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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Writer Kamila Shamsie

'Musharraf has no interest in pretend Islamisation'

May 29, 2007

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On her third visit to India, Kamila Shamsie takes the courteous waiter's suggestion at the Malabar Hill Club in south Mumbai, and asks for pudina (mint) Chai.

After saying shukriya (thanks) a couple of times to the old worldly Mumbai bearer, the 33-year-old Pakistani writer settles down by the pool to speak to Archana Masih about her country, Pakistan, being a Muslim writer post 9/11 and her next book.

The author of four critically acclaimed books, In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography and Broken Verses, Shamsie, who lives in London and Karachi, is working on a fifth novel which spans 60 years across Japan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and America.

Your earlier books have been against the backdrop of political themes like General Zia-ul Haq's military rule. What themes are you exploring now?

I am in the middle of a book and I don't talk too much about the book I am writing, largely because I still haven't figured it all out. This one has taken on a much larger geographical area, it starts in Japan and ends in Afghanistan and New York, in between it is in the subcontinent for a while.

It also covers about 60 years of history. Two families whose lives keep meeting up in different ways and in different places, it deals with war and migration but until I finish writing it I don't know what I'm doing with it (laughs).

When do you reckon you will be ready with the book?

I never know because I finish a draft and then most times I have to go back and completely redo it, so I never really know exactly how long. The last book Broken Verses went through six drafts. I am hoping by the end of this year it will be done.

Do you think in today's tumultuous times, it is important for writers to have a political consciousness?

I would never tell a writer what they should be writing about and what should move them or capture their interest because writing is such an intimate, personal thing. There are people who may be very politically engaged and when they sit down to write they find their own gripes about a relationship between two sisters, and there is nothing absolutely wrong with that.

I think the great thing about the novel is that it a very flexible form. There are days when I don't want to read a political novel, I may want to read a comedy about family life. I don't think you should be saying this is what writers should be doing. But there are times when you find that writers are able to because they have the space of a novel, and the imagination that they are doing very interesting things politically. But I wouldn't say they have to.

As a writer do you feel Pakistan has a greater ambience of freedom under General Musharraf than under, say during General Zia?

Well, there is no comparison between now and General Zia. In General Zia's time, there was very active censorship. One of the first things that Musharraf did after he came to power was to see that the press is free.

I think partly he realised that these are not Zia's times. His position was, yes, I am a dictator but I am a liberal dictator, and as soon as you start shutting down the press, no one is going to believe that.

There is more freedom, it is still not complete freedom. You still have cases of journalists being paid visits by the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence, journalists are still shot and killed, not necessarily by government forces but maybe by other people who don't like what they are saying. So they still often operate under positions of fear. But there is certainly more freedom than what used to be.

Have you had any such experiences with the government?

I have had no problems with censorship. None.

How would you compare both generals?

If you have to have a choice between the generals, take Musharraf. I think anyone who says otherwise is slightly demented -- as far as I am concerned (laughs). You also have to look that there are very different political situations.

Zia, from the early 1980s, knew he was very important for America because of the role Pakistan played in America's war in Afghanistan. It was during this great friendship with the Americans that he passed his most oppressive laws and he knew he could do that.

Musharraf has come at a very different and difficult time where he had to play the role of the liberal dictator much more because he knows that although Pakistan is now useful again, it is a much more tense relationship where Pakistan is being criticised as well.

So there are parts of Pakistan that are being told well you are actually aiding Al Qaeda and the other part is fighting the war against terrorism.

I also do believe that they are very different men. Musharraf has no interest in pretend Islamisation. I don't think either of them are real democrats. It was in Musharraf's time that cable (television channels opened up so there has been more freedom of the media and Musharraf is a very different kind of general.

Do you visualise -- as many strategic affairs experts in the West do -- that Pakistan faces the real possibility of becoming a mullah-dominated State?

Well, I don't know where they get this from. For people in Pakistan it is the most irritating thing in the world to hear that now the mullahs are going to take over. Where are the mullahs going to take over? The next in line in the army is not a mullah.

First of all, anyone who knows about Pakistan's geo-strategic position knows that the most important institution is the army, no one is in control without the army backing them.

These geo-strategic experts are not talking about the generals in the army. They are saying the mullahs are so powerful they will take over. The mullahs have become much more powerful in the last five years because they have been able to run an anti-American line, particularly along the border with Afghanistan where people were very angry about the war on Afghanistan.

The PPP (Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party) is still more powerful, the PML (Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League) is still very powerful. The mullahs themselves are internally divided. There is complete panic around the idea that a Muslim nation has a nuclear bomb.

Frankly, it serves Musharraf as well. I am sure he is perfectly happy to have people in the West say -- 'Well, yes, we like democracy but if there was real democracy maybe the mullahs will come in, so let's keep Musharraf.'

But they (the mullahs) are not the most powerful political group, they are not next in line in the armed forces. I really don't see it happening, it is more a sign of the panic of the West right now.

Also read: What's fundamentalism anyway?

So you don't see Musharraf as the boy at the dyke preventing the forces of fundamentalism from overwhelming Pakistan?

There are difficulties he is facing, I am not denying that. But no, I don't see him as the boy at the dyke. If there were completely free elections tomorrow, the mullahs will not be in majority rule, it is that simple.

