Difficult To Be Both Indian And Pakistani’
When did you come up with the idea of a book about your life?
I have been trying to write a book ever since I was 21. I have one failed novel, which was a novel purely for the drawer. And I was well on my way to a second failed novel. The second was dealing with this material (of his life) in a fictional form. I was working as a journalist but didn’t have my heart fully in it. I was trying to pay my way so that I could write fulltime. Working in Time magazine, I had reached a very frustrating point. My job as a reporter was almost clerical, I wanted very much to get out. The book happened because of an extraordinary set of situations. Time magazine brought out an issue called the Soul of Islam, and I did some reporting for them in the northern part of Britain, I had interviewed Hassan Butt (a Muslim radical). Time magazine used one line of it! The interview was published by Prospect magazine a year later, when I did my first cover piece for them. And then I got this letter from my father (criticizing the piece) and that letter constituted a kind of emotional shock. It seemed to bring together the different strands that I was working on.. I wanted to figure out how my father had acted like a Muslim. How despite his faithlessness, total faithlessness, were the impulses of the religion still in some way working on him. Why was he angry with me? The reason why I discuss his faith is that the other side of religion, the practice, the belief, is totally missing in him.
That was around the time you made your first visits to Pakistan. A strong sense comes through in your book of you always feeling like a stranger in Pakistan…Why was that?
It was a twin experience. It was familiar and it was unfamiliar. It was always to be a stranger and not. The reason for this is, India as a culture and civilisation runs through Pakistan in every way, in ways they don’t even know. They are often talking about caste, they don’t know it…But it is not something for them to celebrate, it is something for them to reject, to feel embarrassed about, it undermines their mission for what Pakistan was meant to be. I was Indian on one level, but there was also a part of me that had a deep attachment to Pakistan. And so, the distancing and alienation I felt because of the rejection of India was always upsetting. Hindus being cowardly, rejecting the Hindu classical past, certain ideas about how Indians look, all those things were probably more offensive to me, maybe someone else could have taken them with a pinch of salt. It was upsetting because it made it very difficult to be both Indian and Pakistani.
Do you think that because part of you was Pakistani that you had a different kind of access to Pakistan, that people were freer with you?
Absolutely. When I left the Wagah border, they saw my PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card, my name was on it, and they said, Dhyan se jaana, sambhal ke jana, jaldi wapas aa jao.
When I went to the other side, they welcomed me with open arms…”You were in India for so long!” It was pretty affecting, because there was a lot of warmth and even when my father was distant and cold, this was compensated for twice as much by everyone, who said, “This is your country, make sure you feel its your country…” They were more than happy to take me in. They would have liked me to turn my back on India and then be theirs. To keep the two was something that was strange and difficult for them.
Your first visits to Pakistan were made after 9/11. Do you think that that sense you communicate of a bitter, closed society, was a post 9/11 thing?
the rejection of India was not a post- 9/11, it is a deep thing, it is there in Iqbal.. it is a deep intellectual basis for Pakistan. But certainly, they were doing much better in the past, were richer, had better roads.. Certainly, for my father it was a big shock to see India suddenly, sometimes falsely, being positioned as this rising superpower. In the last 10 or 15 years, the depressing news about Pakistan was very upsetting to Pakistanis. And they all had fresh experiences of being treated very differently in the west, of insulting things said about Pakistan.
It was a brave decision to lay bare your family relationships, particularly your very difficult relationship with your father. How did you reason this in your mind?
I reason it in this way, that the personal circumstances contained a bigger story. If they had been strictly personal, if they had just been just one’s own wranglings, I don’t think I would have.
And it was so strange, the kind of divisions that have come up between my father and me, I almost immediately knew that they seemed to hint at other, bigger truths. And the personal way is the only way I write, it’s my only way into a situation. So after I felt that the personal life was of importance, of significance, that there was something bigger contained in it, I wasn’t very shy about speaking frankly about it, and it was also a way to deal with it myself.
But he has tried to rein that back. In an interview he will say he has six children which is just a silly thing to say, everyone knows. Because he has dealt with this so little in his world, even the personal story is embarrassing to him.
This business of your father becoming the governor of Punjab?
That is a very surprising and for him, I am sure, an unfortunate development. But I couldn’t have seen that coming. This is not some kind of tell-all book, but I couldn’t have put my life on hold, because in that crazy world of Pakistani politics, he is at that very moment… Governors come and go in Pakistan, but he has been there six months… The timing is slightly insane (he laughs uncertainly) I wouldn’t have wished for it to be timed like that.. He was just a businessman, a nameless Pakistani, and that was good enough for what I had to say. He didn’t need to be the governor of Punjab.
will you send your Dad a copy of the book?
I will. But just because he has behaved so appallingly I didn’t want to send it to him early.. My last meeting with him (just after Benazir’s death) I like to think of as one of those strange human things ..It wasn’t that we moved forward, but I was very upset to see him feeling that pain (at her death).. A big tough man. I have no doubt in my mind that he loves his country, that there is nothing he wants more than for Pakistan to stand on its own feet. When you see someone like that in one of Pakistan’s darkest hours, you can’t help but be moved. ..I have heard from so many quarters how upset he is about the book, brothers, sisters, uncles, I thought I could hardly call him up and tell him, it’s ready!
I kind of already have. Whether I wrote the book or not, I am definitely pretty much persona non grata…I have a brother who makes a big effort, a sister who makes an effort, but the family is centred around the younger children and the third wife.. and all (those) doors are shut. And yet, my father is a bright intelligent man, well read, I hope he understands some day that there was some part of this story I had to come to terms with.