It is difficult to reconcile Mohammed Hanif, the author of the biting, satirical A Case of Exploding Mangoes, with the soft-spoken, unassuming man sitting across the table from me. Fueled almost exclusively, it seems, by cups of black coffee and nicotine, Hanif is almost painfully easy to talk to yet, as a friend once put it, interviewing him is a little bit like “trying to nail jelly to a wall”.
It does not take me long to realise that this is because Hanif has no real agenda. Incredibly candid, he deflects questioning inadvertently because he does not try to hide anything, leaving anyone seeking his deep dark secrets completely disarmed. What you see is what you get and, in this case, what you get is an individual who, despite his avowals to the contrary, seems to have an uncanny knack for writing about topics that electrify the imagination and well before anyone even realises that they could be ‘issues’ for discussion.
“I don’t know if it’s me that’s messed up, or the times that we live in,” he says quietly when asked about how his novels seem to correlate to ‘hot topic’ items. A Case of Exploding Mangoes was published just as a fascination with the roots of the Taliban and Pakistani complicity from the Zia years became noticeable. His new novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, is almost diametrically opposed to his last book; it is, as he puts it, a love story first and foremost but its eponymous protagonist, Alice Bhatti, is a female Christian nurse in Pakistan. In the light of events in 2011, from the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti (governor of Punjab and minister for minority affairs, respectively), it is easy to see a corollary between Hanif’s work and the current wave of theological zealotry that sweeps across Pakistan with depressing regularity.
“It takes about a year once you’re done writing,” Hanif continues, “to go through the publishing cycle. So I started writing this book four years ago, right after I finished the last one, and it went to the publishers last year. All this started happening and I thought, oh no … it’s going to be like I’ve been writing about this with some sort of agenda. There’s no agenda! It’s a love story and one of the characters happens to be a Christian. I can shout from the rooftops that it’s not a ‘minority’ story but I’m also somewhat reconciled to the idea that people are going to read whatever they want into it.” He shrugs, adding, “If I have the right, as an author, to write about whatever I want then my readers also have the right to read my work any way they choose … you can’t dictate the meaning that you want them to take away from it.”
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti will be available in Pakistan and the UK in September. When asked why his publications have to go through Random House India, Hanif sighs heavily. Surely, I go on warming to my cause, given how Pakistan-specific his work is, there must be someone willing to publish his books here? “I tried desperately to get my last book published in Pakistan,” he says, starting on his second cup of black coffee. Clearly, the way to get answers here is to keep him well-caffeinated. “But no one would publish it; some of the bigger presses just didn’t consider it, some of the smaller, private ones had excuses: oh, our printers have read the book and won’t publish it; or our marketing people think it’s not going to work out, so it’s not really feasible for us to do this.” He starts laughing. “When this [his second novel] was done, I went to a publisher again here, the largest local publisher, and the only question they asked me was ‘oh, it’s not like your first book, is it?’ and I couldn’t believe them. I just didn’t bother after that. I mean, of course you want your book coming out here first, it’s natural, but when no one is willing to help you to accomplish that, then at some point you have to move on.”
The problem, he notes, with writing books is that people don’t always understand how fiction is just that: fiction. “At the most”, he chuckles, “all I can be accused of is having a uniform fetish, what between the military characters and the nurses. When I wrote my first novel, I sat there and wondered who would want to read about Zia? There’s no real interest outside the occasional op-eds, he’s been forgotten about. It’s not as though the Taliban wander around with pictures of him on placards. I thought I’d just go off the beaten path; I was there in the Zia years, I really lived through them so I was obsessing about something that I recognised as irrelevant. You just happen to be influenced by the times you live in, past and present.”