How do you see the young people of Pakistan? Do you see a drift towards religion...

When you say drifting towards religion, you are in some ways implying that there was a time where people in Pakistan did not strongly feel Muslim. They have always had a Muslim identity but for a lot of people it is just part of who you are.

Drifting toward religion doesn't mean drifting towards extremism.

When you say Pakistani youth, I would say which province and which economic background. The youth in rural Punjab are a very different to the youth in Baluchistan, for instance. The middle class youth are different from the upper middle class youth. I can't really make a sweeping comment about the youth as such.

I think one of the things you will notice in a city like Karachi is there are extremes. On one hand you have your MTV generation, and then on the other hand you will have kids who are more religious, some of them get attracted to the more extreme forms of religion and in between you have everything.

So it is hard to make a generalisation. It does seem that in some ways it is getting more polarised.

Since when have you noticed this polarisation?

I think in this decade there has been a shift.

As a Pakistani and a writer, what is your prognosis for Pakistan? Where do you see it headed in the next few years?

I have no idea, for a long time it has been politically very difficult. It has been a country with lot of political difficulties and those are not going to go away. There is that constant tension between armed rule and civil society.

Even now, yes, Musharraf is a dictator but we have some semblance of democracy as well. So you have a national assembly and you have elections and you are going to have new elections by the end of the year. It will be very interesting to see what the elections do.

But there will still be other problems like the unrest in Baluchistan, there needs to be some kind of mechanism to address the real grievances of the people.

As a writer how do you deal with the conflicts of modern Pakistani society and the forces of seemingly medieval Islam?

In some books I do, in some, I don't. My interest has very much been Karachi, in some way what you term as the forces of medieval Islam are less obvious and prevalent there.

Karachi is a commercial city and in any commercial city people want their businesses to function, somewhere that economic imperative is central to the city. With Karachi I look more at things like the ethnic divide or the problem between one generation and the other.

I have never spent much time in those parts of Pakistan where the maulvis have a much stronger role and I haven't even written about it either.

As a Muslim writer post 9/11, do you feel a sense of rage that your faith is constantly questioned?

Of course, it is very difficult being a Muslim and it is on both sides, you feel rage against the people who do the most hideous things in the name of Islam and pretend that that is being a good Muslim but on the other hand you also feel rage against those outside who allow that group of people to define what Islam is.

The comments you hear in the press in the Western world about Islam are generalised comments, it is very disturbing and yeah, they make you very angry as well.

When you are in India, what common themes do you find here with Pakistan? Do you feel at home in India?

I wouldn't say at home exactly, but I feel somewhere familiar that I can make my way quite comfortably around places like Bombay and Delhi. To be able to speak to the guy on the street is a big thing. Of course, there are lot of obvious similarities and would be unimaginable if there were not because we were the same country until 60 years ago.

Bombay and Karachi are geographically very similar and have a similar sense of energy.

In the last 60 years, part of our histories have been shared in a very uncomfortable way. People in Karachi watch Bollywood, so there is cultural mingling as well.

When I am at literary conferences, a lot of the books I have read through the 1980s and 1990s have been English language writers from India, who although weren't writing about the place I knew, were writing about the place that was closer to the place I knew than most other places are. Of course, there are very strong echoes and resonances between the two countries.

I have lots of family here, that is, of course, the other thing -- growing up whatever you might have read in the Pakistani press, whatever General Zia might have been saying about India -- the fact is that in my grandmother's house there is a brother who is Indian, there were my mother's cousins who were Indian. So at a very literal level, Indians were our family and still are.

At one level there are these cultural similarities between India and Pakistan, on the other there is this longstanding suspicion. How do you explain this dichotomy?

I don't think it is a dichotomy. If you look at the family, the people who have the most in common and the people who have most animosity towards each other are siblings.

Again we have that shared history, we have a shared border, is precisely the reason for our animosities and differences.

It also shows that there is also a thin line only dividing us. I think it is our historical, cultural and physical proximity which is also the reason for both those things -- our closeness and our divisiveness.

Do you think our countries can ever be friends?

I think we should stop romanticising it with words like friends, even though I just used the siblings example. The first thing our countries need to do is peacefully coexist. You can't move from a state of war to friendship. You have to move from a state of war to a state of being peaceful and coexisting peacefully and then take the next step.

If you look at Europe, the bloodshed, the kind of animosity between say Germany and England or Germany and France, if you look at the First and Second World War, the 30 year history in Europe, I am sure in the middle of it people thought how can we ever peacefully coexist and now you have the European Union and there are still animosities and stereotypes between them but they have figured out a way.

By saying let us be friendly, they went through a political and an economic process which allowed themselves in certain ways to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are in the same area and that both countries get far more from being in a state of peace than a state of war and then you move to the next stage.

I do think it is possible for India and Pakistan to be at a state of peace. For all the problems that still exist I think in the last three years there has been progress. I know in Pakistan there is a much greater desire for peace. I think people are sick of being in a constant state of war. I think people also want the government's money to go to other things than defence.

Finally, who are your favourite Indian writers?

I have favourite Indian novels rather than writers. I really enjoyed the Inheritance of Loss, it is a fabulous book. Years ago, The Shadow Lines (by Amitava GhoshMidnight's Children when I was 15 and Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.

Photograph: Archana Masih

The Rediff Interviews