Interview: Mira Sethi, author of Are You Enjoying?
The stories in Are You Enjoying? read like a kaleidoscope of contemporary Pakistan, with their characters walking the tightrope between tradition and modernity. How did you arrive at these stories? How long have they travelled with you?
It took me five years to write this book. I wrote Breezy Blessings after doing my first drama serial in Karachi. I flew back to Lahore, opened up my laptop, and feverishly wrote down a few lines that would later become the heart of the story — the friendship between Roshan and Mehak. I used to email myself thoughts and observations and placeholder openings. It was much later, after I’d finished the first draft of Breezy Blessings, that I began a Microsoft Word document and began taking myself seriously as a writer.
Your characters, both women and the young, struggle to navigate the challenges of a conservative and patriarchal society, sometimes at great personal costs. How important was it for you to dwell on their quests for individuality and autonomy, to portray them as trying to emerge from the straitjackets imposed on them by the conventional society?
It’s one of the central tensions in the book — characters navigating the expectations placed on them by society, by parents, by a large surveillance State. If I had to coin a genre for the title story, it would be Surveillance Romance. My book is about characters improvising identities as they go along as a form of survival, protection, and creativity. In the process, unlikely friendships and allyships emerge; little ecosystems of resilience. There are few things worse than your body and your life — decisions around who to love, whom to marry — being policed by the State, or by controlling or manipulative family members (who wield a lot of power in South Asia!).
Most of these stories are steeped in the ideas of love, sexuality and class. Did you set out to work on these stories with a broad thematic range?
The intersection of class, sexuality, and power intrigues me. A Life of Its Own (Part I) is a story about generational conflict, and change, and the slow march of progress. The younger generation, Kashif and Farah, critique ZB for her hypocritical ways. And, yet, a lot of people have written to me to say that ZB is their favourite character! She’s real, she has problems, but she’s also constantly trying to do better by herself. Her use of “one” — “One has vastly improved the lives of the poor” — paints her with tragi-comic faux gravitas, but she also cares about the women of Maujpur, because her own ambitions were, as we later learn, thwarted by her father. Similarly, in Tomboy, Zarrar and Asha decide to marry each other in order to keep their sexualities a secret. But is their marriage a cycnical arrangement? No. In a spiteful world, they find safe harbour in each other.
Like those of Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ali Akbar Natiq, your stories present a picture of Pakistan that is close to reality. They break away from the mould the West has cast Pakistan in and are also unburdened of any effort to present a particular image of Pakistan to the West. Did you have a specific readership in mind?
I didn’t have a readership in mind — I write only about what intrigues me, or sparks my interest. It’s the only way to write! But, yes, I was sick of those single-note stories about Islam and terrorism. After 9/11, the West wanted “answers” to questions like “Why Do They Hate Us?” from writers from “Af-Pak”. Remember that awful foreign-policy shorthand? You enact violence upon a people when you tell a single story. I wanted to tell everyday quotidian stories — bursting with contradiction and flavour and meaning, the nodes where real hidden desires lurk. But I also didn’t want to sidestep the violence and rage and frustration of my characters. They are angry and struggling, but they are not passive victims.
In your stories, we get a glimpse into the inner self of the characters. The epigraph quotes from an important work from the Jamesian canon, What Maisie Knew: “...the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment?” Did you consciously work on this intrinsic aspect of the stories, lending them an intimate layer?
Performance and concealment are important themes in the book. Some of the characters in Are You Enjoying? are professional performers, but even the folks who aren’t actors or actresses, are chameleon-like. Why? Read the book to find out!
Your other epigraph quotes lyrics from a Hindi film, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: Zara Sa Jhoom Loon Mein. Has Bollywood been an influence?
The juxtaposition of Henry James and the lyrics from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was a nod to the dual sensibilities of the book: psychologism realism with a dollop of camp! As far Bollywood is concerned, I love the work of Zoya Akhtar. Love her films, love Made in Heaven.
Is the Pakistani TV industry still a vibrant space for storytellers and actors?
The high point of the Pakistani television industry was ironically in the late 1980s when drama serials like Dhoop Kinare and Tanhaiyaan were being made, with sassy and independent heroines. Now, there is a lot of bawling on Pakistani TV. Some of my actress friends are getting into production, which is a wonderful development. As in India, the web offers an alternate space for more radical stories to be told.
Do you see your various roles as a journalist, a writer and actor as mutually inclusive?
Writing and acting open up distinct avenues for storytelling. They are both vehicles of control and vulnerability. Often, in writing, control will get you far. As an actor, vulnerability will take you farther.
Nawaid Anjum is a freelance feature writer, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.