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Young Pak author making literary waves

Pakistani author Ali Sethi at 24, is one of the youngest literary sensations from the sub-continent. His book The Wish Maker was published this week.

books Updated: Jul 22, 2009 18:39 IST

The world is growing more interested in literature from Pakistan and Afghanistan because it wants to understand certain events that have taken place in the two countries, says Pakistani author Ali Sethi, 24, one of the youngest literary sensations from the sub-continent.

"President Barack Obama has introduced this Af-Pak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) strategy and lumped the two nations together. It is unfair. Pakistan should have been compared to India because so much is happening in my country," Sethi, who hails from Lahore, told IANS in an interview in the capital.

His book The Wish Maker was published this week.

Sethi, who majored from Harvard College in South Asian Studies in 2006, is the youngest writer from the sub-continent to debut on the prestigious Hamish Hamilton imprint, a 78-year-old British publishing house, joining the ranks of Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, John Updike, J.D. Salinger and Zadie Smith on the Hamilton list of authors.

He is also the first Hamish Hamilton author from the sub-continent. The imprint is now a part of Penguin Books-India.

Explaining the changes in Pakistan over the last two decades and its impact on writing, Sethi said: "Since 1984, the year I was born, General Zia's Pakistan has changed. My textbooks in school were different from those of my parents. I was taught a more Wahabi (orthodox) form of Islam. My parents were more secular. The identity that the state provided to people in my time was more Saudi Arabia-oriented. Saudi Arabia acted as a kind of NGO, funding education and religious institutions in Pakistan and imposing its code on them. As a result, the world became contained within the Indus itself," Sethi said.

"In the English language writing from Pakistan and Afghanistan, you find a rejection of this idea and a kind of grappling with a natural identity. The emphasis is on multiplicity, pluralism and tolerance," the writer said.

"The Wish Maker", Sethi says, is the story of a young man Zaki Shirazi, who returns to Lahore from New York to celebrate his "cousin and childhood companion" Samar Api's wedding.

Home is not what it used to be. Pervez Musharraf is in power and Lahore has seen too much too soon. Amid the flurry of wedding preparations, a lonely Zaki goes back to his past growing up as a fatherless boy in a house of outspoken women to narrate his journey and that of cousin Samar as children to adults.

"The story weaves in a family saga, characters that I have seen at home, Pakistan's history, turmoil of the partition and human relationships," says Sethi.

The first draft of the book was written in 2006 when Sethi was still in college. "I wrote a second draft in New York and the final draft in Lahore. The book, as a result, has several layers of discourses of the same place," Sethi said.

Part of the book, said Sethi, was fuelled by nostalgia.

"Massachusetts is a very cold place. During a spring vacation, when the campus was deserted, I remember listening to a Pakistani rock version of the raga 'Darbari'. It was soul-wrenching and I felt emotionally changed. As I walked around the campus listening to it on my i-pod for 10 days, it sowed the plot of a middle-class family in Lahore and their survival song. Pakistan has seen many booms - the prosperity that Musharraf promised had also been promised by Benazir Bhutto. And I started questioning," said Sethi, explaining the context of the book.

Sethi belongs to family of journalists.

"My father has been jailed three times and my mother is part of the women's movement in Pakistan. They publish a newspaper called the Friday Times," Sethi said.

The writer, who has read a lot of Indian Bhakti, Tamil and Bengali poetry; and wrote his thesis on "Anarkali" (Prince Salim's love), is now concentrating on Hindustani classical music.

"I am learning music from Ustad Nasseruddin Saami of the Delhi Gharana. Earlier, I trained under Farida Khanum. Its a multi-media world now, who knows I might even become a vocalist," said the writer, who also plans to do some "good old fashioned reporting".

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