When did you come up with the idea of a book about your life?
I have been trying to write a book ever since I was 21. I have one failed novel, which was a novel purely for the drawer. And I was well on my way to a second failed novel. The second was dealing with this material (of his life) in a fictional form. I was working as a journalist but didn’t have my heart fully in it. I was trying to pay my way so that I could write fulltime. Working in Time magazine, I had reached a very frustrating point. My job as a reporter was almost clerical, I wanted very much to get out. The book happened because of an extraordinary set of situations. Time magazine brought out an issue called the Soul of Islam, and I did some reporting for them in the northern part of Britain, I had interviewed Hassan Butt (a Muslim radical). Time magazine used one line of it! The interview was published by Prospect magazine a year later, when I did my first cover piece for them. And then I got this letter from my father (criticizing the piece) and that letter constituted a kind of emotional shock. It seemed to bring together the different strands that I was working on.. I wanted to figure out how my father had acted like a Muslim. How despite his faithlessness, total faithlessness, were the impulses of the religion still in some way working on him. Why was he angry with me? The reason why I discuss his faith is that the other side of religion, the practice, the belief, is totally missing in him.
Why did the autographical novel fail?
The material seems like it is the stuff of books. But when material is too particular it can almost be harder for a young writer to try to work through. There is this extraordinary story but what does it mean? It’s not everybody else’s. That was actually quite a challenge…(But) it only half failed. The personal bits in Stranger to History are taken almost directly from it. And they form some of the most important sections of the book. So the earliest part of this book was written as long as five years ago.
That was around the time you made your first visits to Pakistan. A strong sense comes through in your book of you always feeling like a stranger in Pakistan…Why was that?
It was a twin experience. It was familiar and it was unfamiliar. It was always to be a stranger and not. The reason for this is, India as a culture and civilisation runs through Pakistan in every way, in ways they don’t even know. They are often talking about caste, they don’t know it…But it is not something for them to celebrate, it is something for them to reject, to feel embarrassed about, it undermines their mission for what Pakistan was meant to be. I was Indian on one level, but there was also a part of me that had a deep attachment to Pakistan. And so, the distancing and alienation I felt because of the rejection of India was always upsetting. Hindus being cowardly, rejecting the Hindu classical past, certain ideas about how Indians look, all those things were probably more offensive to me, maybe someone else could have taken them with a pinch of salt. It was upsetting because it made it very difficult to be both Indian and Pakistani.
Do you think that because part of you was Pakistani that you had a different kind of access to Pakistan, that people were freer with you?
Absolutely. When I left the Wagah border, they saw my PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card, my name was on it, and they said, Dhyan se jaana, sambhal ke jana, jaldi wapas aa jao. When I went to the other side, they welcomed me with open arms…"You were in India for so long!" It was pretty affecting, because there was a lot of warmth and even when my father was distant and cold, this was compensated for twice as much by everyone, who said, "This is your country, make sure you feel its your country…" They were more than happy to take me in. They would have liked me to turn my back on India and then be theirs. To keep the two was something that was strange and difficult for them.
The racist remarks about Indians, Hindus, that you quote?
They didn’t say that to offend me. They thought I would subscribe to them. They weren’t speaking maliciously, that was just the kind of casual - just the - way they spoke.
Your first visits to Pakistan were made after 9/11. Do you think that that sense you communicate of a bitter, closed society, was a post 9/11 thing?
The rejection of India was not a post- 9/11, it is a deep thing, it is there in Iqbal.. it is a deep intellectual basis for Pakistan. But certainly, they were doing much better in the past, were richer, had better roads.. Certainly, for my father it was a big shock to see India suddenly, sometimes falsely, being positioned as this rising superpower. In the last 10 or 15 years, the depressing news about Pakistan was very upsetting to Pakistanis. And they all had fresh experiences of being treated very differently in the west, of insulting things said about Pakistan.
India’s economic rise bothered them?
More than economic rise, it has been the cultural rise that blows them away. They have a view of India in their house everyday with Bollywood. They used to have lots of small complexes, our women are prettier, and suddenly you have these Maharashtrian beauties coming out of the woodwork. India’s soft power is shocking to them.
There was a hope in the 80s, that with a new generation, one not burdened by the baggage of Partition, there could be a better relationship. But your book has a lot of young people expressing angst about India.
