Liberalism and optimism rarely go hand in hand in Pakistan. Cynicism and lack of confidence in past present and future of Pakistan often accompanies modernity here. Distorted history is lamented, gloomy present is mourned and future is predicted as dark by many among intelligentsia of Pakistan. No wonder, in such situation when one meets a writer who is a staunch democrat and a liberal at heart and still speaks about Pakistan with sparkle in his eyes, one can think of few more pleasurable experiences. Mohsin Hamid is one such figure. Gloomy subjects, from drug addiction to fanaticism to class struggles, when are borne by his pen become easy to hear and talk about. The very issues which are actually everyday problems have become taboos in conservative Pakistani society. Hamid makes these proscribed issues appear like “emergent problems ready to be discussed and solved.”

 

An illustrious writer from Pakistan, Hamid has attained a global reputation at a very young age. When asked about how he feels about his accomplishments, he replies with a smile, “I do not find myself that accomplished.”

 

Born in Pakistan, Hamid spent his life moving between the USA and his motherland, graduating from prestigious American schools and studying under as eminent teachers as Toni Morrison. He later settled in the UK for 8 years, getting a dual nationality but all his tales refer back to Pakistan more than any place else. He traces all his formulating experiences too back to Pakistan. “As a child, I used to read books and watch movies. When I was growing up in Lahore, PTV would come on air on may be 4 or 5 in the afternoon and it would shut like at 11’O clock at night with Qoumi Tarana and there was no other TV channel. Sometimes we twisted antenna to barely get Dur Darshan from Amritsar, but basically we only had PTV. PTV shows in Zia era were not very exciting either. There were mostly instruction programs or news. For the kid it was not really fun.

 

“At night, however, they would have one hour of some American TV show like Night Rider which was so much fun.” His bright eyes shine a little more and he carries on. “There were really good Pakistani dramas back then like Tanhaiyan and Ankahi and Dhoop Kinare but all these shows too were on aired at night. There was no internet as well so you just sat around with friends, hung out or you read books and I think all that time of doing nothing and reading books that was one of the biggest ways forward to get experience. I read comic books. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy books.”

 

Talking about Pakistan with so much enthusiasm and writing about Pakistan all the time and yet no works in Urdu!!! When I ask him why then he tells me the story which is my favorite by this author “I have thought about writing in Urdu but my Urdu is not that good. I learnt Urdu and Punjabi as my first languages. I didn’t speak any English at all. When I was three years old, my father who was a university professor moved to California for his PhD and we went along. One day while I was playing outside, my mother heard some crying and she came out and found me weeping in front of the very next house. All the houses looked exactly the same and I felt I was lost. I didn’t know how to get to my house and I could not ask anybody as I knew no English. The other kids were like, what’s wrong with him? Why can’t he speak? Is he retarded? And my mother told them that he can speak, he just does not speak English.

 

“For one month after that I didn’t say a word and my parents were bit worried too. But I took my time and when I next spoke, I spoke in English and that too in full sentences and for the next six years we were to live in the States and I would speak in English. I came back to Lahore when I was 9 and only when I came back that my parents realized that I had forgotten my Urdu. So I had to relearn my Urdu. In short, I got my Urdu back at the age of 9 so for that reason my Urdu isn’t great. That’s why I can’t write novels in Urdu. It’s not because I choose to write so!”

 

Sensitive and resolute as our writer seems to be from this story, it does not come as surprise that he grew up to be a writer, “It was in college that I thought maybe I would like to be a writer but to be honest very recently did I think that maybe I could just write books. I wrote short stories when I was in college and I started writing Moth Smoke then.”

 

Experimenting as he always does with his work; it took him years to bring the three novels of to the front. “It took 7 years to write Moth Smoke, 7 years to The Reluctant Fundamentalist and 6 years to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”

 

Mohsin Hamid’s Changez from “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” seems to be even more ardent speaker for Pakistanis than the writer himself. Many wonder if the book is a defense for Pakistan! “Some people say that it actually is an attack. Many people say that they don’t like it because they think that it portrays all Pakistanis as terrorists and I often tell them that the novel actually says something very different. So, some people see it is an attack and others see it as a defense. I don’t mean it as a defense or as an attack. I mean to show that the simple stereotypes are not useful it is better to think in a much more complicated way about people.”

 

One popular story is that Mohsin Hamid had already started working on The Reluctant Fundamentalist before 9/11. Post 9/11 not only the story changed a bit but the novel also became much more relevant. I lightly asked him if he felt fortunate about that, “I wish it had not happened. The whole thing has been a disaster for America, for Pakistan, for people all over the world, not just 9/11 but also what happened after 9/11. I wish it had not happened but as far as my book is concerned, post 9/11 it became totally different story, people related to it in strikingly different way. It changed everything but funnily enough the story is till kind of the same story.”

 

One particular thing about Mohsin Hamid’s writings is that in all three novels he has used different writing techniques. The first one sees multiple narratives, the second one employs dramatic monologue and third one talks to the second person. This though very peculiar, is not the only deliberate technique employed by the writer. The female protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Erica, very much resembles to the host country America. This reminds many readers of colonial literature, which compared far off lands of Asia and Africa to alluring women who drained life from young Englishmen. In postcolonial narrative, it seems that the roles are reversed. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems to be very characteristically postcolonial in this regard. Many people see it as “ The Empire Writing Back to the Centre.”

