July 2015 Posts

Anis Shivani’s “Karachi Raj”

Karachi RajAnis Shivani has been a writer for many years. He is known as a short story writer and a poet. Karachi Raj is his debut novel. It was nearly ten years in the making. It is about a group of people across social classes who meet. Their lives get intertwined in a manner that is not easily expected in a very class conscious society existing in Pakistan today. Anis Shivani is a critic too. An example of his literary criticism is this splendid three-part essay he wrote for Huffington Post on contemporary American Literature. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/we-are-all-neoliberals-no_b_7546606.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in ;
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/part-ii-the-new-genre-of-_b_7577230.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in ; and

After reading Karachi Raj, Anis and I exchanged a few emails discussing his novel and craftsmanship. With his consent, I am publishing a small portion of the correspondence.


Dear Anis,

Somewhere I get the impression your novel is a response to the “plastic realism” you speak of in contemporary American literature. If that is the case I like it. Karachi Raj without being voyeuristic about poverty or making one cringe with morals, arrives at that fine balance of moving cleverly across socio-economic classes in Karachi. The scenarios represented are plausible making the novel seem “realistic”.

I would love to know how you plot and create your fiction.



Dear Jaya,Anis Shivani

Upon further thought, I think the way you put it in the email below is the best way to express it, better than I did.

You noticed that the book doesn’t give the impression of voyeurism about poverty or make one cringe. The challenge from the beginning was not to write a novel that was sensational or melodramatic or gave you the feeling of unwanted intrusion. Also to avoid the trap of unrelenting misery. It is the dailiness, the ordinariness, the everydaynes of poverty that is the most shocking thing, if you think about it, one doesn’t need to exaggerate or melodramatize it. In early drafts I did have a bit of a problem with melodrama, but I got over it quickly. To do that I had to be honest with myself as to what the characters were all about; if I could be true to them, then I could avoid melodrama and sensationalism. Even the poorest people don’t unrelentingly face violence and tyranny all the time, most of life is drudgery and going on with one’s business as best as one can. And humor is a big part of how one handles problems for which there is no easy solution, certainly I do that, and so humor is a critical part of the novel. In all these ways, the novel begins to feel plausible.

I should also give a lot of credit to my editor at HarperCollins, Manasi Subramaniam, who labored hard to help me get rid of all the exposition that was getting in the way of the fluid telling of the story. That made a huge difference. You need to be under a dream spell when you read a novel and whatever interferes with that–such as any unnecessary exposition–is going to disrupt the spell and take you out of the story and make it less believable, so we worked ruthlessly on that.

You asked about how I plot and create fiction. I would say that there are certain fundamental issues that have bothered me my whole life and continue to do so, and that’s the deep wellspring of my fiction. Once I’m exercised enough about a problem, then I start localizing it in a time and place, and then finally the characters emerge, which is the trigger point for the story and it takes off from there. For Karachi Raj, there was no particular point where I said to myself, Oh, I’m going to write a novel about the Basti, so let me research everything about that, then when I’ve got the research done, I’ll write the novel. It doesn’t work like that.

What I can say is that the idea that hundreds of millions of people should live in dire poverty in the Indian subcontinent seems like the ultimately unforgivable issue to me. Part of it is that people believe in ideologies that go against their self-interest, certainly their economic self-interest. That’s the case with Pakistan, and when it comes to the so-called Pakistan Ideology, it’s in the background of the novel, though I’m not didactic about it. In the West too people are always electing political parties that go against their self-interest, the working class keeps voting in conservative, even fascist, parties. People everywhere seem very keen to give up freedom, and the thing that motivates me more than anything is unrestrained freedom, without any rules, any rituals, any constraints on freedom of action. And the problem of poverty also goes back in large part to the problem of freedom.

Anyway, once I have a general interest like this then there has to be a setting that needs to become very clear to me, as the realm in which to explore the general problem, and once I have the setting down–in this case I had to imagine the Basti in very concrete terms–then the characters come, and once I have the characters then the plot is the final element. If I’ve conceptualized the characters well, then the plot will just flow; to the extent that there’s trouble executing the plot, it means there’s a problem with characterization, so I have to go back to that and fix it.


