Mohammed Hanif feels a little like a travelling salesman these days. The Pakistani novelist, speaking at a session on Friday, likened the writerly existence to a journeyman lifestyle. "There are so many litfests these days that it feels like my job," he joked. "I hardly feel like a writer."
Jaipur is his fourth litfest appearance in the past three-odd months in India. Getting a visa, however, is as much drama as anything. "They turn it into a cliffhanger. Will you go, will you not go?" he said, referring to the visa process, where a visa might arrive just 18 hours before it's time to board the plane.
Hanif's new book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, came out last year, a novel that was born out of an image. Responding to a question on whether it was written from an impulse of defending the lot of the Christian community in Pakistan, he dismissed that as a possible motivation.
"I don't know if you can write novels to defend people," said Hanif. "If I wanted to defend people I would go out and join a political party instead of sitting in a corner and making up stuff. I wouldn't recommend that," he said to laughs. "It's not like you wake up one day, read a headline I don't think it works that way."
Responding to an audience question, Hanif said the situation of the community was "pretty bad" both in terms of discriminatory laws as well as inherited social attitudes.
Hanif's first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes - born out of the whodunit-like question of how did General Zia die - partly came from his exploratory instincts as a reporter. "Very soon I realised nobody knew and people who knew wouldn't tell me," said Hanif. So he just went and ahead and made up his own story. "If you don't tell me the truth I'll make up my own, which is what a lot of journalists do by the way," said the writer.
His fictional version of events however, has often landed him in conspiratorial corners with retired generals who assume it to be true. "They would say, 'What a brilliant book! Now tell me who told you this," said Hanif. "I find that a bit scary. These dudes are running the country."
Hanif is among a clutch of Pakistanis writers to have emerged on the literary scene in the past few years, a development that has given rise to a rash of discussions around Pakistani writing. "Half a dozen writers from 180 million people doesn't mark a trend," said Hanif. One editor sees two novels emerge and does a story, another magazine does another story. "Then one editor goes and commissions a story on 'Why are Pakistani writers getting so much attention?'"