Utpal Borpujari

February 9, 2009

‘People with guns have the loudest voice’

By Utpal Borpujari 

He might have been living in England, but Nadeem Aslam’s gaze is firmly fixed on the Subcontinent. The Wasted Vigil (Faber & Faber), his latest novel, is an example of that. Set in war-torn Afghanistan, it seeks to ask uncomfortable questions to the world, through its historical sweep. As his novel garners accolades, Aslam is already into writing his next fiction, this time set in the Taliban-dominated Waziristan area of north Pakistan. This one, he says, would be a sort of sequel to The Wasted Vigil. Aslam speaks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on his beliefs as a writer:

 

 

How important is it for you to actually go to the field and do research because when you write fiction, you can actually create things out of your imagination?

 

I think that depends on what kind of book you are writing. For example, the first book I wrote (Season of the Rain Birds) was based on my childhood memories. For that I did not have to do any research, I just had to dive into my memories. The second book (Maps of Lost Lovers) was about the community I was living in, which is an Muslim, Indian, Hindu, Sikh community in north of England. For that, I just had to go for a walk in the neighbourhood and talk to friends. But in my third novel, since I wasn’t living in Afghanistan, I had to go to there and talk to a lot of people. Also, a book isn’t made up of what one finds in the world, it is also made up of what one finds in oneself. It is amazing how different people’s memory works differently.

 

When did you decide that your next book would be on the backdrop of Afghanistan?

 

Afghanistan links with my life were there even before I was born. My grandmother’s uncle was the personal physician of the king of Afghanistan. The house my family lived in Jallandhar before 1947 was actually called Kabul House. I wanted tell the Afghanistan story because Afghanistan has been forgotten. You might say that is a strange comment to make, because it is there everyday in the news. But it is in news for what it is doing to the rest of the world – so many American soldiers have died there, there has been a bombing of the Indian embassy there – but what the world did to Afghanistan over the last 25 years seems to be news to most people, because it is convenient to forget. When 9/11 happened, many Americans asked, how did it happen? I told them just go back to 15 years of what your country has done in Afghanistan, and you would know how it happened. The spectacular nature of that attack was of course shocking, but the fact that there were people out there who wanted to do that to America, was not a surprise at all.

 

When Afghanistan was invaded in 1979 by the Soviet Union and America, the West, Pakistan Saudi Arabia, etc., decided that billions of dollars worth of weapons would be poured into Afghanistan secretly, and that Mujahideen would be helped to defeat the Soviet Union. Those policy decisions had to have their consequences. I wanted my book to raise those questions – that is it possible for a superpower to go into another country, play its geopolitical games and then withdraw and expect there to be no consequences. In 1989 when the Soviet Union was defeated, America withdrew, and billions of dollars worth of weapons fell in the hands of warlords who began to fight among themselves, and they were so venal, greedy and careless that they did not give a damn about the ordinary Afghans. Afghanistan is in ruin because of that civil war, part of responsibility for which lies with America. In 2001, the consequences were clear for everyone, and now it was a problem for everyone, now they were asking how did this happen. I wanted my book to explain to people how it happened. Once you start a fire, it spreads.

 

How do you analyse, as a writer of fiction, the situation in the real world?

 

At this moment in history, everyone is confused. What we can do is to animate this confusion of hours, and honorably and honestly say here are all the options and I am sorry I don’t know the answers. For example, why American went into Iraq – I don’t know, no one knows, because we don’t have access to those classified documents in White House. We as ordinary human beings, can only express our confusions and then try to hold on to each other, try to protect each other and try to tend to our wounds and in the meanwhile hope that our leaders see sense.

 

As a Muslim, how do you see the tendency in some quarters to link Islam with terrorism?

 

I don’t blame the world even for a fraction of a second thinking that all Muslims are terrorists, because people with guns have the loudest voice. People keep saying that why don’t ordinary Muslims stand up and counter – but these people have guns, there are people who stand up and shout, but a shout of a gun is louder than the shout of a person.

 

As a Muslim, have you faced situations where you feel persecuted for no reason?

