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Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

Taha Kehar interview: Meet the Pakistani author who is a feminist first

The writer is reinventing the contemporary Pakistani woman in his books, and he’s drawing some rave reviews!

brunch Updated: Jan 05, 2019 23:07 IST
Samreen Tungekar
Samreen Tungekar
Hindustan Times
Taha feels that women need to express their views candidly, not recklessly
Taha feels that women need to express their views candidly, not recklessly

Meet Tanya Shaukat, a young woman complaining about the Careem cab driver, a mother perpetually worried for her daughter’s safety. Her story begins in a newsroom and continues to a wedding hall, covering the formation and destruction of relationships in between.

Meet Taha Kehar, journalist and author, the creator of Tanya Shaukat, the heroine in his book titled Typically Tanya. The protagonist of the novel is female, but the book is about his experiences in a newsroom, his feminism and his observations of a woman’s relationship with public spaces in a city as prone to violence as Karachi.

In her voice

It would’ve been easier to write the story with a man’s perspective, Taha admits, but he believes he didn’t choose his protagonist. She chose him. “I was in the newsroom one night when Tanya’s voice entered my mind,” he says. “She complained about how she couldn’t trust her Careem driver. I typed out her words and pursued her line of thought.”

“I’m a feminist, because if I wasn’t, Tanya would be a very different person”

But even if he had the option, he wouldn’t have written his book from a man’s perspective. “Men have always had their say. Why have them hijack every narrative? I wouldn’t have been able to explore the themes that interested me if I hammered out a convenient account of a male journalist. Frankly, if I’d embarked on writing ‘Typically Taha’ or the like, I would have bored myself to death!”

Tanya smokes and flirts her way around her life, and has her honest moments just like any one does in real life. “Current affairs were my inspiration, because Tanya had something to say about them,” says Taha. “The Panama leaks, Imran Khan’s dharnas, Indo-Pak relations…these were subjects that couldn’t be ignored by a journalist. Such a backdrop helped me locate Tanya in a specific point in the city’s history.”

Not your idea of a woman

As a guy writing with a female voice, Taha was alerted to the possibility of ‘mansplaining’. Keeping the male voice out of the story was an integral part of writing it. “I didn’t want to create a testosterone-fuelled story where the protagonist’s voice would be stifled. In the process of churning out a 60,000-word magnum opus, we forget that we don’t have the agency to intrude in the lives of some of our characters and colour them with our perceptions.”

That meant he found himself clicking the ‘backspace’ button on his keyboard more often than he’d thought he would. “Some of my female colleagues also helped me define the parameters of her character. It was quite a challenge and I’m sure the exercise has produced mixed results. The only validation I’ve received so far is that everyone who read initial drafts of the novel thought it was written by a woman.” 

The Pakistani Millenial

As a 27-year-old, what does Taha think about the millennials of his country? “Older colleagues insist that I’m a millennial and I’ve been brushing off this label for a while now,” he says. “I guess it’s because most ‘millennials’ I’ve come across in Pakistan seem to be chasing after unrealistic and seemingly idealistic goals. They want satisfaction with minimal effort. I’ve always found that difficult to achieve. But most of them are confident and self-aware. They know their rights and are unafraid to enforce them when the time is right. Like most millennials around the world, the Pakistani millennial is a go-getter.”

Typically Tanya is Taha Kehar’s  hilarious chick-lit  where the protagonist, Tanya Shaukat, is trying to balance the modern with the traditional
Typically Tanya is Taha Kehar’s hilarious chick-lit where the protagonist, Tanya Shaukat, is trying to balance the modern with the traditional

Tanya, the protagonist of his book, is an opinionated, fearless woman. So what is it like, I ask, being that woman in today’s Pakistan?

“I believe it involves the ability to express your political views candidly (not recklessly) and without the fetters imposed by external forces. I’m a feminist, because if I wasn’t, Tanya would be a very different person,” he says.

In this era of women’s empowerment, Taha believes narratives that pander to Western sensibilities about Pakistan and portray the country through the blinkered lens of an outsider do more damage to their literary canon.

“I’ve always believed that stories written in a local literary idiom are far more relatable. As authors, we have a responsibility to present nuances in whatever way they present themselves to us,” he says.

The Indo-Pak common ground

In the book, Tanya has a fleeting romance with Inder, a visiting journalist from India.

Why this angle, amid all her romantic involvements?

“There is a difference between a conversation between states and a conversation between people. In many ways, Tanya’s friendship with Inder reflects how important the latter is. But their relationship shouldn’t be reduced to a sad commentary on how both countries can’t find common ground,” says Taha.

Taha’s had great friendships with Indians when he studied in London. “Perhaps it was easier because there wasn’t a clear-cut language barrier,” he says. “Although I said ‘yaqeen’ and they said ‘vishwas’, we still seemed to trust each other. We knew the lyrics of a DDLJ (1995) song and could croon them on request. We celebrated Eid, Holi and Diwali together. We were either overcompensating for all the bad blood or genuinely interested in each other’s way of life.”

He is aware that unity and compatibility between the two countries are fragile concepts but believes that whatever little art, books, culture and films can do to encourage the love is enough. “After all, you only need a steady flow of conversation to bring people closer,” he says.

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From HT Brunch, January 6, 2018

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First Published: Jan 05, 2019 20:18 IST

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