Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Interview in The News, Pakistan by Rumana Husain

Q 1. What are your observations about the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF)?
I enjoyed it very much and found it on par with similar events in Jaipur and Hay-on-Wye in terms of content, infrastructure, location and general feel. One difference I noticed was that every session ended in a political discussion.
As an Indian visiting Pakistan for the first time, I was struck by the enthusiastic participation at all levels – there was a strong sense that this festival was important to those attending. It made me wish that more people in the world could see this side of Pakistan.
Q 2. Your book documents ‘a lost homeland’ for the Sindhi Hindus who migrated to India at the time of Partition. How did you go about gathering information and researching a place you had never visited before?
To me, growing up with a Sindhi mother and Sindhi relatives, Sindh did not actually exist. So when I started talking to my mother, it was like exploring a dreamland. Looking back, I think it’s good that while I was writing I did not have the perspective I now have, after visiting. I may not have been able to keep the new ideas out and that could have diluted my stories.
Q 3. Many of those who migrated to India never turned back to visit Sindh. Surely they could not have remained emotionally removed and alienated from all their friends and acquaintances (Hindus and Muslims) who stayed behind in Sindh, even if they claimed to have ‘moved on’ upon their migration to India after August 1947. Your comments please.
As a child with a Sindhi mother and grandparents, I never (ever!) sensed that an enormous part of their lives was so completely masked. That is partly due to my insensitivity, but also because they turned away from it so resolutely. They never spoke of it. There was no visible yearning for what they had lost; not even plain descriptions of the place which I have now realised was so very special.
In the process of writing this book, however, I did meet people who spoke of Sindh with longing. They did indeed remember the ones they had left behind and still missed them, even now. All the time I was writing this book, I had a feeling of searing regret that I could never ask my grandparents about how their lives had been back then, what they had gone through, and how they moved on and became the people that I knew.
On the other hand, as someone who has, at an individual level, left my past behind more than once, and moved on fully focussed on the future, I wonder whether it is a skill I learnt from them – or just the ability of ordinary human beings to adapt to changed circumstances.
Q 4. You visited your mother’s and grandparents’ hometown, Hyderabad, in Sindh. How was that experience? Did you feel any connection with the place? What were your general observations about Hyderabad? Did you visit any other place in Sindh?
If anyone had told me this was going to happen as recently as two years ago, I would never have believed it! This was the most unlikely – and most important – journey I have ever made, somewhat like a trip to the moon, or a visit to Harry Potter’s Platform Nine and Three-quarters. Yes – I did feel a connection with the place, and the keen awareness of being the first person in the family to go back. I was thinking of my grandparents, my mother, her siblings and cousins all the while, wanting to share the experience with them.
We drove in from Kotri, on the same bridge that my mother and uncle described to me when I interviewed them for my book. But they had described a great, gushing, river quite different from what I saw. I knew things would be different – the world has changed, no place is the same as it was 65 years ago. But a lot was the same too – the ruins of the fort on the hill are surely the same that my mother could see from her childhood home. We ate rabri at Gadi Khato and surely that couldn’t have tasted much different back then! My great-grandfather was station master at Hyderabad railway station some time between 1900 and 1906. We were received with great courtesy by Sagheer-ud-Din, the present Station Superintendent. I could see furniture in an inner room that must have been there in my great-grandfather’s time.
Zulifiqar Halepoto hosted a reception for us in his home and invited a number of writers and it was an honour meeting and interacting with them. I was tickled at their amazement that someone who grew up in a tiny, isolated place far away in south India had written something this book!
My husband and I turned vegetarian a few years ago and are quite used to travelling to places where meat is the main food and happy to eat bread with a side dish. But they had taken a lot of trouble to prepare a vegetarian banquet and we were very touched.
Q 5.  This was your first ever visit to Pakistan. Before arriving in Karachi for the KLF, what did you expect the city to be like? Did it seem similar or different to what you expected?
 I had been told that Karachi is just like Bombay. In fact I saw nothing of the crowd, grime, and bustle which to me characterize Bombay. I felt it was more like Delhi or even my city Pune, in terms of being spread out and laidback, and all the flowering plants. I was thrilled to see how beautifully your heritage buildings are maintained and impressed by the standards of efficiency and aesthetics at the new dining places. But taken one scene at a time, most dominant was the impression of never having left home.
Q 6. Your husband and daughters accompanied you here. How did they find Karachi and Pakistanis in general?
They absolutely loved it! One of the things they noticed with surprise is that there is more courtesy on the Pakistani roads than we are used to. The road engineering design is better than in an Indian city.
The impact of Bollywood means that you know our pop culture but we know nothing of yours. So we had no idea that our short kurtas would be outlandish and we should instead have been wearing long ones with plain front and print at the back! It also meant that our friends knew the tune of the Indian national anthem. (We made sure we became familiar with the Pak one too!)
It was a new experience to be in a country where organised religion is relevant for non-political reasons. And we were surprised to learn that muggings and killings are more common occurrences than sexual assaults.
The girls met and became friends with politically inclined people who wanted to be part of the system – not that common in India. In general we met young people who were more politically conscious than privileged youngsters in India tend to be.
I should also say that there was a list of places we had planned to visit – but we never got round to because the focus was on spending time with newly-made friends. And we were so overwhelmed with affection from them that there was a tangible pain of separation – I believe ‘partition pangs’ is the technical term!
Q 7. You are a writer, author, columnist, artist, mother, wife… do you have to juggle a lot in order to balance all these roles? What is a typical day for you back at home in Pune?
No juggling really – my priorities have always been very simple and it’s only now that I can spend all day reading and writing, or travel whenever I want. When my children were growing up, and in the years my father was ailing, I did my columns and painting commissions strictly when they didn’t need me. I always boast that my biggest career achievement is that when the school bus came home, I was always there!