With every generation it is worse. The people I felt closest to were from that older generation who had an idea of a mixed society, they had an idea of hybridity which is essential in India. Indians carry it in their minds without even knowing. With that younger generation ... they have had their pure society, so they are not used to that hybridity. They have been fed a lot of nonsense. I found that as the two countries ... as we .. got younger, it was more clear they had gone their own ways.
When one travels in a country, one has many experiences. When you write, you choose. Do you think the experiences with Pakistanis in your book were representative of the general trend?
What I like do is to lay my own perspective down as much as I can for the reader so that he can see the working behind the thoughts and the experiences there. Because I believe a book like this cannot be impartial, shouldn’t be impartial, it is not a textbook. As long as the reader knows the person he is travelling with and can feel that the experiences are honest. That’s the most important thing. They represent my way of looking at Pakistan. And I have a faith that they tell a story that is true of Pakistan in ways bigger than me.
It was a brave decision to lay bare your family relationships, particularly your very difficult relationship with your father. How did you reason this in your mind?
I reason it in this way, that the personal circumstances contained a bigger story. If they had been strictly personal, if they had just been just one’s own wranglings, I don’t think I would have. And it was so strange, the kind of divisions that have come up between my father and me, I almost immediately knew that they seemed to hint at other, bigger truths. And the personal way is the only way I write, it’s my only way into a situation. So after I felt that the personal life was of importance, of significance, that there was something bigger contained in it, I wasn’t very shy about speaking frankly about it, and it was also a way to deal with it myself.
What has the experience of writing this done for you? Now that it’s over and done with, what does that do for you?
(long pause) I think that second silence (the one after the letter) the second falling apart, it felt like a desperate situation. It was a very positive step when I went for the first time to Pakistan, and many positive things had happened. And to suddenly see it run aground, so this was a way to make my peace with that personal history as well. Obviously, I had a kind of intellectual thing to work through vis-à-vis Pakistan, this hybridity, where it would lead me. But on a personal level, writing about it did help me to put some of it behind me...
And it’s not a topic you would want to go back to, the family, the relationships, the personal history, in your writing? The book helps you move on?
A first book often has this quality of a person coming to terms with themselves, and then you hope you start to look around you as well, that it doesn’t become an endless self-obsession. It’s an unusual story, but once told you wouldn’t want to keep telling it.
I also hope for it to be a book for Pakistan. I know that is a very naïve thing to say, but neither with my father, nor with Pakistan, was it written to settle any scores. Books like that don’t last. And I hope that despite what looks like a bleak look at Pakistan, it is possible to see a genuine concern and affection for the place. That it will mean something there too, maybe not now but that it will eventually have some importance there.
Have you got any Pakistani reactions, did you circulate the manuscript among friends there?
I haven’t yet… I think it was out of a respect for my father. Our relationship is more or less... there has been no contact for the last year or so over this issue, I thought it wouldn’t be nice to have people talking about the book before he’d seen it, and I was going to send it to him as soon as it was ready. I didn’t want to send it to him in advance because I thought he would flare up unnecessarily.
So you don’t have a sense of how people might react to it?
I can’t imagine it will be well received…You know, I don’t have that in me, I have no check that would make it seem better or worse. It would be horrible if I came with a lack of compassion, but I don’t feel that the book lacks that. There is a lot of compassion for people through it. I couldn’t have softened it all, it would have been a stylistic problem (he laughs)…I also feel that if something about a place stands out, then you are not being balanced if you fill in all these other things to counter that.
What was your father’s response when you told him you were writing a book?
He said -- it’s in the book -- if you are writing another filthy diatribe against Pakistan, I don’t want to have any part of it. He felt that his family had been patriots, he didn’t want anything he saw as... He granted that my prejudice wasn’t intended, he didn’t think I was trying to wilfully misconstrue the picture. But he felt that I was prejudiced and he didn’t want to be part of anything that would potentially run down Islam, run down Pakistan. And you know, the whole private story, by the time we come around to the book, this story has come out in newspapers, it is not a big secret. Everyone in Pakistan knows that I am his son. But he has tried to rein that back. In an interview he will say he has six children which is just a silly thing to say, everyone knows. Because he has dealt with this so little in his world, even the personal story is embarrassing to him.
This business of your father becoming the governor of Punjab?
