Photo courtesy: Lahore University of Management Sciences
Photo courtesy: Lahore University of Management Sciences

Herald. You have and continue to lead many interesting lives – lawyer, academic, reform expert – so what persuaded you to become a novelist?

Osama Siddique. The short answer is – ennui. I have a bad habit of getting rather fed up with whatever I am doing every few years or so. The more elaborate response is that I wanted to say various things, explore certain ideas, depict certain situations, experiment with certain forms and tell a few stories – and it is only the remarkable scope and large-heartedness of fiction that allows one to be able to undertake this. Neither a writ petition nor a policy brief nor an academic treatise lent itself to what I wanted to do i.e. talk about a fifth century Buddhist monk contemplating the nature of evil and a Mughal emperor reflecting on the transience of life and a 21st century petty criminal sustaining a long-distance romance over a cell phone while fleeing the law, and other such things, all in one book. In my other writing, I have been exploring various ideas analytically, and even sociologically, but I also wanted to explore them aesthetically and emotionally and even spiritually.

I have long been an avid reader of fiction and had always wanted to write fiction. But you know you can’t force these things. It is like infatuation, or measles, or senility, or love. It happens when it happens. And when it happens it happens.

Now of course the world of fiction, too, is inhabited by some incredibly boring people who write incredibly dull books. I am very wary of them. These are stern, didactic and troubled people who want to rein in imagination and make the boundless spirits of writers subservient to some imaginary authority of fiction defined by their nonsensical boundaries and stultified rules. Mind you, I am not undervaluing the skill and craft dimensions of fiction but to me the essential ability to tell a story and to tell it well as well as to engage with profound ideas in an engaging manner is what makes good fiction – not blind adherence to a checklist of formulaic edicts and stock ‘good writing’ principles. If one possesses an indentured mindset despite ostensibly proclaiming to be a liberated soul – a writer – one is better off in the legal profession. So fiction for me has meant greater freedom as well as the enormous joy, which the process of writing fiction brings with it. And to those to whom writing fiction brings no joy and whose fiction is also joyless I strongly recommend writing writ petitions or policy briefs or academic treatises. I can assure them that they will be ultimately cured.

Herald. Though it is unfair to ask about a few, are there any books and authors that inspired you in particular?

Siddique. Too many to name. We are all telling and retelling stories – adding something here, embellishing something there, and every once in a while saying something new or in a novel fashion – formulated and influenced by millennia of storytelling. Hence, my debt, and that of others of my ilk, is owed to innumerable people. These range from long-forgotten fireside storytellers who regaled their audiences in caravanserais on the margins of trackless deserts or arid mountain ranges as well as modern day masters such as the famous dastan go Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar who were the compilers of the marvelous epic tale Tilism-e-Hoshruba as we know it today.

From those who first imagined the tales of Alif Laila to that raja of lyricists Tulsidas to the diligent chroniclers of the Jatakas to the Hindu mystics and Sufi poets of Hindustan to the multiple other gifted storytellers across the length and breadth of South Asia and the adjacent lands, it is a deep and nourishing stream from which all of us who profess to be writers drink deep. It is truly humbling to think of all the great epic storytellers, poets, playwrights and novelists who have left their indelible mark and hence I find it hard to pinpoint only a few – for me this entire luxurious tapestry is inspiring. At the cost of not specifying many, the extraordinary Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder in particular has been an important early influence, as have been several additional local writers. Another abiding inspiration has been the remarkable tradition of Urdu verse that moves me like no other verse or prose does.

Herald. Snuffing Out the Moon is altogether unique for it simultaneously pursues six different and yet multifariously connected storylines, set in periods ranging from 2084 BCE to 2084 CE. And all of these largely play out over the areas comprising Sindh and Punjab. Why these specific time periods and also these specific places? Have they always held a fascination for you since you were a child?

Siddique. This is the land I grew up in and the heritage I call my own. I am incredibly proud of this pluralist, diverse, syncretic and millennia old heritage that truly enriches my life and makes me who I am. This is also the heritage of everyone who lives in South Asia and thus all of us share it. Quite apart from the ideological and political reasons for telling the stories that I tell, I wanted to capture a spectrum of the various eras of this region – by no means fully representative but fairly distinct and colourful in their own right – to celebrate and rejoice in the richness of the region’s culture, art and architecture. I also wanted to write something that helps to connect and relate above and beyond boundaries that are a much more recent modern reality, by focusing on the larger and relatively timeless region and its people. I also wanted to make the statement that there is a lot more to us and this place with its thousands of years of civilisation and culture. That it is not just a location and a time frame preceding and succeeding the events of 9/11 and other such very recent events of interest to the West. Let’s just say I wanted to remind everyone that we have a history. And a fairly long and vibrant one.

The time frames are simply those that I pretend to understand somewhat more than others and/or am fascinated by for various reasons and hence wanted to recreate in fiction. The actual physical location of various archeological and historical sites in this region is also another major motivation as yes, indeed, I did grow up visiting these places and my memories are imbued by their charm as well as their mystery. I was one of those strange children who were deeply fascinated by the prospect of a stroll through a crumbling, wild foliage infested ruin with its long effaced myths and with mysteries lurking in every dark corner. In my early twenties and while doing an internship in Islamabad, I spent weekend after weekend roaming through the sprawling and often deserted remains of Taxila, admiring the exquisiteness of Gandharan sculpture and design. That child has never really grown up. And I don’t think he ever will.

Herald. The novel is incredibly rich in its historical coverage. Do describe the process of how you envisioned and wrote it.

