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Which way to the Booker?

books Updated: Sep 23, 2007 08:32 IST
Shaikh Ayaz
Shaikh Ayaz
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Seven years ago, he was big with Moth Smoke. Now with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he has
been shsort-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Born in Lahore, he was in New York for a while and now lives in London with his wife. A brand consultant by vocation, here’s Mohsin Hamid in an online talkathon with Shaikh Ayaz.

How hopeful are you of The Reluctant Fundamentalist romping home with the Booker Prize?
Ah, it would be nice if I get the Booker. But I’m not particularly hopeful. I’m just one of the six authors.. it makes sense to keep one’s expectations low.. that’s the way I’m looking at it.

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and especially Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip are top favourites. Do you think you’ll give them a tough fight?
It’s not a sport.. it’s not like cricket where I can bowl a really fast one and dismiss Mister Pip. Booker is not about the best book alone, it’s about what the judges like too. I’d be lying that I wouldn’t feel good if Iwon.

On the day of the 9/11 tragedy in New York, you were in the U K. How did your novel invest authenticity in the subject of the disaster?
I’ve lived in New York for four years. I’ve been to Princeton University. I wrote the manuscript of The Reluctant Fundamentalist seven times over. As a writer, I connect to both Lahore and New York. The novel has been described by some as an anti-American harangue. It’s not. The principal protagonist, Changez, loves Pakistan as much as he does New York, where he has worked. He is also in love with an American girl. The narrative is much too complicated to be anti-American.

How was it received in the US?
Well, it was a bestseller there. Changez seems to have a constant fear about a reprisal by India against Pakistan after the Parliament attack in 2001.

In away, isn’t the novel anti-Indian because of this paranoia?
Look, I want to be absolutely clear on this.. it’s not anti-India at all. As a Pakistani, when I look back to those days, India’s position was certainly aggressive towards the government of my country. Anyway, this doesn’t form a major
portion of the novel. Through my writings, I have constantly suggested there should be peace between the countries,
because the bottom line is that Indians are like Pakistanis.. and vice versa.

You travel on a Pakistani passport.. has the behaviour towards you changed in anyway after the success of The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
That’s an interesting point. I travel mostly with a British passport nowadays.Once I was in Delhi with a Pakistani passport. So I had to visit the police station every morning. Consequently, I could work.. write.. meet people only in the evenings. I call this the passport caste system. Such problems arise mostly for citizens of poor countries. And then of course, there’s been this all-pervasive suspicion of Muslims lately.

Although Indian authors are experiencing their big moments in literary circles, does it bother you that Pakistan hasn’t thrown up literary geniuses in recent decades?

Yes, that does bother me. In the 1980s, there was a sudden burst of Indian writers on the literary scene. But things are changing in Pakistan. I get many manuscripts from budding Pakistani writers every day. There will be a literary


boom among writers of my country sooner than later.

You’re 36 now. How difficult has it been to straddle the east and west?
I don’t think it’s easy living anywhere in the world. A guy from Delhi goes toMumbai and settles down.. a girl leaves her parents’ home to live with her husband and in-laws. There’s always this period of transition.. some are easy, some aren’t.

Don’t you feel a sense of belonging to Lahore?
(Laughs) I belong to Planet Earth. If you insist, I’d say it’s like asking which of your friends do you belong to.. you belong to each one of them equally. Right?

Living in London, with the well-paid job of a brand consultant, does Pakistan’s politics bother you really?
Oh, of course it does. As a writer, I’m part of the debate on Pakistan’s politics. I hope and pray that Pakistan re-establishes its democracy. The question is—how we can get there. It’s really hard to predict what will happen next in Pakistan, whether General Pervez Musharraf will step down or martial law will be imposed.. my dream is to see a stable Pakistan.

Ever felt like joining politics instead of theorising?
I don’t think I can run the house by doing that. Politics is about cutting power deals.. horse trading, to be precise. Maintaining one’s ideals would be difficult in politics.

Right now, there’s a leadership crisis in your country. Musharraf’s government hasn’t done any good for the people. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto face charges of corruption. Who should lead the country anyway?
There are leadership issues.. the choices are unattractive. I wish I had a clear answer.. except that let the people of Pakistan take on the initiative and produce new leaders. In any case, paradoxically the dictatorship in Pakistan has
allowed considerable freedom of expression. Pakistan newspapers and television are much more critical of our government than Indian media is of yours.

Which Indian authors do you like?
I don’t think I can take the liberty of making general statements on Indian writing.. it’s enormous. There are hundreds of writers in India, some of whom I’ve loved, some I haven’t even read. Among the new generation writers, I like Pankaj Mishra, Suketu Mehta and Kiran Desai. They are fabulous writers.

Pakistan loves Bombay movies.What about you?
Frankly, I’m not much into them.. my sister and wife are kind of more clued in. I have seen Sholay, Qurbani and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. I watch maybe one or two Hindi film in one or two years.