“Hasan Zaidi, with a single s,” said the moderator, shaking my hand at the book launch of journalist-turned-author Saba Imtiaz.
Hasan-with-one-s introduced Imtiaz — a 29-year-old reporter who has worked as a journalist before utilising her talents to write ‘Karachi, You’re Killing Me.’ She joined The Express Tribune as head of Life and Style section. Later, she transferred to the city pages where she worked for about a year as a reporter. Her beat was the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
“She has been called Pakistan’s version of Bridget Jones but she might as well be our Anne Frank,” said Zaidi, much to the amusement of the audience.
Imtiaz then started reading the first chapter. She wrote of the problems the protagonist, Ayesha, faced as a reporter, most of which hit a little too close to home —talking about the word limit that plagues reporters, of a cramped dungeon-like reporters’ room of sub-editors and desk heads. “How could you stab those close to you in the back?” quipped Zaidi.
However, she was quick to dismiss any suggestion that her characters were based on real-life personalities, even if her own experiences did inspire them. “Everything I wrote in the first two weeks was non-fiction but then the characters slowly took over, moulding reality into fiction,” she explained.
When asked if she had a ‘writing process’ as is the wont of most authors, her reply was just as unique as JRR Tolkien’s would have been, even if it was not as impressive. “I used to start writing at 10pm and wrote till early morning, but took a break during the elections — Sex and the City reruns and perpetual thoughts of Inqilaab do not go well with writing.”
Touching back on her time as a reporter, she talked of how it was refreshing to not have to meticulously check facts when writing the book. Zaidi, retorted by asking if it is easier to make up an alternate reality as compared to reporting on the existing one. “Playing god with the characters must surely be difficult?” he asked. “I never said it is easier, I merely said it is refreshing,” she responded.
Imtiaz then read a couple more excerpts, including one which described one of the most frequent events of Karachi — a protest at the press club. Her work, filled with humour and wit, captured the essence of a protest in the city – of the ridiculous nature of the demonstrations and how those around it seem unperturbed by it, going on with their daily lives. When she was done, it was time to start questioning the author.
“Will you give up journalism to be an author?” was the first question, one that must have crossed many of the minds present. “No,” came the definitive reply. “I am a journalist who wrote a book, that is all.”
When asked of her future plans, her reply was as controversial as her book will surely prove to be. “I live in Karachi so I don’t make plans, I can die any time.” An answer that seemed to suddenly alienate the person the crowd was gathered to celebrate. Quick to make amends, she added that she loves this city as much as she hates it.
The city was not the only thing she seemed to have a love-hate relationship with. “The names of the characters were chosen by my editor and I hate them. I wanted something fancier, I wanted exotic names.” However, her strange relation with her creation did not end there. “The more I wrote, the more I found myself hating the protagonist, till, when it ended, I found myself hoping that something really bad would happen to her.”
When asked about a sequel, it was clear that writing a book has taken its toll on the journalist. “For now, I want to get as much distance as possible from the book.” Playing god is never easy.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 1st, 2014.