Anis Shivani Karachi Raj HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 410 Rs.699

Susan Abulhawa, “The Blue between Sky and Water”

Blue between SkyThe Blue Between Sky and Water was my first introduction to Susan Abulhawa’s writing. It is about four generations of a family but focuses primarily on Nur a descendant born and brought up in American but moves to Palestine on work/love and ultimately settles there. At so many levels I enjoyed the novel. I liked it sweeping across generations while mapping the history of Palestine (as modern people know it to be), from the 1940s. This novel has a very strong sense of history to the present day of horrific living conditions, camps, ghettos, food tunnels, unnecessary violence and rape. To be put together in one place ostensibly as fiction but embedded in hard facts is what makes it so astounding. Accessing information ( most of it disturbing) about Palestine is fairly easily got on the Internet today — the frisking and innumerable checkpoints at the border, visiting Palestine by applying for a visa application at the Israeli embassy etc. In fact a few days ago I came across wearenotnumbers.org and discovered that Susan Abulhawa is a mentor in the programme. Till then I had heard of the food tunnels but to read a story about a runner in it who then lost his job came home very sharply to me when I began reading The Blue Between Sky and Water . So to get a novel that puts it all in one place is fascinating. It makes the ground reality accessible to a far wider circle than speaking only to the converted. Using the technique of telling a story of four generations of women is a trope familiar to contemporary fiction. It is useful since it is familiar to most contemporary readers so they are lulled into a comfort zone. Plus focusing on women/ communal matriarch structures that seem to operate in the camps, gives the novelist ample opportunity to be relaxed, comment, observe and analyse frankly and in a matter-of-fact manner. The observation about women and their relationships is fascinating. I read about these all the time and yet this is a favourite passage of mine in the book about the relationship between the social worker Nzinga responsible for looking after Nur when she was in foster care and Nur. “…the thing between them remained. It changed as they needed it to. Its parts were made of motherhood, sisterhood, womanhood, comradeship in struggle, political activism, mentorship, friendship.” (p. 163) Or the beekeeper’s widow who inspired other women to invest in themselves and their dwellings.

The creation of Khaled too fascinated me. The evolution from an imaginary friend to a son of the family who is then trapped in his body, so in a sense remains the observer/ non -participant he was at the very outset of the story. It gives a perspective to the story which would not be easy to introduce. Being his voice could not have been an easy literary technique to create as well.

Creating a piece of fiction about a relentless, unforgiving and senseless conflict could not have been easy for the author. Where do you start? Where do you end? So to see a neat dip into a slice of history without losing focus of the horrors of violence is probably what kept me spellbound.

In India, we have writers and readers obsessed with commemorating Partition through literature which throws up another series of questions since it is a violent moment from our past. But an emerging trend is to have writers commentating about places of “conflict” that exist in our country. Where it will take us I have no idea. A few days ago I was watching Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on The Daily Show. Many of the issues he raises in the conversation about violence, hatred, racism etc could be about any other land as well. Have you seen it? http://thedailyshow.cc.com/extended-interviews/sx47nw/exclusive-ta-nehisi-coates-extended-interview?utm=share_twitter Author and legal advocate Bryan Stevenson’s moving acceptance speech for Carnegie Medal in nonfiction for Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau) makes the valid point that “literature has the ability to accomplish a narrative shift”. ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/awards-and-prizes/article/67546-is-this-the-greatest-book-award-acceptance-speech-ever.html ) Such writing is embedded deeply in the politics of the land and has to be but in The Blue Between Sky and Water the precision with which it comes across is so sharp. Even a first time comer to the conflict of Israel and Palestine will get a good sense of the troubles that ail the region.

I discussed Susan’s novel with her via email. We exchanged emails furiously. But here is a snippet from our correspondence that encapsulates the essence of such fiction. This quote is being shared with the author’s permission.  “…Maya Angelou once said: ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. I understand well how a collective trauma – Slavery, genocide, Nakba, Partition, etc. – can become a nation’s center of gravity, around and from which stories go and return. I believe that’s true in part because one’s greatest wound is often one’s greatest source of strength and power. I believe it’s why we become protective of everything cultural that belongs to that wound; why cultural appropriation, and narrative appropriation are such important issues relating to identity politics.”

Susan Abulhawa will be participating in literary festivals in 2015-16 in the Indian subcontinent — Jaipur Literature susan-abulhawaFestival, The Times of India LitFest, Hindu Lit for Life festival (Chennai), and Lahore. Here is an interview with the author from 2012 by the absolutely wonderful Marcia Lynx Qualey, Editor of Arabic Literature ( in English) http://www.full-stop.net/2012/04/16/interviews/marcia-lynx-qualey/susan-abulhawa/ .

The Blue Between Sky and Water is a shatteringly astounding novel. It is a must read.

Susan Abulhawa The Blue Between Sky and Water Bloomsbury Circus, London, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 292 Rs 499

28 July 2015