 

Not really, because looking at me you cannot real tell I am a Muslim. Before 9/11, if somebody would ask me are you a Muslim, I would reply, well, not really, as I drink alcohol, I never say my prayers, I have never kept a fast. But after 9/11, if somebody asks me if I am a Muslim, I say yes, because this is me sending a message to those bigots in the rest of a world, that a Muslim does not really have to have a beard, wear a turban, say the prayers five times a day. And this is also a message to Osama bin Laden, that you cannot be the one to define who is a Muslim, I too am a Muslim, and you cannot expunge me from the Muslim world.

 

You are based outside Pakistan. Does that help you in speaking so strongly about what happens in Pakistan as compared to someone who is based in Pakistan?

 

It is possible that the tone I speak with to describe some things would be different from how someone living in Pakistan would do to describe the same things. They might say it in a couched way. In a way, India has been much fortunate than Pakistan. Pakistan was dealt a very bad hand as it became a client state of America very early on. People think our dictatorship began in the late 1970s with Zia-ul-Haq, but our first martial law was in 1957. So Pakistani writers and poets have a very long history of trying to say things covertly. Our great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was in jail as early as in the late 1950s. All through our history writers and artistes have known that they won’t let us speak properly, so they have found a way of saying things differently.

 

(Published in www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 08-02-2009)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The complete Nadeem Aslam interview taken on 27-01-09 in New Delhi:

 

 

You Stay in London, right?

 

When my book is published, I take up a flat in London for 6 months, because it is easier to give interviews, to give readings. Otherwise, most of the time, I stay in north of England, where I have a cottage, in Yorkshire. I find city life a little too distracting. I think to write, one has to access deeper layers of the soul, and of course, the deeper layers of the story one is trying to write. And one has to immerse oneself in silence. I know many writers who live in cities and be around distractions and write, but I like to isolate myself, which does not mean I don’t engage myself with the world around me – I always say that I am a deeply political human being. So, I read the papers, I talk to people, but there does come a time…so during the last 6 months, when I was writing the Wasted Vigil, I isolated myself in the cottage and slept during the day and wrote during the nights. But that was only during the last 6 months, and the book took four years to write. During the previous three-and-a-half years, I went to Afghanistan, I talked to people from Afghanistan, I did research.

 

How important is it for you to actually go to the field and do research because when you write fiction, you can actually create things out of your mind?

 

Absolutely. I think that depends on what kind of book you are writing. For example, the first book I wrote was based on my childhood memories. For that I did not have to do any research, I just had to dive into my memories. The second book, I was writing about the community I was living in, which is an Muslim, Indian, Hindu, Sikh community in north of England. So for that too, I did not have to do research – I just had to go for a walk in that neighbourhood, talk to the friends and ask him about his day – that’s a good way of putting it. But the third novel is about Afghanistan, and I clearly wasn’t living in Afghanistan. So, I had to go to Afghanistan. I think that depends on book to book. But a book isn’t made up of what one finds in the world, a book is also made up of what one finds in oneself. So, I always say that the things in my novels are what interests me anyway, you know – certain kind of music, certain kind of people, certain kind of love. The Wasted Vigil, I wanted to talk to Afghanistani people, find out from them what history had done to them over the last 25 years. And I was afraid that I would not get a visa to go to Afghanistan, so I thought I would have to make do with talking with lot of Afghanistani refugees in England. It’s a tragic 25-30 years that country has been through. The man who drove me from point A to B, for example, would turn out to be an Afghanistani man. So, I would say to him would it be okay if I talk to you about your experiences in various years, and invariably they would say yes. It is amazing how different people’s memory works differently. One Afghanistani guy was telling me that particular neighbourhood in Kabul smells of orange blossoms. Coincidentally, another guy I was talking to three weeks later, turned out to be from that neighbourhood. I asked him does that neighbourhood smell of orange blossoms? And he replied I have no such memories. One person remembers one thing and another person remembers another thing. Which is what a novelist tries to do, as at one level human beings are the same, and at another level they are not the same.

 

When did you first decide that your next book would be on the backdrop of Afghanistan?

