By: Zoha Fareed Chishti
At 10 PM on 16th of December 2020, in a relatively quiet corner of my house, I sit facing my laptop screen. I get a notification, “Changez is in the waiting room.” I click on admit. A few seconds later, Mohammed Hanif, author, journalist, and professor, appears on my screen. On the wall behind him I see a clock, it is noon at his end.
I thank him for taking out time to speak to me, amidst his busy schedule. He laughs and tells me to bring out the questions for him. “Toh batayen,” he says, as he takes a bite out of his breakfast.
I ask Hanif what he thinks about his works being labelled as being “about home, written from away [from home], in the same line as say, Kamila Shamsie or Mohsin Hamid.” We can hear his children speaking at the back, as he replies, “Uh, I have no idea.” Hanif says he understands that some novelists are ‘immigrant writers’– they are born somewhere, they leave that place, move away, and then they write about home from where they live, but since he has never really left home, he does not know what label his works fall under.
“Home is all you have,” he says, “family is always your biggest playground. You have friends, enemies, you live there, you die there.” His children continue to speak at the back, he smiles and scratches his forehead. Hanif believes home is the greatest subject to write about, whether you are at home or away.
Hanif was criticised for setting his latest book, Red Birds, out of Pakistan. He tells me it is flattering when people read with such diligence, and have questions, and critiques– they want to know the reason for everything. It makes me happy, he says, and then adds, “I assume fiction is about writing about anything, and about anywhere.” He does not have the answer as to why he has to restrict his stories spatially. “Sometimes a story is about a certain mohalla, so you want to name it. Sometimes you do not want to name it.” Hanif explains that specifying your setting is a choice. He believes when you are writing about war we do not have to choose to name the place to write about it, “There is war in the South, we have lived it, it is in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, we tell the story [how we want] today.”
Hanif’s works have been associated with challenging a lot of taboos. I ask him what goes through his mind, when he is working on a piece of fiction, and whether questioning certain notions is a priority. “There is something called loitering,” He answers, “without [clear] intent. I think that is also a crime.” He smiles, and continues, “You are hanging out in the street corner, maybe with an intention to do something bad, you have not done it yet. Writing is a bit like that.” He tells me he hears a voice in his head, and then spends a few years with that voice trying to find out what is going on with it, and if there is a story, he tells it. He does not understand what taboo is anymore. Writing fiction itself is a taboo itself, he muses. “I am trying to sell my own word to the world, [the world] does not need it, it is useless. That is the ultimate taboo.” He laughs and says that a grown up man sitting aside and making up stories is admittedly pretty silly, but he does it because he likes it.
When I ask Hanif whether his work in journalism clashes with his writing style, which has been influenced by fiction, he laughs and tells me, “In idea, in journalism, you just write what you saw. You faithfully and honestly report. But, news today is full of wonderful fiction.” In his understanding, journalists today are the biggest fiction writers. When he started work, there was tension between fiction and journalism, “‘Don’t mix it up,’ we were told, when I was working in print media.” But today, it is completely different. My eyes wander to a black and and white floral painting on his wall. According to him, cooked up fiction passes off as news, so the tension between writing styles is no longer relevant.
Hanif walks me through his reliance on satire. “My sarkaari education background made Urdu and Punjabi, performers and comedians my first influences.” They always used a certain way of looking at things, talking about the most serious matters of life, summed up in little jokes. Pakistanis have been through most difficult times, and we have survived it by making fun of it. He tells me it was a natural choice for him, “It is a very Pakistani way of dealing–take away the terror of it by making light of it.” He goes to his window, opens it, and lights up his cigarette.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, intended as a love story, has aged as a commentary on the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan. I ask him about the importance of writer’s intent, and whether it matters. Hanif tells me that he sees writing as a very intimate act, “You spend years with it, and no one really knows what you are doing.” Reading, he also, believes to be just as personal and intimate. “Book banda akela he parhta hai. [It is a] lonely act,” he looks around, sighing. He continues, “I think it is fair that everyone reads [fiction] differently, because every reader brings their own life, and experiences [to the story].” The joys of being read, Hanif admits, is being perceived in different ways. As a fiction writer, he has no complaints about readers interpreting his stories in ways he had himself not conceived.
His book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, has been on the shelves for over ten years, unbothered. In January 2020, after his novel was translated into Urdu, it suffered at the hands of censorship. The translated copies were seized from shelves days after coming out. Hanif expresses his confusion over this, “I did not get it.” The book was first translated five years back, but the publishers were reluctant. He recalls the publishers telling him, “Sometimes, it takes them ten years to get the joke.” He laughed, and told him that finally they had gotten the joke– and hence, the censorship.
As an afterthought, Hanif adds that he believes there is a lot more censorship in Pakistan today than there was a decade ago. I ask him about the future of free media and journalism in the country. He looks out the window, thinks for a moment, and then replies, “There are moments when I think there is no hope.” As a journalist, or a story-teller, you are scared, not just for yourself, but the people you are writing about, because the trouble is ever present. In such cases, there is an inclination towards self-censorship, when people’s lives are at stake. “There is, say, a professor in jail, for false blasphemy charges, and their family does not want you to tell the story.” Hanif believes that people being scared to tell their own stories, that’s more worrying than state enforced censorship.
Hanif tells me he is hopeful for the future. Writing, as an art, keeps evolving. Story-telling, Hanif maintains, can never die. He says forms change; newspapers went from print to online, novels and short stories keep changing, it is a process in transition. “The basic need to tell stories, and hear stories from others, can never die.”
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