Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif’s new book is called Red Birds. Published by Bloomsbury, the novel deals with war, disappearance, survival — and love. Speaking with Srijana Mitra Das, Hanif discussed Red Birds, his literary style, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s ‘youthias’, why he dislikes entrepreneurs — and how to ‘censor’ as a journalist, and ‘un-censor’ as a writer:
Q. Red Birds is entirely about war. Unlike your earlier novels, this is set in a no-man's-land, where there is no government, no answerability. There are only refugees and bombs, ‘natives’ and Americans. Was it harder to write this than a setting in a town?
A. It was very hard to write. The last one was also hard. The one before that, even harder.
I am basically a very lazy person and writing is hard work.
I believe we are living in a bit of wilderness these days, so that idea might have influenced me.
Q. Although it’s about a family, the voice of the mother comes right at the end. How come?
A. Maybe I saved the best for the last. She is there right from the beginning — but, like in many real-life situations, a woman’s not allowed to speak for a long time.
But when she speaks, she gets to say the last word.
Q. This is one of your most inward-looking books, where characters have conversations with themselves. There are almost no dialogues — was it hard to control the usual sparkling fireworks we see in your writing?
A. I think people do meet and people do talk, but yes, you are right, it’s more inward-looking than anything else I have written. I don’t know the reason.
It might be age because I sometimes I hear myself talking and there is nobody around listening.
It's a desert out there. And no one is really listening. (Photo: Reuters)
Q. This is also about loneliness — is it possible to be lonely amidst a war?
A. Probably not. But it’s possible to be very, very lonely just after a war because some people die in a war, some go missing and the survivors have to spend the rest of their lives looking for them or remembering them.
That can be pretty lonely.
Q. You seem deeply disapproving of entrepreneurship. A character in Red Birds, Momo is a brazen young entrepreneur who has survived war and his own brother’s disappearance. But these survival skills, you seem to suggest, are hollow and driven by a greed that will destroy us. Please tell us your view on the entrepreneurship you see in Pakistan. And India.
A. I have never been asked about my views about entrepreneurship, so I am very glad for this opportunity.
It’s a bit strange that when we are little children, we want to become train drivers, but when we enter our teens, we want to become Imran Khan or Virat Kohli or Steve Jobs or that guy who made the Ali Baba portal.
Why do we all want to be them? (Photo: DailyO)
By the time you get to my age, you are told that don’t fancy yourself as a writer, you are a mere content producer. It must be my secret resentment at not having become a young billionaire — I thought it was our civic duty to resent billionaires.
If Momo was real, he would be a billionaire and I’d probably be producing content for him. Come to think of it, I am doing exactly that.
Q. You wrote earlier this year about the ‘youthias’ supporting Imran Khan — can you tell us more about these pushy young people in Pakistan and how they make an appearance in Red Birds?
A. Red Birds started long before the term ‘youthia’ was invented.
I have high hopes from them, although sometimes I find them annoying because I was just like them when I was young.
But I am sure Momo will make a very good youthia — he will probably be the leader of the pack.
Q. What is most naya in Naya Pakistan?
A. Imran Khan is our prime minister. Somebody who never misses his fitness routine. He is probably the fittest prime minister in the world.
He's known to never miss a treadmill date. (Photo: Reuters)
I just hope he doesn’t treat the country as his personal treadmill.
Q. You have mentioned that you have started to censor yourself as a journalist. Please tell us about this and whether this works on a writerly self?
A. I think sometimes you censor yourself in journalism — and then totally un-censor yourself in fiction. You just have to watch out you don’t go mad making your brain do both these things at the same time.
Q. You recently wrote about India-Pakistan behaving like ‘school children’ by refusing to talk. But surely, some would say, the issues involved, which include terrorists trained in Pakistan and aimed at India, are more complex? What would you say to them?
A. I would not say anything to ‘them’. I’ll mind my own business.
Once a fairly famous Indian actor asked me at a reading what I would say to the families of the victims of the Bombay attacks. I tried to tell him that I probably wouldn’t be able to say anything to them. I’ll probably hug them and cry with them. He was not satisfied with my answer.
If somebody says to me, what about terrorists trained in Pakistan, someone would say, what about the Kashmiri kids blinded by your state terrorism. They’ll say what about Osama Bin Laden — someone here will say you elected a mass murder as your prime minister.
Should we blow up the Taj Mahal?
Who gave you biryani?
These things escalate quickly. So, I try and not say anything to them.
Q. You recently mentioned satirists are nearly out of work in South Asia. Really?
A. I was joking.
Q. Is there a new Indian novel, literary or cinematic work you have liked?
A. I am a great fan of the movie series Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster. Just saw the last one — not as good as the second one. But I think Tigmanshu Dhulia is India’s national treasure. Also, the Malayalam writer Benyamin whose Goat Days was phenomenal and I am looking forward to his new book. I have also read half of Amitabha Bagchi's Half The Night Is Gone. So far, beautiful.