The Noble Rot
In an interview with AHMEDE HUSSAIN, Uzma Aslam Khan, novelist and writer of "The Story of the Noble Rot" and "Trespassing" talks about politics and religion, two of her favourite subjects.
Uzma Aslam Khan
My reading of your Trespassing has found it be a sad epic. Your portrayal of life in Pakistan is both ruthless and bleak. Do you see yourself as a social realist, someone whose primary aim is to depict the existing social relationship of the time?
Uzma Aslam Khan: I see myself as a novelist. I'm not sure which parts of the book you find so bleak. To my mind, there is both darkness and tenderness in the lives of all the characters described. If this is 'social realism,' I suppose I have not written a fantasy!
If your question refers specifically to the violence in Karachi through the 1980s and early 90s, well, it was a very violent time. The Soviets were in Afghanistan, Pakistan was ruled by its most brutal military dictator, General Zia ul Haq, a United States ally (one Pakistani general referred to Pakistan as the condom through which America entered Afghanistan), billions of dollars worth of arms spread across this country, mostly to Karachi, where a nasty ethnic war ensued between the indigenous people of Sindh, and the Urdu-speaking, Punjabi, and Pathan migrants who settled in Sindh after Partition (and continued to pour into the province during the Afghan War). It is the period I grew up in, and it must have left a deep mark on me. I studied at a Convent and during Independence Day 'festivities,' I remember marching between an icon of Jesus and Mary (which I associated with our colonial history) and the Islamic Flag (which I associated with our present, namely, General Zia), and wondering if anybody understood how any of it happened.
But I absolutely didn't know I was going to set my novel TRESPASSING during that period when I started writing the book. It just took that turn on its own. Often impressions that shape us the most are absorbed unconsciously. That's the difference between non-fiction and fiction: in the former, you know what you want to say and even how you're going to say it. You have a thesis, an argument. You very consciously set out to prove it. The beauty of fiction is that you tap into something hidden. At some point in the process of writing, the fiction writer stops inventing the rules. She has to surrender to the book's own rules. It's own ecosystem, if you like. When I write, my only aim is to be in the story.
You may know that, Tariq Ali has said this about Trespassing: 'Cocoons are not the only things that explode in this novel. The silken prose emphasises the conflict between the tender subject and a world where violence of every sort has become institutionalised.' How do you respond to this comment?
Uzma Aslam Khan: By saying, Thank you!
Your approach to handling narrative is Western and, if you allow me to say, modern in nature. Does South Asian fiction, as a concept, really exist? Or is it merely the subject matter that defines it?
Uzma Aslam Khan: What makes a category really exist? I'm not sure how to define American fiction, or even British fiction, except to say that the latter especially has been around for so long it has come to be recognized and respected as having a significant influence on others, both inside and outside the UK. There is a sense of continuity there. But what makes it 'British'?
South Asian fiction is relatively new. (Poetry is of course a lot older.) Does it have to have the weight of history for it to really exist? I can't say. I have difficulty relating to many other South Asian novelists because the ones who write in English tend to live abroad, while I live in Pakistan. There are some Indian novelists who write in English and live in India, but not in the rest of South Asia. I know that as a Pakistani fiction writer who writes in English and continues to live in Pakistan, people both here and abroad don't know where to put me. They cannot put me in the 'diaspora' group, which is, increasingly, where this fiction is coming from.
Diaspora writers typically fall into two groups, neither of which is true for me. The first group lives outside, or mostly outside, South Asia but does not write about the country of residence, only the Motherland. These novels have been very popular with both Eastern and Western readers.
Their authors rely on memory, family and drawing room gossip, the media, and/or the odd back-to-my-roots holiday. They follow the Orientalist tradition, using trite icons jasmine flowers, spices, saris, bangles to evoke an exotic 'East' that is best smelled from afar. I think it's plain that I'm not interested in this South Asia, seen through the nostalgic lens. The second group of South Asian diaspora writers is a more recent phenomenon. These writers focus more on the immigrant experience. Their work grapples with the restrictions placed on minorities by the minority group itself. It shies away from looking as openly and critically at non-'Asian' groups. But at least it does not romanticize the East!
But I am not a diaspora writer. I can't even relate to the category of 'Asian' or 'non-Asian' since I live in Asia. Overall, then, I suppose 'South Asian fiction' is too vague a category for me, both as a concept and even as subject matter.
How do you see the role of English in the context of South Asia, a place where the language had once been imposed on its people?
Uzma Aslam Khan: I don't know what 'role' English should play. It exists here. It is becoming a South Asian language, if it hasn't already. After North America and the UK, South Asia has the highest percentage of English-speaking people in the world, and we're not all from the same background. Many Pakistanis feel that Urdu has also been imposed on them, and yet they speak it and write it. The resistance to English in Pakistan is ironic when seen in this context. Many Urdu speakers who never thought twice about 'imposing' Urdu on non-Urdu speakers bristle at the idea of having English 'imposed' on them. So, instead of viewing English as an 'outside' language, better to accept that it's ours now.
In your last novel we see two lovers struggling for freedom and passion in a hostile world. Do you see love as a force that has the ability to free us from existing social relations?
Uzma Aslam Khan: Yes, love can overcome societal restraints. But only if both sides are equally committed to putting their love first!
As a woman coming from South Asia, how free do you feel when you write?
Uzma Aslam Khan: I'm usually able to shut out the outside world when I write. I leave my own skin, become my characters, which is I think how I've written about men as much as women. In TRESPASSING, the character I revised the least was Salaamat, the Sindhi fisherman's son who comes to Karachi for work and gets involved in a violent gang, ostensibly, as a 'freedom fighter'. I knew him intimately, right from the start.
But I'll admit, it's not always so easy. The biggest challenge for me a writer in Pakistan who happens to be a woman is: interruptions. The doorbell ringing, the phone ringing, visitors, social obligations. When men want privacy, they get it. When a woman wants it, she's being selfish. This is an ongoing battle. I have carved a quiet solitary space from which to write at the cost of social relationships.
Then there is the subject of sex. All three of my books including the one I'm writing now have frank sex scenes, told from the point of view of both men and women. Pakistani women tend to tiptoe around sex when writing about it. I like to describe it. (I like to describe almost everything.) These details matter to me a lot. I get lost in them. I play with them. That is the joy of living! But when my first book, THE STORY OF NOBLE ROT, which has a masturbation scene, was released, I know there were people in my family who were 'shocked'. They were more shocked by TRESPASSING, which describes the male body more then the female body, from the eyes of (unmarried) women and men, both. People who know me sometimes have difficulty reading 'controversial' passages without putting me in them. And that has caused some upset, unfortunately.
Overall, I feel free when I write because I insist on the sanctity of my space, both mental and physical, but it has not been given to me. I have had to fight for it, a lot.
Uzma Aslam Khan is the writer of two novels: "The Story of the Noble Rot" and "Trespassing".
(R) thedailystar.net 2006