By Raza Rumi:

In a few days, Mohammad Hanif’s new novel will be available in Pakistan. Last week, I met him at his house in Karachi. The grand dame of Urdu literature, Qurratulain Hyder, used to make fun of people who would ask writers what were they writing about. “Are writers cooks that they should be subjected to senseless questions,” she remarked in one of her essays. With this sentence lurking somewhere in the corner of my mind, I was most hesitant to ask Hanif questions about his new novel. In any case, Hanif is not known for responding to inane questions either. We found ourselves locked in this battle: me not wanting to ask; and Hanif avoiding to pontificate about his latest book. Awkward? No. Funny, Yes.

We found ourselves locked in this battle: me not wanting to ask; and Hanif avoiding to pontificate about his latest book. Awkward? No. Funny, Yes

Dressed in a flamboyant pair of shorts and a funky T-shirt, Hanif and I spoke about everything under the sun. He had been to an Iftaar party in North Nazimabad and a part of him was terribly inspired by the event. This was the ‘roza-kushai’ (breaking the first time fast) of a child and a wedding hall was the venue for a lavish Iftaar. He cited the discussions he had with a ‘buzurg’ (an elder) and quoted him. Writers play with their memories and recreate them in a most innovative manner. Thus the delightful tales of the elderly gentleman’s commentary on Karachi, its random violence, literature and society was most amusing.

Of course, wherever possible I was eager to squeeze insights on his new novel. Like a greedy and manipulative conversationalist, I did succeed. Well, only partially. More than the theme of the novel – that deals with the Christian nurse and her world – I was interested to know about his technique. Hanif narrated how he does not work in a linear fashion but a scene, an incident or a line provides him the inspirational cue for a chapter. He would write notes, not necessarily in a logical order but randomly and then rearrange them for a chapter.

“Unlike journalistic training, where you don’t want to re-read what you write, and meet the deadline of submitting 1000 words, for fiction I have become a committed re-writer”

Like most novelists, he is a re-writer as well. “Unlike journalistic training, where you don’t want to re-read what you write, and meet the deadline of submitting 1000 words, for fiction I have become a committed re-writer,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. The analogy of old “love letters’ for looking at the written portions was amusing. “I have a cupboard full of print-outs with hand written additions and deletions and recreating.” It is not possible on the computer,” he says thereby affirming the old-world relationship of pen with the paper. Hanif calls is it “riyaaz” (practice), of sorts where inspiration, imagination and hard work mingle. I add that all good writing is re-writing but he corrects me and says that some of his friends can write an 8 pages long poem with no flaws.

After this brief spell of describing the inner workings of his writing technique, we turned to other subjects. Living in Karachi, he said was an experience that provides “complete” anonymity and the ability to break out of the clans and incestuous networks that define life in other parts of Pakistan. He smiled and added how Karachi gave one the space and opportunity to find people who shared your interests. He described how his experience of living in seven or eight locations of Karachi exposed him to the contours of the metropolis. “You can make your own clan here,” he added and “weirdest stuff” was possible here. And Hanif’s example of the weird included composing haiku poetry!

Hanif’s bi-lingual stature is a rarity in contemporary Pakistan. This makes him a truly unique writer. I could not resist the temptation of asking him as to why he did not choose to write fiction in Urdu. His reply was quite instructive. “I started to read novels at a later age, and most of them were in English,” and ” my mindscape is filled with them”. Conversely, he elaborated, “I have written plays and films in Urdu as my references and influences were in Urdu.” He quickly added that his foray into Urdu journalism was a deliberate move” as writing in English (and he points towards me with a chuckle) was “akin to preaching to the converted.”

Hanif’s bi-lingual stature is a rarity in contemporary Pakistan. “I started to read novels at a later age, and most of them were in English,” he said, and “my mindscape is filled with them”. Conversely, he added, “I have written plays and films in Urdu as my references and influences were in Urdu”

Hanif recounted how during his visits to schools and colleges he found very few young persons with interest in or familiarity with Urdu literature. At a posh private school where he spoke, only one student in the audience had read something in Urdu. Similarly, at a well-known business school in a class of 120, only a handful had read Urdu writings. However, Hanif was not alarmed and opined that every age had its own medium and mode of literary expression. Citing a personal experience he mentioned how at the old books fair organised outside Frere Hall, Karachi, only a few Urdu books for children could be seen, and most of them were religious in nature.

I drew his attention to a recent interview of his where he mentioned how Facebook statuses and Tweets had their creative value. About the future of literature Hanif recalled meeting a group of young writers who were dabbling in fantasy fiction and many of them had completed manuscripts. So all was not lost, we smugly concluded.

Hanif is translating poems of Hasan Dars, the famous Sindhi poet and agreed that more translations were needed especially with respect to the regional poetry and fiction. Talking about how once Urdu digests, magazines and books were popular, Hanif referred to an all time best-seller, “Mein kisi ki beti nahee” (I am no one’s daughter) which was a riveting tale of a prostitute with loads of “sex and jihad”. One reference, new to me was a periodical that poet-journalist Raees Amrohi used to publish from Karachi called “jinsiyaat” (sexual issues). A memorable snippet from this periodical was about a married woman who wrote to Amrohi about her lust for her husband’s younger brother and how Mr Amrohi in a very matter-of-fact manner advised her on the ways to seduce him. A good number of minutes were spent laughing at the raunchy vernacular words used in jinsiyaat.

My trite questions had no limits. I asked which fiction writers had inspired Hanif. He named his namesake Hanif Qureshi and remembered how at the BBC offices in London, he would get invites addressed to Qureshi. As an instructor of creative writing, Qureshi for inexplicable reasons would give 73 marks to all his students! In Urdu, Hanif has been influenced by Abdullah Hussain – one of the few favourite writers with whom he met.

Soon, I was back on his writing. I wanted to know if the success of Exploding Mangoes had pressurised him in any manner. He shrugged off any such burden but admitted that completing a novel had its own dynamics: the “long process, and dealing with an invented fu**ed up world” was not free of stress but much excitement. I wanted to confirm if taking up taboo subjects was a deliberate attempt in his new novel, ‘Our Lady Alice Bhatti’. Hanif rejected that but added how “love was not yet a taboo in Pakistan”. Expounding further, he reflected, “My mind works with the characters, they have their world, their own morality and legal system.” Authors had to “travel with their characters, and be committed to them.” After all, novels have “their own weather”.

Two hours of pure Hanif were delightful to say the least. Rarely one meets writers who are completely un-self-conscious and avoid taking themselves too seriously. Hanif surely tops the list; at least, in Pakistan.

Raza Rumi is a writer and policy expert based in Lahore. He blogs athttp://razarumi.com. Follow him on twitter: @razarumi

First published in The Friday Times (August 19, 2011 isssue)