotient at the venue.

Space ace
Veterans of earlier editions of this Festival were in for a pleasant surprise. A separate section for the media came in for applause, and relief, we may add. This space, on the terrace of one of the portions of the heritage hotel venue, came equipped, complete with plug points, bottled water on request and enough leg and laptop room for all needs. A far cry from the temporary shamianas and chaotic ambush-like situations for table space, in the past. We like.

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