Siddique. Well it is a historical novel though it is probably unique in the sense that it deals with – as mentioned before – as many as six distinct eras and many of them are also not contiguous. Also, it is additionally unusual as one of its eras is actually in the future. I have always enjoyed history as a discipline as well as reading robust historical fiction. I find history both an integral subject for anyone wanting to develop a wiser and more nuanced perspective in the world. At the same time, its neglect also alarms me.

People who don’t learn from history, it is said, are condemned to repeat it. In various ways that idea can be regarded as the leitmotif of Snuffing Out the Moon as well as one of the raison d'êtres that led to its writing. As to the process of writing, for the past few years I had been contemplating the idea of writing something that broke away from the more standard formats as well as allowed me to imagine stories set in places and eras that held a particular fascination for me. It is with that loose blue print that I started and the rest happened as I proceeded – almost subconsciously the book took form. Not quite unlike an unfolding dream that gradually grows in detail and vividness. I took pains to capture what I saw before it faded away.

Herald. There is much debate in Snuffing Out the Moon on the contestations between reason and religion. Why is that so?

Siddique. That is indeed one of the binaries that I propose as a terrain of contestation in various eras – an age-long struggle between adherents of dogma and those of rationality. But I also suggest that it does not have to be such a clear-cut divide. Can we both be people of faith as well as pragmatism or let’s say science? That is a question that I posit. I try and provide a flavour also of how throughout history staunch and fanatical association with one camp or the other has led to persecution – also, at a higher level, how the dichotomy of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is also central to the human story and has contributed to tremendous exploitation and misery.

I wanted to explore also the distinctions between dogma and ritualistic, organised religion and spirituality – how are they distinct and if so why do they get conflated. I conjecture also about the future of religion; will it still have the same central place in human affairs towards the end of this century as it does now? At the same time, what is incredibly troubling to me is the prejudice, bigotry and hate-mongering that is currently spread in the name of religion. Where will this lead us to? Will it destroy us? Will human beings continue to behave in this manner even if they were without religion? These and many other questions pertaining to reason and religion permeate my narrative and define one important facet of my novel.

Herald. Have societal roles reversed today as you show in the novel so that rulers are no longer rulers and priests and holy men have become merchants and their true religion, it appears, is solely commerce? Or has it always been like this? Please elaborate on this.

Siddique. We are all witnesses, especially in our part of the world, to the rapid commercialisation of religion, to the selective re-imaginings of certain real and mythical but always glorious pasts dictating the governance models of current life and to religiosity and religious symbolism being routinely employed as a political instrument of power and authority. It is quite amazing to think that that may not be unique to us and may have also happened thousands of years ago. And to then imagine what it could have led to, even as we observe where it is leading us to now. So yes it is a comment on the present state of affairs in this region. At the same time, it is also an anxious question about the role of organised religion in political life and vis-à-vis the modern state. It is a question that scholars and nations have belabored for long. It is a question that has adduced some memorable responses from those at the helm of our collective independence struggle. And it is a question that has now become all the more urgent given the corrosive political religiosity as well as unabashed religious politics that is unfolding in front of our eyes.

Herald. You are not one to provide conveniently tidy and definitive closure to your interlinked stories. There is a sense of deliberately unfinished business – of perhaps the stories continuing beyond the book. Do comment.

Siddique. First of all, that is also how human life is, isn’t it. People think they are so pivotal to everything and then lo and behold! Their time is up, the rest of the world carries on and what remains are just some stories and fairly soon even those are forgotten. Elaborately led and imagined lives just come to an abrupt, almost rude, end. Not with a bang but a whimper.

Second, the stories in the novel are meant to be repositories of some larger questions and observations as to the human civilisational experience. Hence, while what happens to individual characters matters as far as the stories are concerned, at a meta level what the book leaves behind are those lingering questions and tentative observations. This is as much a novel of ideas as it is one of plot and characters.

And finally, by the end of the fourth book of the novel, the trajectories and eventual fates of various characters are more or less determinable. With the inevitability of path dependency they do reach the crises of their respective contestations – barring perhaps some surprising outcomes. In any way, strictly speaking there is no end – just the cessation of the narration of certain stories even while the characters continue onwards with their respective lives. The book hopefully leaves the readers with many questions about not just the past but also about what lies in the future – both in terms of the characters whose stories are no longer being told as well as in terms of the overarching questions their stories have hopefully raised.

Herald. Is the novel adopting a particular political stand, or is it just a reflection of what is happening all around us?

Siddique. Indeed, both! The underlying message of Snuffing Out the Moon is that of humanism. I am essentially interested in the human civilisational project. How humans have fared at various levels as they continue to endeavour to find their place and purpose in the universe. It is the vast and enigmatic world within them as well as the one spread out above them that continues to intrigue them. Or at least quite a few of them.

Humankind has achieved tremendously. There are those amongst them who are truly worthy of reaching the stars. And yet at the same time, we are still plagued by disease, poverty, exploitation and wars – maladies that have tormented us for millennia. Vast swathes of humanity are suffering and depending on where you are born, you can be living in a very different century – even within the same country. In various ways, the events transpiring around us are highly depressing and indicative of regression and decline. One cannot but ask whether we are imploding. Despite commendable steps forward in the areas of healthcare, human rights protection and peace building, we are perhaps facing unprecedented challenges as a species. Or are we? Have we not come close to extinction before? That is the level I am engaged at. Beyond the confines of any particular ideology. And informed both by our past as well as what is currently unfolding around us. In order to gaze also into the future.