Sandip Roy talks to Ali Sethi, the author of The Wishmaker. A review of the book can be found here.
Why did you set Zaki as the one boy in a house of women?
When I got to America I found I did not know enough about my country and where I came from, so I decided to major in South Asian studies. I spent a lot of time in libraries looking at the history of Pakistan. Women seem to have become the repositories of all that was either good or bad. I saw these cartoons from the early 20th century of the babus and the begums, and the begums were always shown smoking cigars; the modern woman was an evil influence. I thought it would be interesting to have Zaki to grow up around women, because Pakistan has become so much more contentious as far as the role of women in society is concerned.
What was it like setting this book against Pakistan’s cycle of coups and the promise of democracy that keeps getting betrayed?
My mother’s generation was much more affected by the promise of democracy after 10 years of military rule.
In 1988 an election was held and Benazir Bhutto won. She was young and beautiful and educated. She was also a symbol of people’s resistance. But it didn’t work out. The 90s were a decade of hope and also disappointment. I had a child eye’s view of that. My own father, a journalist, was arrested in 1999 by a democratically elected government. He was arrested for making an allegedly anti-Pakistan speech in India. He said then that Pakistan could be a failing state. Everyone says it now.
The descriptions of young people living under martial law, trying to get things like alcohol—did that come from lived experience?
Sure it’s lived experience. Imported alcohol is bootlegged and difficult to find. You have to know a bootlegger and even with bootleggers there is an initiation process whereby people meet you in corners of dark streets where they take the bag with one hand and give you the cash with the other. I think the very rich in Pakistan have easy access. The alcohol is delivered to their homes. What is interesting are the young people who don’t have 4,000 rupees to get a bottle of Johnny Walker. Many people make alcohol themselves—they will cut apples and pears and put it in an earthenware pot and bury it underground. It leads to a lot of alcohol poisoning. In cities, the common intoxication is hashish. A lot of young people smoke hashish because it’s cheaper and more difficult to get caught with.
What about young women? Samar Api gets involved in a love affair with serious consequences. Was that kind of serious teenage affair common for people you knew?
Sure. Everyone had their transgressions. We are still trying to define what it means to have rights in Pakistan, just human rights. The conversation has not really branched out into women’s rights vs men’s rights vs the rights of minorities. We are still trying to come to terms with the idea that citizenship comes with rights. People can drink alcohol in their homes and make out in their cars but there is no public legitimacy to any of these things. So at the end of the day you still end up doing what your parents want you to do.
You decided to go back to Lahore after you finished your education in the United States? How hopeful are you, given that in South Asia politics still seem dominated by the same names —Bhutto, Gandhi, Sharif. Doesn’t it seem feudal?
I think, in Pakistan, we are now moving past that point. There is a whole new generation of politically active youth coming up in Pakistan. Because they have grown up in a time with more TV channels, more newspapers, they are accustomed to these freedoms. And when these freedoms are threatened, they rebel.
When that video of the girl being flogged in Swat was aired on Pakistani TV you found young women, especially professionals, taking to the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad in a way they never had in the 70s and 80s. Even if it is confined to the yuppie areas, you do find that the Internet, television, mobile phones, SMS—these things make a difference. I think the future is brighter.