By Utpal Borpujari
Ali Sethi, in the first go, sounds like an excited teenager eager to do too many things simultaneously. Yes, this young man from Lahore, in his mid-20s, is dabbling in quite a few things, but then, as you speak with him, you realize that here’s a youngster with a mature head on his shoulders. Proof of it lies in his debut novel The Wishmaker, which along with Arundhati Roy’s Listening To Grasshoppers: Field Notes On Democracy, marked the launch of Penguin’s newly-acquired Hamish Hamilton imprint recently. Proof of it also lies in his thoughts, that he shares animatedly with anyone interested.
The Wishmaker has already been hailed as a remarkable debut by a young author, and as people get to read the story of Zaki and his cousin Samar Api, they would know that it has come from a keen follower of recent history of his country, which inescapably gets intertwined with the lives of the novel’s protagonists. But then, Ali has grown up witnessing a lot of action, with his journalist parents Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin always in the thick of it. And what he has not seen in his relatively young life, he has recreated by undertaking a large amount of research about the immediate, distant and very distant past of Pakistan’s turbulent history.
In fact, it is his country’s history that forms the backbone of the storyline in his novel, which in a way makes the fictional account of life in a upper middle class family closer to reality. For Ali, it has been a journey in search of the past – the past of his society. As he says, “When you find out that actually your narrative is created by all the other big narratives happening around you, which is something we don’t like to acknowledge in Pakistan. The state-sponsored narrative of Pakistan, the history that was taught in school and I was made to learn in Pakistan did not accommodate other aspects that had happened on that soil. For example, the fact this was the home of the Gandhara Buddhist civilization, the fact that before that there was the Indus Valley civilization, and that after that there was a substantial Hindu community living in Lahore actually, are all missing from this narrative. There was this Lakshmi chowk in Lahore, and I would pass through it every day without making the connection between the chowk and Goddess Lakshmi. These are the things that I wanted to bring up in my story, which begins with two kids who are growing up in the upper middle class Lahore of 1990s but it becomes slowly the story of everything else that happens around them and then it becomes the story about the past, about lives that I had not personally experienced, for which I read a lot and interviewed a lot of people.”
For Ali, the first window to this world got opened when he went to study in the United States, majoring in South Asian Studies. “The books that I read over there really changed my perspective about the place I come from, as from those books I discovered that there is this alternative version of events,” he says. That laid the germ of the idea about writing about his own society, which he deliberately did in a fictional form. “I don’t think it could have been non-fiction, because fiction is an indirect way of saying some things, and of experiencing things and discovering things that you cannot always do in autobiographies or memoirs. You are trapped inside the ‘I’ in memoirs,” he says.
The book is a journey backward, he says, starting with life of a young man growing up in the 1980s when Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation process was on, and then going back through the various wars with India up to Partition. “In this fictional format, I could write about the politics, about attending a Roshanana Begum concert, about someone who is reading the Stardust and watching Bollywood movies. I wanted to bring all these elements in,” says Ali.
The college education that laid the foundation of his writing career also exposed him to “the holes” in the history that he had read in school – “the official version”. “It did not really match the reality. There was a big gap between the reality of the lives we lived in and the official version of our history that we also believed in simultaneously but which did not really act out in our day to day existence,” he says. And he chose to go back in time since it would have been impossible to “explain the city without explaining the village, explain the mother without explaining the grandmother, explain the male without explaining the female, and explain the present without explaining the past”.
Ali is aware about the very limited market for English writing in Pakistan, as opposed to India. But he is not perturbed that not many would read his book back home, because for him novel writing is not the most important form of writing anyway. As he explains, “It is a self delusion in a way that novels are really central to our culture. I think novel reading and writing are a luxury that very few can afford, as most people don’t have access to novels and don’t have the time to read a novel.” But then, as he says, does not take away the value of novels. At the same time, “I do feel the need for more engagement with the world I come from and I live in. And there are ways to do it – you can write in Urdu or Punjabi, but then again writing generally is a problem in illiterate societies, but again, there are ways of overcoming that too – you can go on TV, you can recite poetry, you can sing to overcome that barrier too and connect with even illiterate people.” This is the way, he points out, the great poets of various times, whether Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Kabir, Nanak and Meera Bai, continue to live in the hearts and minds of people, their creations passing on from generation to generation to the great oral tradition in the Subcontinent’s culture.
His love for music has translated into his learning Hindustani classical singing from Ustad Naseeruddin Sami, after initial, informal sessions with neighbour Farida Khannum. “I have many ideas about many things, but none of them are developed, they are all raw ideas. I think I have to live a little more, work a little more, work a little more to really understand all these things,” he says with a maturity much beyond his young age.