Mohammed Hanif rose to fame as a novelist with ‘The Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’. He is also a journalist currently working with BBC Urdu. Hanif is a leading voice in Pakistani fiction.
Laaltain: You write very good Urdu prose, why do you choose to write your novels in English?
Mohammed Hanif: I write in Punjabi as well but most of the novels I have read happen to be in English, though I read Urdu as well. Even if they are Russian, Spanish or any other language, we read them in English translations. So one’s mind is full of writings in English. It’s like, if you are growing up listening to rock music, chances are if you start your own band, you will choose to produce rock music.
Laaltain: Apparently “The Case of Exploding Mangoes” was received better by readers but, as you said in one of your interviews, it is “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” in which you really spoke your mind. Why did “Alice Bhatti” not receive as good a response?
Mohammed Hanif: I don’t know… actually lots of people have said lots of nice things about “Alice Bhatti”, people have different tastes. I think we are a very politicized society, we meet friends who love conspiracy theories and power politics; maybe that’s the reason people like “Exploding Mangoes” more.
Laaltain: In all your writings, not just novels, you maintain this tone of distance, indifference, and satire when it comes to characters and situations. How did this characteristic develop in you?
Mohammed Hanif: I think it comes from what you have read and what you like from what you have read. I think I have read things which influenced me, and that’s how I ended up writing like this. There is no one incident which can explain this. It is all of your life experiences and your readings which go into shaping what you become.
Laaltain: You once said that a fiction writer has no social responsibility but in your first novel you mocked a dictator while in the second you empathized with a poor Christian woman; all this seems socially and politically very relevant.
Mohammed Hanif: I think it’s the subject you are interested in which takes you somewhere. I am interested in politics but when I am writing a piece of fiction, I care about the politics of my characters. Where they come from, which class they belong to etc. And that automatically gives them a certain kind of outlook of the world. I am deeply interested in that kind of politics. But I am not interested in making grand statements. That’s why I don’t sit down to write novels to change anything or try to be somehow a responsible citizen. No, that’s not the case as a writer; but as a journalist I have that duty.
Laaltain: Would you like to comment on the abrupt and tragic ending of “Alice Bhatti”?
Mohammed Hanif: No, I really find it difficult after I have finished writing something because the process is quite long and painful. After I have written it, I can’t really explain it. My job is to write the book and it is other people’s job to comment on it.
Laaltain: How do you manage being a writer as well as a journalist – two jobs which demand somewhat different approaches?
Mohammed Hanif: Actually, I don’t have an intensive journalistic job any more. In a way it is good, if done properly I think they can complement each other.
Laaltain: What is it that you like most about the process of writing fiction?
Mohammed Hanif: Finishing (laughs). You start with vague ideas, voices, and images but during the process of writing – and it happens very rarely, once a year may be – suddenly there is a moment when things become clearer; suddenly you see something which you had not seen before and that does not happen just by thinking, it happens during the process of writing. Sometime, you take a turn without knowing and suddenly you are where you wanted to.
Laaltain: Through small incidences and situations in your writings, you often describe the bigger realities of Pakistan. How did you develop such deep insight into society?
Mohammed Hanif: I don’t think I have very deep understanding but what I like doing is, I keep my ears open. I don’t always hang out with journalists and writers…. The way people speak tells you a lot about them and their stories. So I think some of that might reflect in what I write. I just listen to people and then imagine what they would be like.
Laaltain: Coming from a humble, rural background, you have become an international figure, how does it feel?
Mohammed Hanif: Actually it happened quite slowly, you spend years and years writing something, then it takes a couple of years to get it published and by the time it comes out you are already into something else. It feels good sometimes. Sometimes I feel lucky because there are many brilliant writers out there and they have to struggle a lot more than I have.
Laaltain: How do you see the future of Pakistan in terms of literature and culture?
Mohammed Hanif: I don’t really know. There are many learned professors who are better suited to answer this. I am not totally pessimistic, there are bad days and then there are good days as well when I feel slightly optimistic.
Laaltain: Anything that made you optimistic recently?
Mohammed Hanif: That is a good question…um sometimes the weather is quite good. One day, last December, I went to the Karachi beach. It is usually very filthy, but that day it was absolutely clean and there were thousands of white birds everywhere. I don’t know where they came from, probably from Siberia. That was a perfect day.
Laaltain: Any message for a young Pakistani or any potential reader of this interview?
Mohammed Hanif: Read…. whatever they want to read.
Laaltain: Anything that you would like to recommend?
Mohammed Hanif: I am reading Ismat Chughtai these days. She is absolutely brilliant. She should be read in schools.