 

I always wanted to write about Afghanistan. First of all, Afghanistan links with my life were there even before I was born. My grandparents used to live in Jallandhar before 1947. My grandmother’s uncle was the personal physician of the king of Afghanistan. The house my family lived in Jallandhar was actually called Kabul House. I don’t know if that house still exists – perhaps I should go and have a look. And Afghanistan is right next door. Whatever happens in Pakistan, India is affected by it, and whatever happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan is affected by it. So, I wanted tell the Afghanistan story because Afghanistan has been forgotten. You would say that is a strange comment to make, because it is there everyday in the news. You pick up today’s newspapers, and Afghanistan is there. But Afghanistan is in news for what it is doing to the rest of the world – so many American soldiers have died there, there has been a bombing of the Indian embassy there – but what the world did to Afghanistan over the last 25 years seems to be news to most people, because it is convenient to forget. When 9/11 happened, many American friends asked, how did it happen? I told them just go back to 15 years of what your country has done in Afghanistan, and you would know how it happened. The spectacular nature of that attack was of course shocking, but the fact that there were people out there who wanted to do that to America, was not a surprise at all. People acted as though it was a historical moment, as though it had nothing to do with the history of the world. When Afghanistan was invaded in 1979 by the Soviet Union and America, the West, Pakistan Saudi Arabia etc decided to enter Afghanistan, that billions of dollars worth of weapons would be poured into Afghanistan secretly, and that Mujahideen would be helped to defeat the Soviet Union, those policy decisions had to have their consequences. I wanted Wasted Vigil to raise those questions – that is it possible for a superpower to go into another country, play its geopolitical games and then withdraw and expect there to be no consequences – in 1989 when the Soviet Union was defeated, America withdrew, and billions of dollars worth of weapons fell in the hands of warlords who began to fight among themselves, and there were so venal, greedy and careless that they did not give a damn about the ordinary Afghans. Afghanistan is in ruin because of that civil war, part of responsibility for which lies with America. Nobody out there is innocent, everyone has to share the blame, but in the West nobody gives a damn – for them it is like, ‘oh, these Brown people are always fighting amongst themselves, they are barbarians’, you know, let them, who cares. But in 2001, the consequences were clear for everyone, and now it was a problem for everyone, now they were asking how did this happen. I wanted my book to explain to people how it happened. Once you start a fire, it spreads.

 

Is that the reason why the protagonist is from Russia – that you are going back in history to the start of it all?

 

Absolutely. And also because I wanted to have an international cast. Afghanistan is a tragedy of geography, sadness of geography that it is at the confluence of so many worlds, so many religions, so many ideologies, so many political thoughts have ended up clashing there for many, many decades. Everyone must share the blame.

 

Now if we look at the geopolitics of the region, it is seeping into Pakistan and India. How do you analyse, as a writer of fiction, the situation in the real world?

 

Towards the end of my novel, one of the characters say, the Jehadi character Kasa (?) says that I feel so confused all the time because of these various things in my head, and the girl who he is falling in love with, Duniya, says that that confusion is being felt by everyone. At this moment in history, that confusion is being felt by everyone. I really don’t have a definite answer to that question. What we can do is to animate this confusion of hours, and lets honorably and honestly say here are all the options and I am sorry I don’t know the answers. For example, why American went into Iraq – I don’t know, no one knows, because we don’t have access to those classified documents in White House. We as ordinary human beings, can only express our confusions and then try to hold on to each other, try to protect each other and try to tend to our wounds and in the meanwhile hope that our leaders see sense. It’s a great moment to have Mr Obama there. It’s not just the Americans – now the problem is seeping into Pakistan, India and the rest of the world – a great deal of intelligence is required in moments like this. For example, it is extremely dangerous to say that all Muslims are terrorists. I don’t agree with 99 per cent of what Mr Bush did during his time in the White House, but one of the good things he did was that immediately after 9/11 he took off his shoes and went into a mosque. Because if you remember a number of Sikh men had been shot dead by bigots in America just because they had long beard, saying we want revenge, without realizing that Sikhs had nothing to do with it. So, Mr Bush sent a message to those bigots that look, the people who flew their planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had nothing to do with the ordinary people who come to say their prayers five times a day in that mosque. That, and it also sent a message to Osama bin Laden and his ilk that we know that you are not part of these people, that you are a fringe. That is not what Osama bin Laden wanted to hear, he wanted Bush to say every Muslim out there must be accountable for this. If you read the statements Al Qaida has put out ever since it came in, sequentially, you realize that these people are in torment over the fact the world has managed to make a distinction between ordinary Muslims and the terrorists, because what they wanted the world to say that all Muslims are terrorists, because they wanted that clash of civilizations. So, we have to be very careful. And of course, you and I who are ordinary people.