That is a very surprising and for him, I am sure, an unfortunate development. But I couldn’t have seen that coming. This is not some kind of tell-all book, but I couldn’t have put my life on hold, because in that crazy world of Pakistani politics, he is at that very moment… Governors come and go in Pakistan, but he has been there six months... The timing is slightly insane (he laughs uncertainly) I wouldn’t have wished for it to be timed like that.. He was just a businessman, a nameless Pakistani, and that was good enough for what I had to say. He didn’t need to be the governor of Punjab.
You wrote this book for Pakistan you say. But if Pakistanis are the way you say they are, a portrait like this would make them get even more worked up? Is that your sense?
The situation they are in with Islam is so kind of a cul-de-sac, it is so empty, that they’re going to have to realise they cant keep re-churning up this nihilism, they have to look at something serious about what went wrong. Things have come as close to rock bottom as possible. I don’t think I am the only person making a noise like this. Even in fiction, the Daniyal Mueenuddin stories.... He looks pretty seriously at Pakistan.
It’s not so sharply political.
And non-fiction anyway would feel grittier. It is true that I have no love for the idea of Pakistan. I reject the idea of Pakistan, on an intellectual level I think it is absurd what they wanted to do. It is an ugly idea, it is an idea of saying, we don’t want to live with you. It has brought up terrible results, it is behind the kind of rootlessness Pakistan knows today.. In both Punjab and Sind, their societies have been so disrupted, even worse than India. It was with that in mind that I wrote this as well. It was to see those places dismembered still, 60 years later. One of things I would have liked to write about, which I didn’t write about, is the film industry. I spent a lot of time with people from it. It was so sad in a poetic way, Lahore as this centre with such a close connection to Bombay. There was always this idea that if a film was to work, it would work first in Lahore. Lahore had gathered the poets, it was a moment cinema-wise that you just can’t imagine because there so much different talent. That decline... that’s another sad story.
You’ve showed a society that has lost its syncreticism in Pakistan. But on the Indian side too, you see a great loss of that... The Indian reality is also gritty. You describe the degeneration of a town like Hyderabad in Pakistan, but you see so much of that in India too.
I have no illusions about that. This book couldn’t have been about India, my second book (a novel, The Temple-Goers) is, and I don’t think I am blind to any of those realities. And you’re right...you know, there is a phrase mushtarka tehzeeb, yeh tehzeeb jahan sab log shareek hain. Where all people are present. That was a beautiful cultural idea, that has broken down. Muslims are alienated and in a difficult situation in relation to the future of this country. So there is a lot to be concerned about.
But this book was about Pakistan…Did you ever feel Pakistani?
I feel Punjabi in an undivided sort of way. I feel a very close and familial connection to people who live in Pakistan. As you know, I had so much trouble finding out what being Pakistani is all about, so I don’t think I could feel Pakistani in the way of citizen. But I do feel those are my people as well, that I am among countrymen.
British royalty feels like they live in a different planet. How did you feel being part of that world? (He had a relationship with a minor British royal, Gabriella Windsor.) Being on the cover of Hello Magazine?
It’s misrepresented, that whole thing. I was in Britain for a very short time. Ella and I were living abroad a lot. It was welcoming enough, not to live in, or carry on with. I had good time. Hello wasn’t for me, Hello was doing it....
You got paid for it?
She got paid. I was in a situation where I was obliged to do it for her sake.
Will you send your Dad a copy of the book?
I will. But just because he has behaved so appallingly I didn’t want to send it to him early.. My last meeting with him (just after Benazir’s death) I like to think of as one of those strange human things ..It wasn’t that we moved forward, but I was very upset to see him feeling that pain (at her death).. A big tough man. I have no doubt in my mind that he loves his country, that there is nothing he wants more than for Pakistan to stand on its own feet. When you see someone like that in one of Pakistan’s darkest hours, you can’t help but be moved. ..I have heard from so many quarters how upset he is about the book, brothers, sisters, uncles, I thought I could hardly call him up and tell him, it’s ready!
What about all these uncles, brothers, sisters, they’re OK about the book?
The family works like a mafia. Everyone comes behind. There are a few brothers and sisters who are renegade brothers and sisters who keep up the connection. But most of them toe the line, which is a sad thing.
If you were to lose this relationship because of this book, you are quite prepared for that?
I kind of already have. Whether I wrote the book or not, I am definitely pretty much persona non grata…I have a brother who makes a big effort, a sister who makes an effort, but the family is centred around the younger children and the third wife.. and all (those) doors are shut. And yet, my father is a bright intelligent man, well read, I hope he understands some day that there was some part of this story I had to come to terms with.