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From Jaipur With Love: Nadeem Aslam's 'The Blind Man's Garden' (part two)

01/04/2013 18:18 BST | Updated 01/06/2013 10:12 BST

Nauman: Right, now this is about your personal life. You had no English when you arrived in Britain.

Nadeem: No, well I had English in that when I was a kid, I started in an English medium school, a fee paying school. So, I knew the alphabet : a, b, c, d, e, f... z. Apparently, I am told - I don't remember this - it's part of the family folklore that on the first day at school during my first week at school, I had told the teacher that this is not an apple, it's a 'saib' which is, which in Punjabi and Urdu is a saib. And when she insisted, I had said, are you calling my mother a liar? (laughter) So that was, so yeah that was my first engagement with language, as it were, trying to understand. So, to...

Nauman: (interrupting) Because I was just thinking that it's an amazing level to get to, you know. With very little English, you know...

Nadeem: It's a language!

Nauman: With the kind of facility and the kind of fluency and beauty you write with, I mean.

Nadeem: (a little embarrassed) So, so, so, what happened was then that, so I did go to school in England, but the family circumstances deteriorated and they couldn't afford to send me to a posh school any more, to a fee paying school. So I was taken out and was sent to an ordinary government school which was where the medium of teaching was Urdu. So when I arrived in England I did have English because... my name is cat, my name is... and so... and, so, I taught myself. So in England a child has to be in school until you are 16, so I went to school and I did very badly in the subjects I was interested in which was English literature, History, Politics, Sociology, things for which you needed to write essays, marshal thoughts, there was a continuity of argument and I had, I had no English to do that with. The subjects that I did well in were sciences, so I went to the university to read sciences. But in my third year, I realised that my English was good enough to do what I wanted to which was to become a writer. So then I wrote my first novel, took eleven months to write and I didn't know how to have it published.

The writers I was loving were people like Naipaul and Updike and Gore Vidal and Timothy Moore and they were published by a firm in England called Andre Deutsch. So I picked up A Bend in the River and got Naipaul's novel, looked at the copyright page, got Andre Deutsch's address and sent them the manuscript and days later I got a phone call from the editor who edited A Bend in the River and she said, we have your manuscript, come and talk to us. And I said I can't and she said why not and I said I have no money. And she said we'll give you money, come. And, so, then, so that was when I, after my first novel was accepted, that was when my real education began because I couldn't do an O level in English and A level in English, a BA, an MA, a PhD in English, so I said let's do it now. So the next novel took eleven years to write because during the course of that year I said I am going to read everything by Conrad, everything by Joyce, everything by Lawrence, everything by Faulkner, everything by Nabokov, everything by Naipaul, I... you know, everything by Thomas Hardy. I am going to read them all, Melville... so slowly, patiently I worked my way through them and one of the ways I discovered was that to learn English you copy things out by hand. So I copied out the whole of Lolita, the whole of Blood Meridian, the whole of Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, the whole of The Autumn of the Patriarch and I still have those manuscripts; the whole of Beloved, wanting to seek, wanting to learn, wanting to see the pacing of each chapter because when a book is produced the text is actually reduced and becomes something else. But I am actually not writing in that sort of form, I am actually writing in manuscript form. So I needed to see what the rhythm of each chapter was, how many manuscript pages each of this chapter is, how many manuscript pages this encounter is, how many manuscript pages this particular conversation in Moby Dick is, Yeah? So, that was a great deal of help.

Nauman: Okay, The Blind Man's Garden is perhaps a fictional meditation on the state of the Afghanistan, Pakistan region. What do you see happening to the countries in reality in the near future?

Nadeem: Well, the Americans are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, and Ehsanullah Ehsan, the Pakistan Taliban's spokesman has said that our fight is not with the Americans, our fight is not with the Westerners, our fight is with fellow Muslims. So the TTP, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan - the Pakistani Taliban intend to continue their quote unquote struggle against the, the heretical, the... the almost infidel fellow Muslims in Pakistan. So, and, but, but, I mean I always say that well and you know, in Islam, it is a sin to lose hope, so and, what will happen, I mean Pakistan is 65 years old, can we look at what America was like when it was 65 years old, what England was like when it was 65 years old? And this is not me being complacent saying that everything would be fine, no not things will change but because people will change them. And it is simply not true that people are not fine.

