Plotting Pakistan

Pakistani writers Kamila Shamsie, Shahbano Bilgrami and Moni Mohsin would rather not be peas from the same pod, finds NISHA SUSAN

(From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 5, Dated Feb 09, 2008 )

FATIMA BHUTTO, niece of the late Benazir Bhutto was, without doubt, one of the headliners of the Jaipur production. Three of her compatriots had more realistic claims to a literary reputation though. Kamila Shamsie, Moni Mohsin and Shahbano Bilgrami together presented a panel suitably called Imagining Pakistan. But they were three very different sorts of public figures.

35-year-old Shamsie is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography and Broken Verses. Shamsie, who held the reins of her session at all times, seems permanently amused and almost intimidatingly articulate. Her protagonist in Salt and Saffron, Aliya, is comically haunted by her lineage, but Shamsie’s own is formidable with a mother, aunt and grandmother who are all well-known writers. Shamsie grew up in Karachi, a city she’s put firmly on the literary map with her novels. Kartography, in fact, is about an attempt to map Karachi. “My next book begins in Nagasaki immediately after the bomb and moves to New York and Afghanistan. But when I first tried to write about cities other than Karachi it seemed sluggish.” Shahbano Bilgrami’s book Without Dre – ams was published in 2007.

A few years younger than Shamsie, Bilgrami grew up in Canada. As a young adult back in Lahore, she worked with Oxford University Press and later, as a reviewer, for The Herald. “I revie– wed Kamila’s books. I even interviewed her though she doesn’t remember me,” Bilgrami laughs. Marriage took her to England and then to the US, where Bilgrami turned to fiction. “It was all surprisingly painless. My novel was longlisted for the Man Booker.” Bilgrami seems surprised, even slightly unnerved, at the turn of events in her life. “I’ve had an isolated life. All this is forcing me to deal with the world.” Unlike her, Shamsie has always known that she wanted to write novels. Shamsie began at 11, writing a novel about the death of a beloved dog, writing steadily longer books every few years with her best friend. “When I was 14, my mother told me to try and find my own voice. Now I take courage in remembering I knew how to do chapters when I was 13.” When she was discovered by Bloomsbury editor, Alexandra Pringle in a writing program it seemed natural to write a full-length novel.

Moni Mohsin, oldest of the trio, makes no bones about enjoying being an author, and being accosted by people who want books signed. Marriage took her too out of Pakistan. In England, when her first child was born, a friend told her to write a book about the Pakistan of her childhood. Her 2006 novel set in an East Pakistan village, The End of Innocence was well-received. Mohsin is used to thinking of herself as a journalist. For over a decade, even after she moved from Lahore to London, she has written a satirical column called The Diary of a Social Butterfly for the Friday Times. Mohsin’s sister Jugnu (wife of Najam Sethi) is a satirist too. She is not too thrilled at being on a panel called Imagining Pakistan. “When I am being interviewed about my book I’d rather not be asked about Pakistan. I don’t represent Pakistan.” Bilgrami’s respo nse is more nervous. “One doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. I’ve not lived there for a long time. Since I got to India, I’ve been asked so many questions, I feel I ought to read up.” Shamsie’s is a very different take. “I am Pakistani. Each time I’m here, I’m aware of theaudience’s interest in seeing Pakistanis, asking questions. I’m happy to do that.”

Shamsie reserves her irritation for being placed on panels of Muslim women. “You have a Muslim woman from the US, one from Egypt, one from Saudi Arabia and me. You spend the entire time saying, no, no, that’s not my experience of Islam.” In recent times Shamsie has been more vocal in talking about her nation’s politics. “It is not like I got up one morning and decided to represent my country. After 9/11 you just saw such poorly informed writing.” Shamsie wrote a sharp yet amused rejoinder to the now infamous Martin Amis essay on Islam and terrorism. “The Karachi I remember is one of laughter and a lot of fun.”

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