And clearly sometimes, I point out, you happen upon the future. Religious and ethnic groups in Pakistan are being marginalised to an incredible extent; people who stand up for what they believe in are killed brutally and their murderers are extolled as heroes and defenders of a faith that seems to need blood to maintain its sanctity. The trend towards Pakistan becoming a theocracy was lent momentum by Zia’s governance and rewriting of the legal code, so it is easy to see the links between both novels. When I pause for breath, he asks me very seriously, how old I am. “Oh God,” he says, when I tell him. “You’re so young. I don’t know why I’ve been taking you so seriously all this time.” I feel flattered for a moment. “But you don’t seem so young. Look, think about it this way.” He stops and lights another cigarette. “What is marginalised here? What isn’t? Especially here, in Pakistan, we don’t know what ‘marginalised’ means any more, anyone and everyone and everything can fall into that category.”
He is frank about the timing of his novel, admitting easily that if he had still been in the process of writing Our Lady of Alice Bhatti now, he would have stopped. “I probably wouldn’t have written it; or maybe I’d have done it as a non-fiction piece. It’s too immediate and in your face to sit down and think ‘Oh hang on, there’s all this terrible stuff going on, let me just mine it for my fiction.’ But it’s not unusual — this was a hot topic four or five months ago but what’s happening now? I don’t think it really is any more, even though the issues haven’t gone away. This was a really hot topic some months ago, but now…?” his voice trails off.
“When you get to my age, you start to regress and all these childhood memories come back. When I went to school, in Okara, all of us children and our families, we knew one another. And I was pretty competitive as a kid — at least until I was 16 or 17, then I don’t know what happened,” Hanif says. “Anyway, there were these two Christian children who were always doing really well, always at the top of the class. But we just knew – all of us, mind you – that they weren’t really going to go anywhere, literally or figuratively, after class five. They all started working then and I don’t think any of us even knew how to vocalise this but we all just knew that we were going to move on.”
It is these unspoken myths around minorities that Hanif is struck by. In the case of his old classmates, it was just an understood fact of life, this comprehension that there was an expiry date attached. “I think that may happen with this book,” he says quietly. “People will probably think that I’ve written about a Christian nurse because once upon a time, as far as we can all remember, it was very common for nurses to be from the Christian community. But look around now: this isn’t common. The world has moved on, nursing is a competitive field, your mainstream Muslim girls and boys are competing to get these jobs. The reality doesn’t match with the archetype and I think it’ll be hard for people to break away from that.”
When I point out that writing a novel about a Christian nurse might feed into that stereotype, Hanif is characteristically disarming. “It wasn’t that. You know, my mother had cancer when I was in my late teens and I spent all this time in the hospital with her. There would be nurses doing late-night rounds and I had these hazy recollections.” He stubs out his cigarette and looks up. “Sometimes when something really bad happens, you remember one particular detail; it’s like a way to deflect. I remember those nurses, sort of all rolled up into one kind person. It never occurred to me before but I’ve almost blocked out the image of my mother sick; I remember other little details of the place. I think that’s why I chose to write about a Christian nurse, not because I was trying to reinforce a stereotype or be ironic. It’s just something that I remember so well, something that has stayed with me.”
He reminds me again that Our Lady of Alice Bhatti doesn’t actually have an agenda: that it is a book, a story; that he is not trying to be a spokesperson for anyone or any group. “I’m a special correspondent for the BBC”, he points out. “My job – vague though this may sound – is to work for the BBC, to be the person they contact when they want to know more about Pakistan.” This is, he reiterates, something that drives his writing.
“In some ways, it’s harder to write now, than when I was living in London. There, I had a proper office job and when your life is somewhat structured, you’re forced to carve out time between work and commuting and everything else — and you actually use it and value it. Now, there are days when I have hours to myself and my wife [the actress, Nimra Bucha] is busy with her television work and I’m relaxed. Almost too relaxed!”
I wonder if this is a hint that a next novel may be delayed. Hanif cracks a smile. “I’m sure there are people out there who think ‘I will write a novel about X’ and then they do it. Me, I’m too haphazard. Something will catch my fancy and I’ll scribble something down and then it’ll all just sort of come. At least, I hope it will.”