Pakistani writer-journalist Mohammed Hanif whose first novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” -- a dark satire based on the plane crash that killed General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, former president of Pakistan -- won the 2009 Commonwealth Book Prize in the Best First Book category was at the Hay Festival Dhaka yesterday. The Daily Star caught up with the writer.
First impressions of the Dhaka Hay Festival?
Hanif: It turned out to be a great experience for me. I am loving the buzz here. The participants and the crowd are bursting with enthusiasm. I, however, have a feeling that I want to learn more about the mainstream literature scene of Bangladesh. In my head, 'Bangla' literature was any literature done in Bangladesh or created from a Bangladeshi writer's experience. Here, I think Bangla being the name of a language represents the huge pool of literature done in that language, and I have to say that I wish there were a bigger representation of that pool here. The language barrier can be an alienating factor for writers. You see, writers themselves are typically alien to the real life. Yet, once that barrier is broken, it feels as if a lone traveller has found more companions on his journey for a small fraction of time. This can be an incredibly enriching experience. I am glad that I am here today.
Your panel discussion on 'Assassination and Conspiracy' was a fun show! However, as a writer, do you compartmentalise yourself in the confines of such categories (e.g. conspiracy, human rights, subcontinental)?
Hanif: No. As a writer, you may choose to concentrate on a certain genre or a certain type of topics or a style of narration; such categorisation, however, does not exist in a real writer's head. For a writer, an inspiration can come anywhere, and putting it in a pigeonhole will strangle that inspiration to death. However, in such literary festivals and discussions, such categorisations are convenient because the audiences are divided in differing interests. Say, if there is a category called 'New Writers', may be a lot of would-be or fresh writers will be encouraged to relate to the issue and enrich themselves thereby. But if you ask me if at this point I would identify myself as a writer of conspiracy novels, I would say no.
At the discussion, a significant part of your time was spent on your book “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”, which had the assassination of President Zia ul-Haq as the central theme. In a way it dealt with a part of Pakistan's history, though it is completely a work of fiction. You said that a lot of readers took the fiction for real. In Bangladesh, we have also seen debates on whether work of fiction dealing with historic events/characters should stick to reality. What is your take on that?
Hanif: See, I think the role of a novel is very unclear but I can tell you what the role of a novel definitely is not. And that is teaching people history. Literature and history are two different disciplines and they deal with different parts of the human mind, I am pretty sure. Therefore, expecting fictional literature to provide history lessons is quite unrealistic. Still why does a novel have to bear the burden of that expectation? I believe that's because modern novels are a comparatively new form of human expression. As more decades are spent by the humankind reading and appreciating novels, I believe the expectations will be more realistic. This is particularly true for the subcontinent.
Why is it so? Is it because a big part of the subcontinental history is still unresolved in the public mind?
Hanif: Being a journalist, I know that any history is unresolved. Histories are not like novels, but one of the biggest similarities history has with literature is that there is no perfect ending or resolution.
We want to know a bit about Pakistani readers…
Hanif: In Pakistan, there are several languages. And I think therefore there is a bigger group that reads Pakistani English literature than those that read Urdu literature. Guess what my mother tongue is? No, it's not Urdu. It is Punjabi. So I first learnt Urdu in my early school days; and then I was taught English in late high school years. Then again the quality of language teaching was not that great. It took me heaps of reading (of books in English) and a journalism career of 10 years to be able to write in English. I wish there were more English translation of Pakistani and Bangladeshi books of local language available. The dearth of good translators is a barrier here. I also believe that finding a translator is not a writer's job. As long as a writer is true to his/her inspiration and own voice, the story somehow will make its way to the wider audience.