 

“In a sense The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel which has a Pakistani guy speaking to somebody who seems like an American stranger so it naturally feels like the Empire writing back to the Centre. But my other two novels are not like that. So, there is some element of writing back to the center but more importantly than writing back to the center is that probably every place is the center. We can’t tell people anymore that my place is center and yours is not. Lahore, Karachi, New York, Rahimyar Khan, every place has the right to be the center but the way power and politics happen, we don’t let people have that. For example if you look just at Pakistan, too often we see a federation which tells provinces what to do then we have provinces that tell the city governments what to do. Then there is city government which itself is pulled away from the local too. Everything is very centralized.”

 

Mohsin Hamid uses many techniques in his writing which are escapes or invisible relief for the reader. “I think that in a way when you are making a novel, you are building a path for the reader to go down. On that path you can build or imagine exits and the readers reading this thing may find a sentence or a name or some idea and that takes them into a different set of thoughts. I like to build as many exits as I can in my writing so that readers can explore their own things. I think a novel lets a reader play. As a writer what I try to do is to build things for my readers to play with. It’s like making an amusement park.”

 

Mohsin Hamid does not only give his readers a chances to escape into their own set of thoughts while they are in his amusement park or “joy land,” as he puts it, he even lets them decide the ending of the novel. “I think that a novel is not something that a writer makes and a reader takes. It is something that happens when a writer and a reader come together. A novel is actually a novel when it is being read so the reader should play a role in the novel and part of that role can be deciding the ending would be.”

 

A writer so particular about his writings must not be happy about a movie based on his book. But Hamid himself is the part of the film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” because he thinks that “the movies and the novels are completely different things. A novel is something that readers make with half the work by the writer and half the work by the reader. A movie is more fully made. It looks like the world. It’s been imagined much more for the audiences. So we shouldn’t say that it is the movie of the book. It’s not actually. It’s the movie that was inspired by reading the book and it will be its own thing.”

 

 

An avid reader as Hamid has always been, he has many favorite writers. Knowing that while writing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he had in mind “The Fall” of Albert Camus, I grabbed the opportunity to ask about his local favorite writers, “Manto is one of my favorite writers. Among other Pakistani writers writing in English there are many who are doing great work, Muhammad Hanif, Daniyal Moienuddin, Kamila Shamsie, H. M. Naqvi.”

 

I ask the vivacious author, would he like to be a critic for his contemporaries! He replies, “No I would not!” He reasserts, “I would not like to be a critic for my contemporaries because it’s not an easy life in the arts. Trying to create something is difficult anyway. It’s particularly difficult in Pakistan because in many ways we are not open to expression. So I would not like to say things that are negative! Why would I like to add negativity into other people’s lives? I have a point of view about things. I may discuss ideas privately but I would not criticize others openly.”

 

 

I ask him about his personal favorite book, “They are all equally dear to me but Moth Smoke is the special one because of being the first one.

 

He has instead many bright things to say about Pakistani arts and artists, “Despite the effort to make Pakistan more closed and less pluralistic state, the arts are completely continuing to express varied point of views. And they probably will because they always have, for example, look at Lahore! Who is Data Sahib, he is a thousand years old writer.” He carries on enthusiastically referring to art and architecture in the country, “There you have Minaret Pakistan and you have the fort and you have Badshahi Mosque and you have Iqbal’s tomb who was a writer too. History of this city is the history of writers, artists and singers. Who was Anarkali, she was a dancer. There is nothing new here. Lahore and Pakistan have been producing the arts forever and I hope they always will.”

 

Known as quite friendly among journalist community, Hamid is a very sought after figure. He will reply to as many questions as you ask. I even kept him from lunch at peripheries of Lahore Literary Festival, yet he thinks writers should speak a little less. “I think sometimes you need to just shut up…as a writer. You keep on talking and talking and talking and half of what you say is nonsense and you start believing your own nonsense so it’s good to be just quiet and say that I don’t know anything. Why am I being asked to say stuff?” We both share a laugh at his interesting ‘sort of confession’. Well, he may humbly call it nonsense but his opinion is very much valued.

 

During our conversation, a lady who had been sitting in the same room with another young girl, comes forward and greets Hamid appreciating his work and introducing herself as Fehmida Riaz. Hamid warmly responds. When we resume the conversation, he starts by appreciating the Literature Festivals for bringing people together, saying “I think it’s lovely! This is nice the thing about the festivals. I did not know that Fehmida Riaz was sitting right in front of me.”

 

Hamid is already working on his new novel as he says “I am writing. Yes! This is how I make living.” However, he is not going to give that away yet “I am not going to tell because I think that when you talk about it you are less desperate to do it but if you cannot talk about it then you are keener to finish it and bring it out.”

 

The author associates himself with America and England too saying that part of him is New Yorker and part Londoner, “Living in Lahore I feel that I am both a local and a foreigner. I feel like that in New York and London as well. It is a good thing for a writer. People assume that you are like everybody else but inside you feel different and that makes you ask questions and it makes you try to figure things out. But interestingly you don’t have to go abroad to feel this way. Many people live in the same place their whole life and still feel like that like that!”

 

Having fan following all over the world and having stayed in the States and the UK too, Hamid still feels rooted in Pakistan, he has amazing reasons to be in Lahore “My mother, my daughter Dina’s dadi speaks to her in Punjabi. We also speak to Dina in Urdu. In schools she studies in English and her nani speaks to her in Italian. So what I like about being here is that my kids get to have all these experiences. May be being here is the most selfish thing too. I like my kids to be Pakistanis and if they grow up here they will be Pakistanis.”

 

It’s needless to say that this is moving, what I would like to add is that Mohsin Hamid is as brilliant a talker as he is a writer. While interviewing him, I have it on my mind all the time that I am missing on his newest novel. So on my way back I grab his third book which is unputdownable like its predecessors.