Prophetic, in our times
What happens when a liberated Muslim woman decides to narrate her life story through letters to the prophet? In an email interview with Fiona Fernandez, author Ali Ansari tells us to read between the lines to find the answers
In today’s world, what significance do Zarina’s letters to the Prophet hold?
Interesting question. To be honest, while I conceived the book and when I was writing it, I gave no thought to its potential, so-called, “socially redeeming” value. I wanted to tell a story and I brought in elements that I found fascinating— some of my own experiences with mushrooms (not peyote), Sufi practices, reflections on unanswerable existential questions and, the saga of ordinary, intelligent, sensitive human beings looking to free themselves of human bondage. The idea of Zarina’s narration of her story through letters to the Prophet occurred to me as a literary device, since writing to someone who has, or has had, such a hold on your consciousness through your formative years, is like writing to a father figure, at once intimate but towards whom one feels awe, as well as anger and defiance, especially a liberated Muslim woman such as Zarina. Obviously, I had to place myself in her concocted life and feel as she might have. But I think writing to someone like the Prophet of your religion, whatever the religion may be, can be cathartic and liberating.
Who or what inspired you to write this book that traverses beliefs, religion, ideologies and the triumph of the human spirit?
How did the universe come to be? How does a poem, or a novel? No one knows much about the nature of inspiration. But there are some pointers to how this particular book came to be. I have always identified with the sorrow, as well as satisfaction, inherent in womanhood, passion, wisdom and the burden of quietly nurturing the world, creating it, mothering it, even as men continue to destroy it. That is the triumph of the human spirit.
Did you always intend to give the story a global sweep?
Typically, a fiction writer surrenders to a kind of propulsive force that seems to mysteriously direct the writing. Like taking a journey on foot, you take a step, then another, then another. You write a line, then the next and the next. It sounds like a cliché to say the story wrote itself, but honestly, there was a spooky momentum to it that seemed to transcend deliberate planning. I drew on my own life, my familiarity with the places described: India, US, Germany, even Pine Ridge Reservation.
What can the reader take away from this saga?
I hope this has value for them, and makes them think deeply for those wounded, including the earth, by the insanity of men, brutal, ignorant men with their weapons of greed or power or misguided religious fervour. And I hope it would stir them to act to save the earth and those who suffer at the hands of such people and the organisations and governments behind them. I hope that readers who are on a spiritual path will learn something from the character Shah Ali’s instruction to Hamid to throw into the fire everything he holds dear, including himself.