Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Geometry of God

Ahmede: You once told me that "for prose I turn to English but verse to
Urdu. (Sort of like music -- I don't like classical western, but love classical eastern.)" Will you tell me more about it?

Uzma Aslam Khan: I’ll try. When I was seven, my father bought a second-hand piano, and enrolled me in piano lessons. I believe that ever since his childhood, he had this dream: ‘When I grow up and have girls (he never wanted boys, nor had them) they will play piano for me and it will be very sweet.’ So off I went to this horrible English person who hit my knuckles with a ruler – she was a parody of the mean music instructor. But it was sweet to come home and play for my father, even if I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Afterwards, our house would ring with classical eastern music: the rich voices of Mehdi Hassan and Amanat Ali Khan, or Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan on sitar. It would also ring with western pop: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
Later in life, I kept trying to improve at piano. My third try was with a Japanese-American instructor. He was brilliant. The first day, he complimented my fingers instead of hitting them, then told me my problem was with rhythm. He must have also grown up listening to both eastern and western music, and understood that I’d internalised a very different beat, which I tried to play on an instrument that rejected it. Recently, I’ve started tabla lessons. Though my fingers don’t move as fast as I wish, I hear the beats. I know what I should be doing. If only the tabla had fallen in my hands when I was seven!
This is a long way of saying that like music, poetry answers to an inherent rhythm, and my appreciation of poetry in English, with a few exceptions (Seamus Heaney, Theodore Roethke), lacks the immediacy with which I appreciate poetry in Urdu. But in prose, both when I read and write, I adapt to many rhythms, I yearn for a new music. Somehow, Urdu prose doesn’t fulfill this hunger any more than the piano fit my fingers when I was a child.

Ahmede: Does a female writer's way of handling a certain theme differ from the way a male writer will tackle it?

Uzma Aslam Khan: I don’t know because I’ve never been a man. But I know that my access to material, and hence, to the development of my themes, is severely hampered because I’m a woman. I learned this especially while writing my newest book, The Geometry of God.
When I first began, I wanted to set the entire story outdoors. You know, I’m so tired of reading books written by Asian diaspora authors who depict Asian women in Asia as passive, pathetic creatures. Inevitably, their books begin with a woman in the kitchen chopping onions or having a baby or both at the same time. My novel’s in part about a girl, Amal, who, while on a fossil dig in the Salt Range of the Punjab with her grandfather, accidentally makes an astonishing discovery about whales. I wanted the complete story to unfold in these mountains. But my mobility was restricted, both because the area is army-run and because it’s difficult for an ‘unaccompanied’ woman to explore freely. My restrictions became Amal’s, I wove them into the story, much of which is now set in Lahore.

Ahmede: Can you say more about The Geometry of God?

Uzma Aslam Khan: On the same day that Amal makes her discovery about whales, her baby sister Mehwish is blinded in an accident, and it falls on Amal to look after her. Amal grows up to become Pakistan’s only woman paleontologist, but is prevented, by country and family, from seeking the sort of knowledge that can fuel her infinite curiosity. But in teaching Mehwish how to ‘read’ with her fingertips, she helps Mehwish develop her own language in a way that allows her to negotiate the limits of the practical world that thrills and frustrates Amal. Enter Noman, who unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that lead to an arrest, and bloody judgement.
You’re with these three characters as they grow up during General Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ campaign, when history and science books were rewritten (teaching Darwin was banned), artistic expression was stifled, and the right to theological debate was completely eradicated. So the book deals with the pain of intellectual repression, and with the culture wars of Pakistan brought about by a dictatorship that reduced faith to something that had to be proven. But it’s also, by some miracle, the funniest thing I’ve ever written. Possibly because I wrote all three characters in the first person (my two previous books are told by a third person narrator), the telling is intimate and playful.

Ahmede: What do you gain and lose by living in Pakistan as a novelist, and not
writing from the diaspora?