 

I know that those people who broke up that pub in Mangalore has nothing to do with my Hindu friends, who are almost like my family members, for whom Hinduism is something else. Like Al Qaida they are also the fringe, and that fringe has to be defeated.

 

I don’t blame the world even for a fraction of a second thinking that all Muslims are terrorists, because people with guns have the loudest voice. If I try to say this, they will try to stop me. People keep saying that why don’t ordinary Muslims stand up and counter – but these people have guns, there are people who stand up and shout, but a shout of a gun is louder than the shout of a person.

 

As a Muslim yourself, have you faced these kind of situations where you feel persecuted without doing anything?

 

Not really, because looking at me you cannot real tell I am a Muslim. If I say I am a Hindu, nobody would be doubting me. And that’s the thing – I always tell people, before 9/11 if somebody had asked me are you a Muslim, I would reply, well, not really, I mean I drink alcohol, I never say my prayers, I have never kept a fast, so may be I am not. But after 9/11 if somebody asks me if I am a Muslim, I say yes, because this is me sending a message to those bigots in the rest of a world, that a Muslim does not really have to have a beard, wear a turban, say the prayers five times a day. And this is also a message to Osama bin Laden, that you cannot be the one to define who is a Muslim, this too is a Muslim, and you cannot expunge me from the Muslim world. I mean, whatever we are, ordinary people are decent. I was just in Jaipur and they had hired these cars, and the drivers were young men from the villages in Rajasthan who were living alone in a room in Jaipur and their parents, wives live in villages doing farming. They see their wives every three months, they miss them, but what to do…the immense decency of ordinary people bring tears to my eyes…my eyes are welled up just thinking about it…how nice ordinary people are…but for those nasty people…it is the duty of intellectuals, journalists to put our arms around the ordinary people and try to tell their stories and try to protect them. Yes, people say objectionable things but what to do.

 

Post 26/11, Pakistanis are also feeling the heat in India. A comedian was barred by MNS / Shiv Sena (?) from appearing on a TV show, was asked to live the country, one film producer deleted a song sung by a Pakistani singer…

 

Yes, I too was going to Mumbai for a reading of my book immediately after the Delhi event on the 29th. But people were slightly apprehensive, saying that a Pakistani author was going to give a reading in Mumbai. Nothing perhaps would have happened, but I do read that Pakistani writers have been taken off the shelves, etc. etc. Now I am not going to Mumbai because of that, and it is a really terrible feeling, because it is a tiny minority – in both countries, everywhere, because they are stronger than us, because their muscles are stronger than us because we are weak. Of course, I will go to Mumbai when it blows over, I will come back in a few months. India occupies such a great place in your imagination if you are from Pakistan, and I am sure it’s the case here as well. This wall that we have between us, it just stops us from getting a glimpse of that. If you are a Pakistani and told that you will be taken to India, it’s like taking a child to an enchanted land. And when you come to Delhi, you say, my God, it’s just like Lahore. Yes, we are all alike, just our rulers and the tiny minority of trouble makers just won’t let us be.

 

In this context, do you think the artistic, creative community have a larger role to play?

 

I am all for cultural exchange. Lataji is as much a goddess for us as she is for you, and I know Farida-ji, Nusrat Sahab what have you have the same position here in India. Book is a window to another civilization. My relationship with Latin America began through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ books. That small book made me interested in the fate of millions of people on the other side of the planet. I know a book a door through which you enter another world. But along with cultural exchange, we need political will. Down here, us lot, we say yes it would be nice to meet up. I don’t know about India, though I can imagine, but in Pakistan no one up there – the rulers, the politicians, the ISI, the military – have ever given a damn about what people down there think. So, for us to say that we love India is going to have any meaning if people up there decide that we have to hate India, that we have to go to a war. Cultural exchange – yes, yes, yes, yes – but we need to do something to make sure that the people up there are accountable to us, that they dare not do anything that we don’t want because they are answerable to us. I think both cultural and political aspects have to work in conjunct.

 

You are based outside Pakistan. Does that help you in speaking so strongly about what happens in Pakistan as compared to someone who is based in Pakistan?