I now spend several months a year in Pakistan, travelling around and any number of brilliant people are engaged in countless struggles on a daily basis to do something for that country. And, and they hear things like Pakistan is a failed state, Pakistan should not have been created, etc, etc. you know, it means nothing to them. And of course, it shouldn't mean anything to them because you know it's a reality, Pakistan is a reality and they are trying to better, to make it better, you know. And I always say that despair has to be earned, you know, if you say Pakistan is a failed state, Pakistan is a basket case and to hell with it, I want to see a record of your struggle; where you tried to make it better, you know. Show me what you did first and you failed, second you failed again, third time you tried failed again, fourth, fifth, sixth time. I want to see all of that and if you have been trying and you've made a hundred efforts then I will probably agree with you that yes, you know, I... go and be despondent, you know. But if you haven't tried anything that simply is not possible for me to take you seriously.

Nauman: So, the next one's about characters. How do you conceive and decide on characters? To what extent do you, sort of, mime reality and what part do you leave to the imaginative act?

Nadeem: First of all, umm.

Nauman: You have partly sort of, answered that already.

Nadeem: Answered that! That, that, that, they come out of ... what I require them to do. Because you know, at the most basic level they are there for me to arrange and illustrate the full complexity of the situation, so that is that. But how a character is created - I have, I mean, I know people, I have friends, I have lovers, I have etc, etc. people, things people say, things people do. In this story, in The Blind Man's Garden, the story of Sophia, when she goes to university as a young girl in the 60s, in Lahore, from the provinces and in the 60s in the universities in Pakistan and in the elite, ultra modern kids were doing what the elite ultra modern kids in the Western universities were doing, you know and, only staggered by a few years, you know, because things were filtering in. So this girl from the provinces arrived into the metropolis, and went to the university where her fellow students were totally different from what she had been brought up with.

My mother used to wear a burka. So, my mother was really upset, she went back and said I am not going back but my grandfather, my mother's father, he was a step child, and his... so he was taken out of school at a very early age and because there was no money for his education, there was money for the education of the new kids, as it were, but because he was a step child, he was put to work, as it were. So almost sounds like a fairy tale but there it is. And, so he always said my children will be educated, he was very keen. So when my mother came back from university saying I am not going back because they are all godless and shameless etc, etc. and they make fun of me because I wear a burka and I speak with a strange accent, that I am not au fait with whatever is happening, my grandfather said would it help you if you took off your burka? And she said, she was shocked and she said, well, it might but I ain't gonna do it. I will not do it. And he said, look please try it because shame and modesty isn't in a garment, it's in your behaviour and in your eyes.

This is in the 60s and this man is a cleric, a mullah who is sending his daughter to another city to get an education. So my mother went back without a burka but even then she didn't adjust. She found it too alien and she came back. Now that is the story of Sophia. So this is what you do, you just give it a... And then I had an aunt who did go and completely fitted in and became a headmistress of a school and eventually left, studied English, became the headmistress of a school and with her first pay cheque she bought various items: a watch, some treats, some new clothes etc, etc. so Sophia actually is constructed partly from my mother and partly from my aunt because my mother took off her burka but couldn't adjust and went back to the provinces but Sophia took off her burka and did adjust and became my other aunt and became a teacher as it were. So this is how you create a character, you know. So I mean, I myself am the first reference. If I am going to talk about a friendship, my first source for my, of material is my own friends. What is it, how do I feel about that person, the x person, first love etc. love, friendship, engagements, children in your life, so you know, yeah. What is a son, what is a neighbour. I myself am the first and foremost, then you.

Nauman: One of the skills, indeed beauty of your novels is, is the way you weave a number of strands together to form the entire narrative. Can you just say a little bit about how you go about that, I mean this?

Nadeem: (animatedly) Oh it's very difficult. I mean, the first draft is just dreadful but then you slowly begin to smooth the edges and the second draft, then the third draft, then the fourth. The way I work, I don't know how much detail you want me to go into with this answer because I can go into quite... So, I write a chapter that ( pause) or I do an outline and think this is going to happen in this chapter, in this chapter I hope to achieve this, then I have notebooks in which during the course of the day, in the course of the week, in the course of the month, I write down my thoughts, the things I see, the things I observe, something interesting, an interesting photograph torn from a newspaper is cellotaped into it. And I have been doing that now for twenty, twenty-two years. So I have now about two-hundred notebooks.

So finishing a chapter, you pick up notebook number one, which dates back to twenty two years, you look at the first thing in it, whatever it might be - an image, a thought, a quote from someone else, etc, etc. And you think, is, is, is this thing usable in this chapter anywhere and if it is you actually go and make a note of it. So you say, oh yes, when she says that she actually could add this bit, that would be very interesting. Then the next thing, then the next thing, then the next thing, then you go through the whole notebook.

