The author talks politics, journalism and the inspiration behind his latest novel 'Red Birds'
Pakistan storyteller Mohammed Hanif soars to greater heights
Before becoming an award-winning novelist, Mohammed Hanif was a fighter pilot – and so he could in many ways relate to his protagonist first hand when writing his latest novel Red Birds, which hones in on an American pilot who crash-lands in the desert and takes refuge in the village he was originally supposed to bomb.
The author grew up in a village in Punjab, Pakistan, where his father was a farmer and neither of his parents could read or write. But he learned these skills himself and began borrowing books, reading voraciously. He learned English as a teenager, and then read novels by British and American writers, as well as translations of Russian and Latin American works, developing an appetite to experience more than just life in his own small town. That is partly why he enlisted into the military, which was his way of seeing the world.
Hanif trained as a fighter pilot, but the cerebral author wasn’t happy in the military – while serving he would immerse himself in novels at every opportunity. Although he had initially enlisted for an 18-year stint, his service was cut short by 10 years when his father died, enabling him to leave on compassionate grounds.
As he was already an avid reader, Hanif then decided to venture into journalism, a career choice that he loved and one that he was good at – he seemed to always be able to ferret out the stories that others only wished they could write.
Consequently, he was offered a job at the BBC in London, working on the channel’s Urdu language service from 1996, where he stayed until 2008, eventually becoming the head of the Urdu service.
After that he returned to Pakistan, and he has remained in Karachi ever since, working as a journalist, novelist, satirist and, most recently, a playwright.
His first novel, 2008’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes set him among South Asia’s best writers. A year after it was published, it won the Best First Book Award in the Common Wealth Book Prize.
When we meet him in Karachi, it’s instantly clear that Hanif is a sarcastic and funny man. Wearing pink shorts and a grey shirt, he refused to have his portrait taken and wanted to enjoy lunch before agreeing to start the interview.
These quirks and affectations aside, he is perhaps the foremost observer of the country’s contradictions and absurdities. Red Birds, Hanif’s third book, will make its way to the market this month.
The National caught up with Hanif to talk more about the new novel, the suppression of freedom of speech and the threats many journalists face in Pakistan.
You wrote 'Red Birds' after a gap of seven years. Why did it take so long to materialise?
I don’t know what the right amount of time that one should spend writing a novel is. People can write them in 12 days and I have a friend who has been writing the same novel for 18 years and is not finished yet. Maybe I am slowing down with age. Maybe Red Birds was more ambitious than my previous novels.
In one of your recent interviews, you said the book is funny but about sad things. What was it like adding humour to sad incidents?
It was a very long and difficult, sometimes frustrating, sometimes a joyful experience.
The book is about war and conflicts. You have reported on the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan; you have met and interviewed the families of missing Baloch people. Can tell us more about the experiences of reporting on that issue?
I wrote a booklet called The Baloch Who is Not Missing and Others Who Are. I did a series of profiles on the family members of the missing people. Anybody who talks to them, cannot come out without being shaken, without their world view being changed. And I guess that happened to me.
Some of the themes in this novel come from that experience, but it didn’t stop at Balochistan because there are people missing from Karachi, from Sindh, from Khyber Pakthunkwa (KP) and now from Punjab as well. It’s not a book about Balochistan per se. It’s a novel and has its own story to tell, which may be influenced by the experiences you refer to.
In another interview, you advise journalists to try to not get killed or fired because there is no room left for satire. Why are you so pessimistic?
Look around and tell me where we stand today? How many journalists have been killed in the Federal Administered Tribal Area (which currently has been merged with KP province), in Khuzdar, in Turbat, and generally in Balochistan? Did we ever find out who killed journalist Saleem Shahzad? Do we know who shot news anchor Hamid Mir in broad daylight? Some of the best journalists are out of jobs because they refuse to toe the line. I would like to be hopeful, but every passing day the chains around us are multiplying.
Do you think the community of journalists in Pakistan are strong enough to weather this wave of suppression and to ultimately emerge stronger?
There is hardly a community, unions are almost non-existent, and journalists are more than willing to lynch their fellow journalists to advance their careers. I would like to believe that we’ll emerge stronger, but the reality is that we’ll emerge as a lynch mob for the state or as corporate slaves.
Cyril Almeida and his paper, Dawn, which is one of the oldest newspapers in the country and the largest English language paper when it comes to circulation, have been hounded by the state and security agencies for more than two years for doing some very basic reporting.
When the security agencies are not hounding them they have got their lackeys in the media who keep calling them traitors, endangering their lives. Now Dawn is a fairly conservative paper, it’s got [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah’s picture on the masthead and the state believes it’s the enemy number one.
Imran Khan, the new prime minister, has vowed to build a new Pakistan. What is there for writers like you in the country now?
The cynic in me thinks it is an old drink in a new bottle. Look at the cabinet; it’s the reincarnation of General Pervez Musharraf’s regime, without Musharraf. But then you look at Imran Khan and you know that he has politicised a whole new generation, we may not like their politics, they may not know how to spell or how to have a conversation without resorting to abuse, but they are there and Khan has made them dream big. I just hope there’s no rude awakening around the corner.
Red Birds is published by Bloomsbury and will be released on October 18