Uzma Aslam Khan: First, what I gain. I think of writing as a sedimentation process. By living in Pakistan, I feel the place every day, at the conscious and unconcious level. When I write, I tap into these layers. Because The Geometry of God is in part about ‘digging’, this is the metaphor I’m reaching for, but I could also talk about writing fiction as ‘fishing’. You drop the hook, wait for years for that eel that lurks somewhere to take the bait, and at last show itself. By living here, I build a fecund internal field to ply.
However, I’m not always able to tap the external field. As I said earlier, as a woman my mobility is frustratingly limited. My family background isn’t feudal or military, so I can’t drop big names to open doors.
I also lose out on publicity. Writers who live in the UK or US build a network of associates that help them get noticed. Without this buzz, the book dies. That’s the brutal truth. There’s more pressure on writers today to schmooze well than to write well. Though living here has helped me develop my aesthetic, I sail a very lonely boat, and I’m not sure I’d recommend the path.

Ahmede: In Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, JM Coetzee's protagonist says the following about novelists in Africa writing in English, which may as well be true for South Asia: "Whether they like it or not they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their reader. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to its investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students…" You are not a diasporic writer, but how do you view this issue?

Uzma Aslam Khan: Fact is, South Asia is now being written about in fiction almost entirely by writers who’ve never, or barely, lived here, and they typically write about characters like themselves: immigrants, or descendents of immigrants. There’s often a ‘back there in Fanaticstan’ thread to contrast with the ‘over here in Freeland’ thread. Writing about a family from Bangladesh or Pakistan who don’t immigrate is old-fashioned, as it is for the author to live ‘back there’. The hyphen (Anglo-Indian, Afghan-American) is what confers credibility. Diaspora writers who fit this description (not all do) are fulfilling the role of interpreter, no differently from the way white colonial writers played the part in the previous centuries. This is the New Orientalism. It has a ‘West saves the East’ undercurrent, and there are always passages of explanation about ‘native’ tribes and customs – so that it reads more like an anthropology study than a novel.
Now, am I also fulfilling this role, even though I live here, just because I write in English? Some would say so, though I’ve fought hard to resist editorial suggestions aimed at tailoring my books to the diaspora taste. With my previous book, Trespassing, this battle with an editor went on for nearly a year. I’ve also fought to keep certain covers off my books – covers that signal orientalism. They inevitably feature eyes behind a veil of soft purple or extreme black. One edition of Trespassing used such a cover, and my protests cost me heavily.
But as long as you write in English, these acts of resistance go unnoticed in Pakistan. In fact, ironically, the frustration I feel about certain kinds of diaspora writing is sometimes aimed at me, instead of at the diaspora writers themselves, who live safely out of target! I’ve had Urdu writers tell me ‘If you write in English, you’re on the other side of the fence.’ The fence doesn’t have to exist. What matters is how you use the language, not the language you use. It needn’t be used to interpret life here for the west. But as long as there’s hostility toward English-language writers within South Asia, local tastes and talents won’t develop, and the diaspora interpreters will continue to set the trend.

Ahmede: The South-Asian sub-continent has witnessed a phenomenal rise in religious intolerance. Where do you think the root of this problem lies?

Uzma Aslam Khan: Your question doesn’t specify any faith. As far as politically intolerant Islam goes, Pakistan’s slide began during the Afghan War, when CIA dollars promoted an armed Jihad to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen’s hardcore interpretation of Islam then was a boon, not a bane. What did it give Pakistan? General Zia introduced Sharia’a. Under him, a draconian version of the Blasphemy Law was passed. He introduced the infamous Hudood Laws that target women. These laws still exist.
Though the situation today is eerily similar – another war in Afghanistan, another US-backed military dictator in Pakistan – the roots of political Islam precede 9/11. But the ‘war on terror’ is certainly fattening this tree. In the ‘elections’ of 2002, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, religious parties gained control of two provinces. In our next ‘elections’, they’re likely to retain control, or worse. All over the world, political Islam is strengthening in countries where Muslims feel as crushed by their foreign-backed rulers as by colonial powers, present and past. Such as in Palestine, with the election of Hamas, or in Iran. The outcomes of these legitimate elections aren’t acceptable to western democracies, where political Christianity and political Judaism rule as surely as political Islam rules in parts of Asia. Our choices everywhere are terrifyingly limited. We’re stuck between puppet dictators and right-wing democrats.
But isn’t the root of the problem much older? After all, religion has always been the easiest political weapon in the book.

© Ahmede Hussain