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‘Pakistan-India should have more literary connect’

Says Pakistani author Fatima Bhutto, citing literature as one of the ways to bridge the ‘impenetrable borders’ separating the two countries

books Updated: Nov 09, 2018 15:22 IST
Fatima,Bhutto,India
Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto(Getty Images)

Publishing a book is not a rare feat, but publishing one when you are just 15 years old, is. And that is exactly what Fatima Bhutto did. Bhutto’s first book, Whispers Of The Desert, was published in 1997. But what catapulted her to literary fame was her non-fiction work, Songs Of Blood And Sword (2011). The book, an account of her father Murtaza Bhutto’s death, not only shook the world but also cemented her position as a prominent South Asian novelist. A member of Pakistan’s prominent Bhutto family, Fatima spent a large part of her life shuttling between cities. Subsequently, her works reflect her upbringing, which she effortlessly weaves into her stories. “I feel deeply for all of the characters in my books. There’s a lot of me in all of them (characters in her stories), actually,” she says. Her latest novel, The Runaways (published by Penguin Random House), is about the lives of three individuals (Sunny, Monty and Anita) living in different parts of the world; all facing an identity crisis and the pressures of identifying what is right and wrong. Excerpts:

You published your first book when you were 15 years old. Were you always sure that you wanted to be an author?

I always dreamed of being a writer and loved books from a very young age. I remember the first time my father took me to a library. He treated the whole occasion with a lot of solemnity and wonder — it was like we were making a holy pilgrimage of some sort, entering the hallowed halls of a temple. That feeling has always stayed with me, that awe and that joy.

Do you completely concentrate on finishing the work at hand or do you also work on other projects simultaneously?

For me, it always begins with a disturbance. Something you can’t get out of your head, which stays there, pulling you closer and closer, until you surrender and start to follow it. There is planning, certainly, and I do have a sense of the map ahead, but it constantly changes form and shape. With The Runaways, I began with Sunny and Monty and the idea of two boys walking in a desert. I knew where they were going and where they had come from. But that was as far as I could plan. They surprised me constantly.

I need a great deal of space when I’m working and I work secretly, quietly. I normally do one thing at a time but it does happen that you write smaller pieces or interventions on the side. The Runaways took me four years (to complete), so, I did have other things moving and percolating towards the end, but this novel had my heart the whole way through.

The Runaways is a departure from your previous works, most being non-fiction. What prompted you to pen a fiction? Did the success of The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon play a part?

I feel at home in fiction. The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon was my first time writing fiction and when I finished writing that novel, I was lonely in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. Usually, to finish a book is a relief. You finally have some space away from a project that has consumed all your waking thoughts and dreams. You’re free to think of other things and play with new ideas. But when I finished The Shadow…, for the first time, I didn’t feel any relief. I felt desolate. So I kept writing and it was fiction that had the power to lift that loneliness.

Do you feel your previous works helped you write a better non-fiction? The ideas of religious extremism, the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and generation gaps, are something you have explored in your previous works. All these are weaved in The Runaways.

That’s a very good question and yes, I suppose you’re right. But those threads get woven in subconsciously sometimes. I was thinking a great deal about radicalism so that was intentional. However, something like social media, for example, which I have a love-hate relationship with, snuck its way into The Runaways under the cover of night. Writing is such a solitary act. It’s a very lonely and personal work. When you sit with your thoughts for hours every day, you often betray them on the page. If you don’t, you battle them in other ways - by un-imagining and reimagining.

Of the three major characters in your book — two are from Karachi and one from London, places you have lived in — whom do you relate the most with? There has to be a little bit of you in these characters.

There is a lot of me in all of them actually. I feel deeply for all of the characters in the book and I sympathise and struggle alongside them. But Sunny was always my favourite, right from the start. I knew he was the most difficult and the most painful to empathise with, and so I loved him more. I am attached to all of them — it’s like literary Sophie’s choice, asking ‘if you could save only one, which of your children which would you choose?’. But that said, Sunny and Anita are high on my list too.

And do you feel even after that, South Asians feel secluded in society? Considering how Sunny despite being fully British somehow starts feeling different from his peers and later is convinced that England is not his home.

Yes we do, I think all of us in the diaspora, globally, feel this way to some degree. Having been colonised, having been cast out by centres of power, demeaned by the industrial behemoths even as they plundered our lands and starved our people to feed their own — those are wounds that don’t just vanish. They remain with us. When you see how, decades later, the West has its gaze trained firmly on itself, never to the world around it, you can’t help but feel alienated. Plus, with our borders as high and impenetrable as they are, it’s more important than ever that Indians have access to Pakistani literature and that we have access to yours.

What is your take on the current South Asian authors? Anyone you feel is particularly exciting? Any recent read you were impressed with?

One of the best books I read this year is Sanam Maher’s The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch. I think Sanam is the most exciting writer in Pakistan at the moment and am a keen reader of her work. Sonia Faleiro’s approach to work is also so impressive, she is a great narrative non-fiction writer, who takes her time with her work. That patience and attention to prose really shows. Sunjeev Sahota is English, but of South Asian origin and his two novels are both stunning books, I read them with awe. Also, I’ve just gotten Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds, which I’m really looking forward to reading.

First Published: Nov 09, 2018 15:21 IST