Pakistan's Fictional Peace
Ali Sethi wrote a book about troubled Lahore—four years ago, when the city was stable and prosperous. Now that it’s published, he’s embroiled in a political debate he didn’t ask for.
There’s nothing harder to write about, goes the old adage, than the very recent past, yet young Pakistani writer Ali Sethi says The Wish Maker is set exactly then. “Because it hasn’t been resolved,” he says, and there could be no crueler demonstration of his point than the timing of his debut novel. The “present-day” parts of The Wish Maker are set in 2004 and 2005, in a Lahore of comparative stability and tentatively booming freedom—a city that disappeared in the summer of 2008 before Sethi could even correct the proofs.
The novel examines the stories, and the stories they tell themselves, of three generations of a liberal family a little like his own. “When I started writing this book it was March 2006. I was a senior at college in the US. And it was a relatively good time for Pakistan” he recalls. Two years on, the family had to leave the country after a row about a cartoon published by his father, a journalist. In all too tangible a way, “the national crisis became a personal crisis.”
Zaki may feel torn, but Sethi himself is adamant that Lahore is home. “It’s a choice,” he says.
That hijacking has to some extent been matched in reception of his book. Here in Jaipur there are plenty of people keen to grill him, as he puts it, on AFPAK or INPAK. Superficially at least, these are subjects a long way out of the remit of The Wish Maker in which Zaki Shirazi returns home from studying in Boston for the wedding of his closest cousin, Samar Api. The nuptials are the melancholic death throes of her dreams of being swept off her feet by a Bollywood star: a fantasy almost as old as her that she has nurtured with a diet of bootleg tapes and rubbish magazines.
Growing up, the risks of freedoms (even those as superficially innocent as a few bad films) were a very real concern. When he was a baby Sethi’s own father was arrested for stocking a book critical of the military in his bookshop. Zaki’s father in the novel is a haunting absence: the reason for him to be rubbish at cricket, unlike the other boys, who had fathers “one each” and key to the novel’s title motif. To his grandmother, Daadi, the son is the lost, perfect hero; to Zaki’s mother, he is the husband mourned for all his lovable imperfections. “There were pictures that my mother had and they testified to his whims” observes Zaki. “One morning he was stark and unshaven and went out to row a boat in a lake, or a river—only a stretch of water was visible behind him—and his hair was dirty and uncombed, his eyes almost shut against the glare. My mother said he looked like that because he had drunk a lot of alcohol at night.”
“Nonsense,” retorts his grandmother. “Who tells you these things? He never touched it. Others may have, but he didn’t. He always refused it.” To the little boy he is an abstraction embodying everything that he yearns for: “the thoughts stayed on in the dark and changed their shapes and became wishes that were made silently to a dead father, who was always somewhere, even after he had died, even after it was known that he would never respond—he was alive and he was listening.”
Wish-making fills a void—whether it is the fatherless little boy’s grief, or his cousin’s dangerous longing for excitement. This, says Sethi as we perch amongst the plant pots in the courtyard of the Diggi, is at the heart of the novel. “I wanted to write a story that was really ultimately about myth-making in people’s daily lives...It’s a meditation, in a way, on the process of fiction-making itself . Why do we need to tell stories? On one level all fiction is fabrication and nothing more really. You take the laws of reality and you use them to say, ‘well, what if,’ ‘suppose,’… And that is something we do all the time.”
His epigraph is from Middlemarch, where the concentric circles of individual perception (and misperception) can quietly create tragedy. “The difficult task of knowing another soul is not for young gentlemen whose consciousness is chiefly made up of their own wishes.” The choice of Eliot, too, seems fortuitous for a writer whose focus on the local and personal cumulatively takes on a genuine socio-historical power.
It’s tempting to see something of Sethi, who himself was at Harvard, in Zaki, returning to Lahore after two years away. “Over there, in Massachusetts, it was winter break now, the end of the autumn term and that life—of snow and wind, of blocked, frozen streets, and the retreat into heated buildings, the snow continuing to descend outside—that life went on as an imagined progression of familiar feelings.” And at home, “There was an added estrangement from the known: the drive home was too short, the bridge too small, the trees not high enough on the canal, while in the house there was an odd shrunken aspect to things that made them less than what they had once been.”
That said, his character seems far more torn than he is. His first exposure to “textual literature” was at school in Lahore he tells me. “We had to read Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and Harper Lee for the English literature course and I loved all three of those texts. I loved them—I loved Romeo and Juliet and I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and I loved The Crucible. I thought they were just amazing things but what I was unaware of was that I already had a kind of parallel literature running in my mind” he recalls. The Urdu poetry which he had grown up with he had never been taught to think of literature, “because it wasn’t textual.” On the other hand, “I would sing it in the bathroom and be very moved by it. My emotional life continues to occur, as a friend of mine put it, in Urdu.”
Zaki may feel torn but Sethi himself is adamant that Lahore is home. “It’s a choice,” he says of his decision, in spite of everything, to move back. “And I love it too. My friends who are musicians, who are painters, who are journalists are all there and they are living it and for me to get away and follow it all everyday on the internet in some posher country would be more painful – do you know what I mean? You are still thinking about it. So I’d rather be there. And live it.”
He is currently working on a non-fiction project, writing about stories that he has been following in Lahore. Poignantly for all the power of his debut, he seems to have a sense as fiction as a luxury: the wrong genre right now. “It is a political lesson,” he says of that unrecognizable landscape into which The Wish Maker emerged. “It is a lesson for my next book. In fact it is not enough. It is not enough to be metaphysical. It isn’t—because we don’t actually lead metaphysical lives. You know only in periods of safety, in periods of peace, in times of tranquility can we afford to be metaphysical.” I look forward to reading Sethi’s non-fiction. And I hope circumstances let him be a metaphysical again someday soon.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, will be published this fall.