In hindsight, after an engaging conversation with Fatima Bhutto, it’s possible to believe the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. An hour earlier, we were unsure what to expect when we walked into a Mumbai five-star hotel for our meeting with the high-profile author, who is dressed in a crisp, pastel A-line kurta that complements her complexion and petite frame. But we soon realize that there is much more to the striking, articulate and passionate Pakistani than the tag of her nation’s most famous political surname.
“Bombay is like Karachi, in so many ways,” she remarks. We are off to a good start. “The humidity, the people, the buzz -- there’s a familiarity that greets you, always,” she continues, telling us about ferrying friends’ shopping lists from Karachi, her home. “I’ll have to squeeze in a visit to Colaba, somehow. And, where will you find Kolhapuris...? she asks, in a flash. We share a few addresses, and then some more. She refers to the city by its old name, asking at one point “What do you call it now?”
But our city rendezvous must wait. For now, we switch gears to her current big moment -- the launch of her debut fiction novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Why fiction, we ask, especially after successful works in poetry and non-fiction. “I hadn’t planned to write fiction. In fact, I had begun work already on a non-fiction title set in Karachi.
But somewhere, I was disturbed by what was going on around me, witnessing it as a journalist, writer, and a world citizen -- particularly the scene in South Asia, and its women who seemed to be at the centre of turbulence. The idea was always on my mind,” she shares, telling us how the book was written in separate sittings, before Songs of Blood and Sword was published.
The non-fictional woman
The book, set in Mir Ali, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, is an insightful walk through of the life and times in a region that has been scarred by incorrect public perceptions and skewed media reportage, and ruled by a heartless state. Yet, the universality of the theme and its characters -- especially the women, struck a chord despite being based in a far-off landscape. “I’ve discovered that with fiction the ideas didn’t matter, so it’s my characters who dictated terms for this story. Women are important to my writing. Be it in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, they are in the eye of the storm -- in the government, and in society, they are forced into scenarios but they fight back.
Secondly, women also face betrayal at all levels -- in society, with their loved ones, and during loss.” Little wonder, then, that in the book, Mira, middle brother Sikandar’s wife, is her favourite character. “She disturbed me, initially. I found her unsettling but as the story progressed, she became my hero. As in real life, women do not let you decide, it’s impossible to pin them down,” she grins.
By now, we are well into the heart of the story -- Mir Ali, the symbol of the other, lesser-known Pakistan. “It’s the story of many places. I could have set it in Peshawar or any other familiar name but I chose not to because I wanted to drive home the point that even in those isolated, gun-riddled zones, issues are similar to the ones we face in our cities. This is a South Asian story -- we all feel these tensions. Drawing borders is a Western concept. Asia, with its ancient, evolved civilizations, thrived without these divisions for centuries.”
Her father’s daughter
The book is a dedication to Fatima’s late father, Murtaza Bhutto, and so naturally, talk veers to his impact on her life and her writing: “I was lucky to have a feminist father. He would always read to me. When I was 11, for a school project, I had written stories in a coloured storybook format; I recall how he bent backwards to ensure that it got published! He always told me to do what I loved, and to say what one thinks and feels.” Her voice firms up: “He taught us that if we wanted to be political, it was through writing. My family always taught me the value of compassion.”
Voice of reason
So, is the book a reality check for Pakistan, and an instrument for the world to look at this region with the same compassion, we ask? “It should. I too had my prejudices, like the rest. When I travelled to the Kalash Valley in Northern Pakistan, I imagined the people to be dangerous, and the kinds who oppressed their women. It was untrue; instead, a matriarchal system prevailed that had been followed for centuries. Women had voted since the 1970s, and continued to play a huge role in society.
“Secondly, I believe there is this sentiment in Pakistan that violence has a purpose. But, as soon as you employ violence, there is no space for compassion; it destroys the very foundation of what we are striving to achieve -- peace and compassion.” It’s easy to gauge the pride with which she wears her nationalism -- dignified, yet rock-solid, but not on her sleeve. Her Pakistan is, increasingly and uncomfortably, becoming a state that suppresses the emergence of new voices. “It’s always the same four-five people speaking. Millions are muted -- the poor, minorities, and women. So who is left?” she leaves the question open. “Corruption, violence and unfairness are not helping Pakistan’s case. Secondly, the notion of community must be expanded. Because I’ve noticed that when people in our society are in trouble they look to their neighbours, friends, extended family or local heads for help, but never the police. This must change.”
And does she see herself as this voice of change, by joining politics? “Never. My dream job was to be a writer. I will keep writing about these things, especially violence towards women. It’s my calling. It’s a frightening idea, that fear prevails even in a simple act like walking down a road -- be it in a village or a metro. We must keep talking about this at every platform.”
At that juncture, we mention the impact and role of Pakistani authors at literary festivals worldwide, and particularly in India. Having interacted with several of them, their unified, heartwarming take on the other burning issue, Indo-Pak ties, stands out. Fatima Bhutto is no different. “Yes, it is the handiwork of a selfish few, and the larger majority on both sides want the same thing -- peace, friendship, and easy exchange of ideas. The two peoples are very alike. Even our cities look the same. Like, the yellow-and black traffic curbs on Bombay’s roads can be spotted in Karachi! I was amazed to find someone from Larkana -- my hometown -- right here in Bombay. Our food, culture and people are the same too. The intimacy that we share with each other’s lives is amazing,” she maintains.
“Our concept of leaving home is huge, our beliefs about time, home, duties and responsibilities are so similar,” Fatima tells us, recalling how she had to go to great lengths to reason with a Britisher who had read her book -- about how people from our parts who leave home are looked at and treated differently. “It’s lovely to be in India because I don’t need to explain anything,” she smiles, taking our leave. We’ll believe.
>> If you had to write the biography of a personality, it would be: It would have to be a poet because I find them compelling. I grew up reading works of greats like the Lebanese Nizar Kabhani and Palestinian Mahmud Dervish.
>> Favourite Indian city: There are so many but I’d go with Bombay. I visited the city as a teenager but in 2005, as an adult, and since then, I like the vibe. This city helped me fall in love with India. I’ve never felt more welcome as a Pakistani here, in India, than when I’ve travelled to any other place in the world.
>> Favourite food in India:
I like the vegetarian thalis in Bombay. I also love dosas and idlis. You get dosas in Pakistan but not idlis, so I got myself an idli maker the last time I was in India. Madras kaapi is another of my favourites.
>> Favourite way to unwind: Reading
>> Favourite author: Agha Shahid Ali, Hector Abad. I’m reading Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom right now, and like it so far.
>> Favourite film/actor: I wouldn’t want to waste two hours on a film! I prefer watching TV shows -- I’ve just completed Breaking Bad and loved it. I like such shows for their structure and flow; it’s where we authors find our inspiration! (Winks)