Ali Sethi is the newest and youngest novelist to portray Paksitan's culture and middle class in his work, The Wish Maker.
Ali Sethi's The Wish Maker examines Pakistani identity
When was the last time you made a wish? Probably just after blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, eyes scrunched shut as you asked for a present to make you the envy of the schoolyard. Not, if truth be told, life-changing stuff. But for the 24-year-old Pakistani author Ali Sethi, wishes are much more important. They might not change lives, but they certainly change minds. And in his debut novel, which spins around three generations of a Lahore family, those wishes are key.
"The name of the book, The Wish Maker, was so important to what I was trying to say," he notes from his London hotel room. "It refers to the ability to have things and want things of course, but also there is something deeper there. It's about how people pursue what they want, how they cope with the ever-changing idea of themselves. Because in Pakistan, you don't so much form your own identity - make your own wishes come true, in a way - as have it imposed upon you. So my characters have to have fantasies about where they are going, or what they can be, just to keep themselves sane."
Immediately, then, Sethi is on the political offensive, which is unsurprising considering the backdrop to the story. Yes, this is an enjoyable, engaging family saga, a tale of two cousins (Zaki and Samar) growing up in 1990s Lahore and coming of age. But the reason that it's turned the head of Khaled Hosseini (whom Sethi has already been compared to) is that it shares a central theme with The Kite Runner: that of a boy growing up amid incredibly turbulent events.
Husseini has written about the book: "The Wish Maker, in Ali Sethi's mature and sure-handed prose is an engaging family saga, an absorbing coming-of-age story, and an illuminating look at one of the world's most turbulent regions. Ali Sethi steadfastly resists the usual cliches about both Islam and his native country. Instead he offers a nuanced, often humorous, and always novel look at life in modern day Pakistan."
Sethi is not as strong on narrative as Hosseini, but then, comparing him to a novelist who has sold over 10 million books is slightly unfair to the recent Harvard graduate. Where The Wish Maker is successful, is in Sethi's depictions of a Pakistan many are perhaps unfamiliar with. A Pakistan where culture plays a huge part, where there is a vibrant upper-middle class obsessing over upcoming weddings just like everywhere else. A Pakistan that, as Sethi sagely notes: "isn't some poor third world country run by fundamentalists".
Sethi has written about Pakistan's "slow motion emergency" for The New York Times, but what made him turn to the novel format? "Well, you hope that a novel has a truth in it which lasts longer than a news report," he says. "But it was important to me to write about a time that has passed already. At the time I began the book there was a boom in Pakistan's economy and Musharraf was ruling in a way that at least suggested to the West that the news coming out of the country was good. All was going to be well, even though the politicians were not actually playing a part in Pakistan's politics. The two main opposition politicians, Benezir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were living in exile in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
"Perhaps this is hindsight, but it was pretty obvious to me that if I did write in the present, Pakistan would change as I was writing and I would never have an end point. So that drew me to when I grew up, in the 1990s, when there was a different atmosphere in Pakistan. I wanted to create a record of things that I didn't think had been archived - and they hadn't been archived because there was no official recognition of the cultural elements of Pakistan. So it was important to me to put together a more realistic picture of the kind of life that I had known."
It does mean, even though Sethi protests otherwise, that the book has more than an element of autobiography about it: Zaki's mother starts a magazine, in an echo of the newspaper Sethi's parents set up. Zaki and Sethi went to similar schools, and his characters go to study abroad, as Sethi did. But if that means it is set in a world that's convincing and Sethi knows to be true, then it ceases to be such an issue. And you sense that right from the beginning, Sethi is keen to smash some preconceptions about what Pakistan could or should be. More than once in our conversation he refers to one scene early in the book, where Zaki has to stand up in front of his class and tell his schoolmates how his father died.
"What Zaki has to say in school is in a way what the book is about. His father is in the air force, and so he's told to tell the class what war he died in. But his father didn't die in any war, he died in an air accident. It's a poignant moment because you can see Zaki, and the class, realising that he wasn't some hero and can't claim to be. But that's most people's lives. Just because my characters are living in Pakistan and based in a Muslim world doesn't mean that their fates have to be bound up in what you might expect from someone living in that world. That's not how people live their lives."
Zaki's middle-class family has, as you might expect from Sethi's views, a liberal outlook. They reflect an essentially urban outlook in striving for a democratic government (which is realised with the election of Benazir Bhutto in 1988). "It's a great misery for these characters that the thing they wanted all along ends up being such a disappointment. But that was Pakistan for you. Lahore was a really exciting place to be then; that feeling that Samar and Zaki have when satellite TV comes to their house for the first time was one I can clearly remember - these strange new worlds beaming into Pakistan. But elsewhere, mainly in the poorer and more rural parts of the country, fundamentalism was rising, Karachi was rife with ethnic enmities? and then those leaders were abusing the system, the economy started to fail?"
Sethi tails off, almost in exasperation. Luckily, the book isn't so exasperated with the times. The scene with the satellite television installation and Zaki's subsequent obsession with The Wonder Years is remarkably joyful. Samar becomes obsessed with Americanisms through her friend Tara who reads American magazines, watches American television and even enunciates in American tones, much to Zaki's bemusement. But like Zaki's speech at the school, it's tinged with poignancy. Sethi studied women in post-colonial art at Harvard and this is very much a book that deals with the lot of women in Pakistan. Indeed, in Samar, all of the social strands and restrictions of Pakistani life come together.
"Samar and Zaki grow up as cousins in Lahore, but Samar has this link to a more rural Pakistan. And coming from that world means you find it very, very difficult to escape the social structures that are built up for you. It means you end up dreaming, like she does. Wishing. The strange thing is, if you do manage to find a job in Dubai, for example, that's fine. That's not breaking the social structure because it's understood that the money will change everything, that life stories will be completely altered when it's sent home. Those social structures are made even more complicated by the existing middle class using the language of American culture. It's a strange kind of 'progress' isn't it - absurd really, because they're hardly being true to themselves. You see how complex it all is?"
The beauty of The Wish Maker, though, is that Sethi never overcomplicates it. In fact, he possibly spends too long explaining the freedoms and constrictions of Pakistani society Zaki and Samar live in: it takes over 100 pages for any discernible plot to arrive. Sethi won't admit to this but there's something telling in one of his characters reading Middlemarch on a train. George Eliot's book is described as being written in a "high rambling way that at first was difficult to follow". But Zaki "stayed with it, settling now into the ever-expanding world it described". So it is with this story, and such comparisons are confirmed with an epigraph from the same book that talks of "the difficult task of knowing another soul".
But does Sethi's combination of the social, the political and the family epic in one novel make it as much of an undertaking for the reader as it was for him? "I hope so in a way," he says. "I know the expectations will be for an Islamic novel, but for me the point of a story is to transcend and hopefully have universal themes, not in my view to narrowly chart one way of life. I really don't think people read carefully enough, and if there's one thing I'm trying to do is to get people to think, to read properly, and hopefully to understand."
Lofty aims, and luckily there's a gentle humour shot through Sethi's naturalistic prose which make it as accessible as it is educational and thought-provoking. In this way, it is again easy to draw comparison with The Kite Runner, and the way Hosseini depicts pre-revolutionary Afghanistan with warmth and humour despite the tense political undercurrent. Whether The Wish Maker will be as successful at drawing the international spotlight on Pakistan remains to be seen. But by watching the rise of The Kite Runner - also a debut novel - it certainly would have crossed Sethi's mind. "We need to think again about what kind of country we want to be and we need to resolve a lot of the issues which have made things so precarious. That's the discussion I hope for, really."
The wish-maker making a wish. Let's hope it comes true.