Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Meeting Mohammad Hanif

‘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]. 


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Change?

Change is a scary word. Habit hates change. It does. Habit feels insecure when change comes along. Both are a very strong part of our life; yours and mine. We become slave to our habits and detest any change in them. Our habits age with us and become our masters. They acquire the same kind of power over us that the ‘One Ring’ (The Dark Lord, Sauron’s ring- Lord of the Rings) had on any creature who wore it. When habits become so strong, change takes a back seat. Ironically, change also has a habit of creeping back into our lives; sometimes most unexpectedly.

Change, I believe, is an even bigger part of our lives than habit. With the passing of years we change both bodily and emotionally. Humans are strange creatures. We yearn for change and yet shun it too. From youth to middle age, change is an acceptable part of life. We switch jobs, go abroad to study or work, have children, change schools, change servants, change cars, change houses, and so on. But somewhere at the back of our minds is the thought that this cycle of constant change will end one day, that we will settle down and change will bother us occasionally.  

Life without change is unimaginable. Nature, too, changes and each change gives us a new joy. Habit and change are necessary to keep the balance; too much of one can lead to a very boring existence. 

And no one wants to be a bore. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Esio Trot - a magical love story!

What lengths can one go to win the heart of the beloved? Many a poet and writer have addressed this question in their work and most, if not all, have penned endearing and often, heartbreaking narratives of the lover and the beloved.

Esio Trot has all the ingredients which make it a perfect love story. A lonely man harbours love for his neighbour, a widow. When she faces a problem with a wild creature he comes to her rescue. There is no knight in shining armour routine though for the wild creature isn’t a fire breathing dragon but a mere tortoise and our knight’s weapon is just a metal tube fitted with claws. No fancy armour or sword for Mr. Hoppy.     

Mr. Hoppy is a shy, retired man who lives in the same apartment building as the love of his life, Mrs. Silver. In fact, her flat is just below his. Everyday both of them exchange pleasantries but Mr. Hoppy lacks the courage to express his feelings. Mrs. Silver, a widow, owns a tortoise called Alfie who is the apple of her eye. She dotes on him incessantly. So much so that Mr. Hoppy wishes many a times to exchange places with Alfie.

The great worry in Mrs. Silver’s life is Alfie’s slow growth. She wants the little tortoise to gain weight and become big but no matter how many juicy cabbage leaves she feeds it, Alfie weighs the same as it did when she got him, eleven years ago. She is willing to try anything to make Alfie grow. Her distress over Alfie provides Mr. Hoppy with the perfect opportunity for winning her heart and he puts together a masterly plan that actually makes the tortoise grow!

Dahl, yet again, provides us with two very interesting characters in this book. But unlike his other books for children (James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, George's Marvellous Medicine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc.) there is no villain or child in this story. There are no evil aunts or grandmothers and no magical fruit, or factories. There is, of course, a little bit of creativity and innovation involved but then we can’t expect a Dahl protagonist to be just an ‘ordinary’ person.

Following is an excerpt from Donald Sturrock’s book, Storyteller –The Life of Roald Dahl, on Esio Trot.

‘Quentin Blake described it succinctly as a “love story set in two rooms”. Blake felt the narrative was built largely around Roald’s feelings for Liccy*, and that there was a great deal of his creator to be detected in Mr. Hoppy’s penchant for ingenious and imaginative problem solving”.


And if you want to win over the woman of your dreams, above is a magic spell that can help, provided she owns a tortoise!

*Liccy was Roald Dahl’s second wife. 

Images: Google 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

J. & Me

Jaundice and I were companions for two weeks. Jaundice played host while I lay on my bed, trying to ignore its antics but not succeeding much. After a few days, though, it lost steam and lay around, sulking. Recently it’s tired of my company and pays a visit occasionally. Not that I miss it much and I hope never to see it again. Not only did it drain me and leave me weak and sick, but also because I became confined to my bed and became a prisoner of the telly. I watched it all; re-runs of movies on HBO, cooking shows prior to iftar, all kinds of stupid Indian films, and lots of reality shows (including Wipe Out) on AXN.

My Ramazan came to an abrupt halt because of jaundice. Karachi, too, it seems was suffering and its pain was greater than mine. This Ramazan has to be one of the most deadliest and dramatic in terms of terrorism and politics for Pakistan. Is our country plagued with a disease which is incurable? Or have we turned a blind eye to the suffering of our motherland? One day the whole city comes to a standstill and the very next day life resumes at its normal pace. Are we resilient or have we become numb to the happenings around us? Question marks everywhere but no answers seem to be forthcoming from any quarter.

I need to rest now otherwise J. might just pay me another visit.