 

I always say that there is nothing in my books that is not being discussed openly, every day on a daily basis in Pakistan – and that is in Urdu Language newspapers, that is the masses, these things are being discussed. I just wanted to add my voice to it. But it is possible that the tone I speak with to describe some things would be different from how someone living in Pakistan would do to describe the same things, they might say it in a couched way. In a way, India has been much fortunate than Pakistan. Pakistan was dealt a very bad hand as it became a client state of America very early on. People think our dictatorship began in the late 1970s with Zia, but our first martial law was in 1957. so Pakistani writers and poets have a very long history of trying to say things covertly. I mean our great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was in jail in the late 1950s – as early as that. All through our history writers and artistes have known that they won’t let us speak properly, so lets find a way of saying things differently. Even though I live in England, part of my tradition is like that – because even though I live in a country where I have the freedom to say anything the way I want to, I have gone from a country where things are said differently.

 

Writing in English, how much reach do you have in Pakistan. I think Pakistani writers in English have a much bigger reach in India right now as compared to in Pakistan.

 

I do understand what you mean. But one does what one can do. People keep saying a lot of Pakistani writing is visible in the outside world in the last 2-3 years. You must understand that at a basic level we Pakistanis are trying to understand our own country for ourselves. So much is happening in our country, that we are trying to animate our problems for our problem, but the world seems to be interested in Pakistan because Pakistan in so much in news everyday, absolutely for the wrong reasons. You can say why don’t you write in Urdu, yes, but a work of art has a way or percolating into the population. Say, because of my book a television producer wants to do something on Afghanistan and I go ahead and write a play that is watched by millions. So do what you can. For me not to do anything just because English is read by a tiny elite in Pakistan, would be wrong. Actually my father is translating this book into Urdu, and I am really excited as this will by my first book to be translated into Urdu.

 

I have a Jihadi character in my novel, named Casa, who I keep thinking in terms of Ajmal Kasab, who went berserk in Mumbai. I think his inner landscape must be like that of the Jihadi character, confused. I am not saying we should forgive Kasab – there are crimes and there are punishments. But we must understand their mindset because we must try to prevent others from going down the same path. The Chauvinist and the right wingers would say there is no need to understand these people, just exterminate way. Yes, it is true that he was a poor guy and was brainwashed, but make sure that he is punished, but let’s also make sure that other kids do not follow the same path. For all that matters, Kasab was a poor Pakodawalla’s son, who ran away from home because his dad won’t buy him a new shirt on Idd. And then he became a minor criminal, and then someone told him your brothers and sisters are dying in Kashmir, and he was a poorly educated kid, what do you expect him to do? Same with Kasa, who was raped as a child, beaten, he grew up with the belief that human beings have nothing to offer except cruelty, and then he is picked up by these Jihadi elements who take him to a madrasa and taught the Quran out of context – everytime in my novel he quotes the Quran he does it out of context, which is the case with all the Jihadi elements. Then he meets Dunia, and first time in his entire life he is touched with tenderness. Of course, he is going to berserk. Duniya is also a Muslim, and bow towards the same God, yet their idea of that God is totally different. Nobody has challenged him in his life, and this is the first time he is challenged, and he is disturbed by that. I was just trying to visualize this guy there and a half years ago, and this is a horrible way to be proved right.

 

Have you got offers for film rights for this book, because this has a huge interest point in the geopolitical context?

 

I have left it to my publishers. I am concentrating in my writing.

 

Are you starting another book now?

 

Yes. I am writing a new novel, set in contemporary in Waziristan area of Pakistan…

 

An extension of your latest book?

 

Yes, because in The Wasted Vigil I could not deal with how Pakistan got messed up by the Afghanistan. I do make the argument that Pakistan was the villain in Afghanistan. Pakistan screwed up Afghanistan, because it was through Pakistan that arms went into Afghanistan. I always say make sure the government, the military are answerable to us. The romantic idea that one day a little boy was raped in Kandahar and so Mullah Omar said I am going to raise an army to oppose that, that is absolutely incorrect. Taliban was an army supported by Pakistan and the US. Children are being raped everyday in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in India, nobody goes to raise an army to save them. These things are political. It’s a fairy tale to say that…Mukhtara Mai, was gangraped, nobody went to raise an army to save her…so, there has to be a political will. There is a very strong political and ideological angle to my writing, because it is important for us to try and change things culturally.

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