‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it’. (Holden Caulfield – The Catcher in the Rye)
I decided to go one step ahead of Holden and met the author in person. Liberty Books had arranged a book reading of Mohammad Hanif’s ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ on Sunday evening (25th Sept, 2011). Here are some bits and pieces of his conversation with Muneeza Shamsie about his book, religion and the writing process in general.
M.S: In your first book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Ali Shigri (the protagonist) is thrown in a dungeon where he meets a blind Zainab and the General Secretary of the Sweeper’s Association. In ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’, Zainab is the mother of one of the characters, Noor, and Alice’s father is a sweeper. Was this a coincidence?
M.H: No, it wasn’t a coincidence. I was trying to create a new fictional world which is messed up in a different way. I must have missed Zainab. Maybe there was a kind of yearning for her, the kind people have once they leave their lovers and then want a glimpse of them years later.
M.S: What came first? Zainab, Alice Bhatti or the General Secretary of the Sweeper’s Association?
M.H: These characters (Zainab, General Secretary) were gone and dead in the previous book. Shigri, I saved, maybe for a sequel to write when one is desperate and old and needs money. Alice came first as a glimmer or memory of someone I’d seen once. Her voice came first. She was called something else and then I changed her name and she started working for me. For one and a half year there was just Alice and nobody else, just a nurse in a hospital room.
M.S: Alice refers constantly to her faith in the book...
M.H: I wasn’t interested in a faith vs. faith scenario. People have a very personal relationship with their faith. It varies with age and gender. I was obsessing about the kind of personal relationship people have with their God. I was interested in those shades, when one believes and doesn’t and at what stage of life this happens. The idea was not to make fun of religion because already it is quite cartoonish.
M.S: Alice is a nurse. Is there any analogy with Florence Nightingale?
M.H: I’m not a big fan of Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa although they might be very nice people. I’ve spent time in hospitals like many of us do. I’ve seen these nurses; women working at 4am without any boss or CCTV to monitor them but still doing the best they can. I was impressed by an average professional nurse working in a government hospital.
M.S: And what about Teddy Butt?
M.H: He’s a bit of every man. He has all these urges that get mixed up. He never kind of says what he really feels. He’s kind of hopeless in a way. If you live in Karachi long enough it is possible to meet someone like him, a friend of a friend who pretends to be a sort of gangster. You know the type who’d try to sell you a stolen vehicle or something.
M.S: You had to shut off the journalist in you when writing A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The nature of journalism actually gives you access to people and places. How do these observations creep into your fiction?
M.H: I’m not a crime journalist or a murder scene type reporter. I’ve never reported from a hospital. If you live in Karachi long enough you meet people like rogue doctors who drink and smoke before going in the operation theatre. When you sit down to write, old conversations come into your mind and help in developing the story. As a journalist, you also know when to shut up. But with television now, nobody really shuts up. They go on and on and....
M.S: What impels you to write fiction?
M.H: At the age of twenty, everyone wants to write a book. There’s a certain kind of boy or girl who reads and reads and reads and someday, they get it into their heads that they’ll also write a book like this. It sort of comes from being bookish and boring and self-obsessed. I get bored easily and one way to get over boredom is to sit in a corner and invent stories. It is also a sort of escape therapy from reality. Even if it is for a few years, I am the master of the universe I create.
[The interview and book reading was followed by a book signing session].