This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017.
Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.
Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.
In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:
Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?
I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.
How long did the research for this book take?
In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.
The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.
Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?
I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.
How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?
I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.
The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .
To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?
For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.
Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?
I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.
The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape?
I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.
The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?
I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!
“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?
Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.
Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.
9 May 2017