Daddy’s Boy, a story that seems bizarre yet real is a book that leaves you unsettled and wanting answers. The action-packed novel demands to be read in one sitting and readers might contemplate it for hours later.
We spoke to Shandana Minhas, the writer from across the border, about her hard-hitting story of patriarchy, politics, sex and love:
Tell us a little about the inception of the story and its characters?
You don’t choose the story, the story chooses you. Asfandyar popped into my head in 2012, as we were heading out of a vicious, bloody period into a vicious, bloody election, and I eventually did what I needed to do to get him out. Like a lot of writers, I too write to know what I’m thinking and it seems that, in those days, I was thinking that electoral politics, ethnicity and violence are the handmaidens of patriarchy.
This book is very fast paced. How long did it take you to finish it? Tell us a little about your writing process.
I’m very amused by the recurrence of the word ‘pace’ in the media coverage of Daddy’s Boy. It makes me feel like I hurled a book at a wicket, which I would totally do if Kamran Akmal was behind it. Or that I am what actually happened to Shoaib Akhtar. One reviewer even noted that I wrote at tremendous pace, but was unable to sustain the pace because such pace cannot be sustained.
I’m not entirely sure why a change of pace must be interpreted as a lack of stamina rather than an artistic decision used to recreate a vernacular idiom, a tonal shift to indicate a change of setting, but I’m sure it has nothing whatsoever to do with my gender.
To get back to your question, I started the physical writing of the book in 2013. I wrote the first third of it in two weeks, let it simmer for a few months, and finished it when it was ready. And in between I went with Inzi to be the bowling coach for Afghanistan. Bad cricket jokes aside, my process for all my work, fiction and non-fiction, is that I do not write every day but only on days I need to.
Tell us about your protagonist Asfandyar and what this character means to you?
In hindsight, Asfandyar is an avatar of the men at the top of the Pakistani food chain. The ideal Pakistani man – not for everyone but for many – is Punjabi, Sunni, gainfully employed, mother-loving and a virgin. What Asfandyar meant for me as a writer was despair, irritation and a desire to be rid of him. It didn’t seem fair, in 2013, that after 37 years of eating the mithai windmills of men like him, one of them had taken up residence in my head.
The three uncles are the most colourful characters of the book. Their jokes are what make this book so interesting. Are they based on real people you know?
They are infused with the spirit of a beloved uncle, now deceased, my Kukoo mamu born Alex Khan. He was an ambitious but largely ineffective conman and a gifted, irreverent raconteur. Gulloo aka Gulzar uncle from the book – who to me is the heart of the pack – even looks like my mamu in my imagination.
I remember my uncle once told me how he would put a white prayer cap on his head – mamu was Christian – and go to the garage sales advertised in the newspaper classifieds, pretending to be Haji Ayub Khan, and extort better rates through faux magpiety.
And one time some Pathan labourers were working on the driveway of his house and his Alsatian was panting on the roof above them and drops of his saliva were falling on their heads. When they asked him what was happening he told them Allah kishanhai, sending such hardworking men the relief of moisture on a cloudless day.
The book has three main female characters and they come under the categories male characters of the book put all women in general – mothers and whores. What is the significance of that vis-a-vis Pakistani society?
I don’t think this is significant only to Pakistani society. And that it is pretty darn significant when half your population is not seen as entirely human.
The female characters are hardly seen in first person, they are mostly talked about by the men in their absence. Was that intentional? If so, why?
I have, of course, been accused of misogyny for this. Yes, the slimness of Alina and Jehanara’s characters was intentional, the decision to see them through the eyes of the men deliberate. I could argue that there is misogyny in the idea that the poor woman writer just didn’t know how to write women. This book is a mirror, why blame the mirror if you don’t like what you see?
Asfandyar and his father’s friends are very different kind of men, but both these characters seem to share the same ground when it comes to women? Do you think that’s true, even grown up men fail to understand women?
I would be a misandrist if I said that was true of all men. But in my experience it is true of most men. That being said, I am also a mother to three sons and nothing I have seen from infancy to the teenage years – my oldest is now 14 – has indicated that attitudes to a different gender are innate. The child is the father of the man.
In the context of the book, and the characters’ attitudes to women, I have been fascinated by the way the uncles have charmed readers as much as Asfandyar has repelled them. All of them, as you noticed, inhabit the same beliefs about a woman’s place in the world. Yet it seems what is abhorrent in Asfandyar is forgivable, even endearing, in the uncles. The reader completes the book.
Karachi, the city and its environment are mentioned a lot in the book. It is a whole other character of the story the way Asfandyar talks about it. What does Karachi represent for you? Can you explain briefly what situation the city is in with regards to law and order, development and culture?
We lived in Hyderabad and then in a small town in the interior of Sindh when I was a child but Karachi has been home to me for most of my life. I have seen others experience it, as it had been described in the book, the first time they visit.
In terms of development, the boundary wall of the house I live in is several bricks higher than it was in the 80s. In terms of law and order, Karachiites think both are excellent ideas. The federal government kindly sent some paramilitary forces to keep our able policemen company for the last couple of years. Thanks to this latest clean-up operation, the target killers who once lived across from me are now dead.
In terms of culture as lived experience, if I had known that the house across the street belonged to target killers I would not have gone and banged on their gate and yelled at them for stealing my son’s ball that one time, but they did give it back.
There seems to be an animosity between people from Karachi and Lahore. You have referred to this in the book many times. What is the root or the cause of this dispute?
That animosity is not about people but about politics which is about power. Who has it? How they got it? How they keep it? Who wants it? What they are willing to do to get it?
The perfect parable for Pakistan is actually the story of the census. We are having one this year after 19 years. 19 years without updating figures that development funds and water allocation is based on. Can a centre built on silence and secrecy about shifting demographics and wilfully diluted culture hold? Should it?
In the jail cell scene, there is a lot of discussion on love and how men understand it. What do you think is causing them to misinterpret their feelings this way?
To go back to the idea of “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”. How men understand love has been a question I have frequently had to ask myself outside of fiction too.
If I had ever found a satisfactory answer my love life would look more like a pie chart and less like a seismogram from Japan.
I think we love the way we are taught to. And I don’t just mean by mothers and fathers. Just this morning I looked at my husband singing to our son and I told him ‘I thought I was marrying a brute but one baby and you’ve turned into a Teletubby’.
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