And you go through, pick the second notebook, then the third notebook, then the fourth notebook. And, so, sometimes you actually pick a book at random not just the first book which dates from twenty two years. So you pick, and, until, until this outline is scrolled with tiny writings and new ideas have come into it making it richer, making it etc. Then you go and write that. Then you do the next chapter, same way, the third, the fourth. And then you come back and you read the whole novel and you think... well, you know this doesn't work there so let's put it back in the notebook because it is a good line but it just doesn't work here, you know. It is not a bad line so put it back, it is usable. So that is what you do.

Nauman: All your novels are much concerned with the silencing of women under fundamentalist regimes...

Nadeem: (completing the sentence) Say something about it, yeah, well, it's interesting because I think women in the novels and representing the resistance, the people who are, on whom a number of forces are acting and they are trying to push those forces back. And they are sometimes done heroically, sometimes not so heroically, but that in a society like Pakistan and, of course, like India that is true of men as well. Anyone who is different, anyone who tries to break away from the established order, as I am now writing a novel about the blasphemy law, so I now have to think about the Christians, what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do in Pakistan, you know - the minority. So some of the women are the obvious symbol but they are not... Shamas in the, in Maps for Lost Lovers wants to become a poet but as I was explaining to you earlier the system isn't constructed to accommodate a poet very well. Certain things are required in a certain layer of society, I mean, the, the, the background he comes from, certain things are expected of him, he has responsibilities etc. So that, you know, I mean, there isn't a single extended family, it is my firm belief that there isn't a single extended family in the entire subcontinent which hasn't produced a poet. Think about your own - somebody's uncles, fathers you know, they would always tell you he used to write poems. Yeah, so you know.

Nauman: How British do you feel after this many years? What are the advantages and disadvantages of residing in Britain? What do you like or dislike about your life in Britain and Pakistan?

Nadeem: Very good question. Its, its, uh, I mean I was saying the other day that you know, nationalism and boundaries and everything, that these frontiers don't mean anything to me. I could live anywhere if I loved someone, you know. And I think that might be true for any number of other human beings too and this goes back to me saying I am not special. So if something is true of me and I am thinking of it from a humble position it might be true of a number of other people. So Britain... in my study I have a map where I cut out the shape of Pakistan from the world map and I cut out the shape of England from the map, and I put them together. So, this new country, so I put them together so that the Grand Trunk road passes from Lahore, goes to Peshawar, enters the Khyber pass, becomes the Khyber bridge because there is a small body of water between the two, between the two countries, the shape that they are because they don't meet properly, becomes the Khyber bridge over the water and emerges in New castle, in the England side of the map. So that's the country I live in - mentally. England is, I mean, a lot of my 'firsts' happened in Pakistan. I was a child in Pakistan, my first going to school, the idea of what a parent is, the idea of what a 'bulbul' is, the idea of what a rose smells like were given to me in Pakistan but a lot of my firsts - important firsts - happened in England: my first kiss, my first sex, my first job, my first right so all of that, so that is how I feel.

Nauman: Do you prefer to be called a Pakistani writer or a British... ?

Nadeem: I am perfectly happy to be called a Pakistani writer, a British writer, a British-Pakistani writer. I am not that... I'll quote Toni Morrison who said that she wants to be identified as a black woman writer because she does not see it as a marginal thing. If it's a marginal thing it's for you, not for her and the same thing for me. For me it's a position of strength. Pakistani community in England might be on the margins but it isn't on the margins as far as I am concerned. We - me and my family - we are the... and that minority is a central thing.

Nauman: Just... one last question. A lot of them, of course, will be friends but who do you think is particularly talented amongst the new crop of Pakistani writers writing in English and why? Are there any of the old guard you drew inspiration from?

Nadeem: I think Intizar Hussain is the greatest living writer on the planet. And I have been reading him all my life and the new batch, they are all my friends. I cannot imagine my work without them. I learn from them every single day. So Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Uzma Aslam Khan, Mohsin Hamid all of them. And H. M. Naqvi we have; we have Shehryar Fazli and journalists - there's Omar Waraich, the journalist who writes; there's a young man called Umair Javed from Lahore I think he is; there's Sheheryar Mirza who works in Karachi. These are very, very brilliant people and I learn from them.

Nauman: Thank you so much... thank you, Nadeem. (Nadeem whisked away by publicist and almost immediately thronged by female admirers)