Mohammed Hanif is incredulous. “What on earth will you ask me for two hours?” he asks when I tell him how long this interview may take. We fix a day anyway, but things change and when I do meet him it happens to be on very short notice. I haven’t finished the proof of his new book Our Lady of Alice Bhatti yet and although over the phone he said, “that works for me”, I’m still wondering if I have enough to ask him.
I shouldn’t have been worried. When we meet, Hanif and I talk about dental surgery (“so many advances in medical science but why is this still so barbaric,” he wonders), the iPad (he’s been reading Chekhov on iBooks) and with his wife, actor Nimra Bucha, we talk about Kevin Spacey in Sam Mendez’ West End production of Richard the III (she saw it, he didn’t: “Hanif kafi dramay mein so jata hai,” says Nimra).
‘Getting Hanif to give you a straight answer,’ I had been told by a mutual friend, ‘is like nailing jelly to a wall’. When I tell Hanif this, he laughs it off, saying he’d rather be evasive than answer too many questions about details in his book. He’s glad I haven’t finished reading it, and later tells me he doesn’t quite understand this current trend of wanting to meet writers you are impressed by. “As somebody said,” he tells me, “the desire to meet the writer is like when you’ve eaten a nice paté sandwich, you want to go meet the duck.”
Hanif’s new book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, is due for local release this September, and is a strong follow up to his debut A Case of Exploding Mangoes. It’s about a young Christian nurse called Alice, and her experiences working for a local hospital. “I just had this image in my head from my childhood,” says Hanif, curled sideways into an armchair at his home in Karachi. “When my mother was dying of cancer in a hospital I spent a month and a half with her there. I had [an image] of this nurse on late-night shifts — and somehow I think when you’re going through some bad things in your life you try to not think about them, you try to think of some little detail — so that image had always been in my head of this nurse who is on a late-night shift and she’s very tired. I don’t know if she was beautiful or not but I remembered her as this beautiful woman.”
Rolling a cigarette, he remains chatty and I begin to think maybe that jelly comment isn’t applicable today. The second source for the book, he explains, were two Christian students in primary school with him in the village he grew up in Okara; boys with whom Hanif was very good friends, though always third to their top two positions in the class. “Somehow it was decided by the fact that I came from this one family and they came from another that I would go to high school and they won’t so I never saw them after that,” he explains. “I think that’s how these things started in my head and obviously when you’ve written a few pages about them, you hope they take on some life of their own and start moving or start telling you this is where I want to go, this is what I want to do.”
Hanif stops short, as if he wants to add to this but has thought better of it. When I ask him to continue, he politely declines saying it would be “on a total tangent”. But most of this interview is on a total tangent, I remind him, and he laughs, relents and goes on. “I’ve always been fascinated by writing about this superwoman type of character, set somewhere here, but it never quite worked out like that and went somewhere else as most things do. Also, I used to have an editor at Newsline — Razia Bhatti — who died quite young and suddenly, and I was quite traumatised because I was really, really close to her. She was as close to a superwoman as I had seen in my life, she was beautiful and bright and could just get things done that most crafty men couldn’t. So after she died I used to think I would write about her life and give her all these super powers and try to create a fantasy character out of it, but that project never quite happened.”
Instead, he wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, the protagonist perhaps sharing half a name with the late Razia Bhatti and half a name with Carroll’s Alice, whom Hanif once stated was his favourite fictional hero. I don’t ask him about Carroll’s Alice, but I do wonder if he was being facetious about her or not. I’d like to think not.
It’s been three years since Mangoes was published in 2008, and while that was set within a definitive time period, around a particular assassination, Alice Bhatti is not contained by a specific moment in history. It’s such a sensitive, bittersweet departure from Hanif’s earlier work that I automatically ask him when he started writing this book, but he laughs at my question before it’s even complete. “I don’t really know what that means, when people say when did you actually start writing it, because before you actually start writing something it’s been somewhere for a very long time. I think the first words I might have scribbled were probably in 2008 or 2009 but I didn’t really know that I was writing this book, I was scribbling,” he shrugs. “I scribble a lot, I’m a big scribbler, I scribble for months and months and months before I have some idea of what it is that I’m doing.” And when people asked him what his new book was going to be about? “I would joke that I don’t really know, it’s in a room and I haven’t gone out of that room yet,” he says.
“I am a very dedicated scribbler,” Hanif adds. “I am a very great recycler as well so I don’t waste anything. For me the act of writing is a bit like reading — when you’re reading, if it’s a good book then you’re discovering what’s going to happen next. So for me it’s mostly like that — I have vague ideas — notions about things — but if I knew what was going to happen, what the story was, then I would immediately lose interest.”
Over the years, Hanif has remained a journalist as well, having been one for almost 20 years. “I don’t think I would ever want to leave that because it has its own kind of instant pleasure. You get to go out, you get to meet people, you get to occasionally be a part of conversations. You can put in your two bits about what’s going on — because as it’s quite obvious, writing a novel is quite a lonely process for years and years.”
“With journalism it is instant gratification: you write something, you get it published, four people will say it’s really nice, three people will question it, somebody will give you a gaali, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an occasional threat.”
And you get 50 instant ‘likes’ on Facebook, I add, and he agrees laughingly.
But it’s not a joke — Hanif has over 2,000 ‘friends’ on Facebook, and almost 3,000 followers on Twitter — people who eagerly wait for every word he types. That’s thousands of people who may or may not all have read his fiction, but who are very aware of who Mohammad Hanif the journalist is.
Of course, the writing will also continue. He admits he still has ‘about 50 novels’ in him, adding that with them live maybe two or three plays, a couple of non-fiction book ideas, a couple of films and even a few songs… though he may have to rethink his song-writing abilities: someone gave him a tune last year and asked him to write a song for it, but he hasn’t been able to come up with one yet, he confesses, grinning broadly.
Going back to talk about why he loves long-form literature, he says: “There is a part of me which likes having something that you’re doing on your own. It’s a bit secretive: others don’t know what you’re doing, sometimes you also don’t know what you’re doing — I like that mystery element to it.”
While many think Hanif is Pakistan’s greatest literary talent, many may not know that he is incredibly humble, down to earth, self deprecating and of course, absolutely hilarious. He jokes, “you guys are too literary for me”, and I can’t help but find that ludicrous, since he himself is so well read and talks so easily about literature — “everyone should read Manto and Kafka,” he insists.
We agree that JG Ballard is brilliant, and he suggests a story to me that I’ve never read. I tell him dystopic fiction is a personal fascination and when I ask him what kind of apocalypse he could live in, he stops short and thinks quietly for a moment.
“I’ve always thought that we live in a kind of post-apocalyptic word,” he laughs. I insist he choose a type and true to form, he picks one I have no name for: “I could live in the kind where there was a single plane left in a desert — I like the kind of apocalypse where no one knows what’s happened and there’s some kind of shiny shimmering… there’s half a plane… and men begin to disappear.” If any one can work that kind of mystery, it would be Mohammed Hanif, because I just can’t see him being one of the men who disappear into a nameless desert.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is published by Random House and will be released in September 2011
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2011.