The write choice

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By For Pakistani author Ali Sethi, writing a book was a bit like joining the family business, says Samita bhatia LEAD PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY: AKHTAR SOOMRO
  • Published 9.08.09
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He’s just turned 25 and like many other youngsters his age he’s wondering what his next move should be. But Pakistani writer Ali Sethi is torn between choices. His debut novel is just out and he’s wondering if he should now venture into journalism or perhaps even non-fiction writing. Or then again, having graduated from Harvard, he is thinking of following it up with yet another degree course, but from a Pakistani university.

And in a completely different direction, he’s seriously considering a career in the music industry (he’s been trained in Hindustani classical music) — as a producer or composer.

The son of well-known journalist parents — Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin — for Ali writing a book was a bit like joining the family business. Though he candidly admits that he hadn’t planned on becoming a writer, penning The Wish Maker (from the stables of Hamish Hamilton, Penguin), came easy.

His father, an award- winning journalist, is founder-editor of The Friday Times, a Lahore-based political weekly while Ali’s mother, Jugnu, publishes and edits a fashion fortnightly, Good Times and is also the managing editor and publisher of The Friday Times. Najam has routinely been at conflict with Pakistani governments in the past — and more recently he’s in trouble with the Taliban for writing against them.

So with the novel Ali doesn’t feel that he’s done anything surprising or unconventional. “I’m just doing what they do — a little differently,” he says.

“My parents have had very public and politicised profiles and now the Taliban has threatened my father,” Ali says blandly. “It’s scary but one has to, in some way, participate to change Pakistan,” he adds with a maturity that belies his 25 years.

Though Ali would “rather have been a painter or musician”, he found himself inexorably drawn to creative writing. He began penning The Wish Maker when he was painfully young — as a 21-year-old studying for a degree in South Asian Studies at Harvard. He grew up in Lahore but landed in America in 2002, a year after 9/11. Once there, he got the impetus to write a book during a creative writing class conducted by visiting professor Amitav Ghosh, titled Life Writing.

(From right) Ali Sethi with Sunil Sethi, TV presenter and journalist, at the launch of The Wish Maker

Ali’s years in America were also spent contributing articles to the New York Times and other leading American publications.

By March 2006 — just before he graduated from Harvard in June that year — Sethi began writing The Wish Maker. And he continued to write for the next three years. “I was wrapping up at Harvard and so I wrote on weekends and at nights. I didn’t miss classes to write — and I did graduate!” Ali says jokingly.

After graduating, he worked for four months with a magazine as he had a work visa for the next one year. But soon he gave it up to write full-time. But by early 2007 he ran out of money and couldn’t pay his rent, and so returned to Lahore to continue writing the book. The second draft of the book was written in Lahore.

The novel tells the story of two yuppie kids — Zaki Shirazi and his cousin Samar Api — growing up in middle class Lahore in the ’90s, watching Bollywood movies.

The household is run by Zaki’s mother who’s a feminist and journalist while his paternal grandmother, on the other hand, is conservative. Zaki’s father, a flying officer in the Pakistan air force, has died in a plane crash. The story snakes through Zaki’s life from his youth to adulthood in a household dominated by outspoken women and the backdrop is the changing political scenario in Pakistan.

“It’s a meandering book,” Ali says flatly. So, it begins in the first person and subsequently slips into third person. Also, it begins in the city and ends up talking about villages.

For research Ali used every medium he could think of. To begin with, he grew up in his grandmother’s house since both his parents were working and this gave him a vivid canvas to work with. “My grandmother raised me and my younger sister (who’s now studying abroad) and many of our other cousins as well,” he says.

He also watched footage of the Pakistan of the ’50s through to the ’70s. But the most helpful was interviewing people who had experienced things for themselves and extracting random details about the past from them.

But he insists that the book is not autobiographical, though Zaki too is back in Lahore after studying in the US, quite like Ali himself. “In this story, I wanted to explore an experience that lies outside my experience,” he says.

A lesson Ali learnt was that it’s not possible to write about the present in Pakistan because there’s so much social uncertainty.

When he began writing in 2006, all the news from Pakistan was good. It was the Musharraf era and the economy was growing at eight per cent. “Everyone thought that Pakistan was moving in the right direction,’’ he says.

At that time Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were in exile but by the time Sethi finished writing the first draft, Benazir had returned to Pakistan and Musharraf was on his way out. And as he finished editing the final draft, Benazir had been assassinated. “You can’t keep updating a novel,’’ Ali says.

Now that the book is out — and he’s completely surprised that he’s been compared to award-winning author, Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runner fame — he’s reviving his musical links. He’s spending a lot of time with classical musicians as well as young people who are creating contemporary music in Lahore.

He’s also not ruling out “serious” journalism either, though he doesn’t plan to join his parents at The Friday Times. “My parents are self-sufficient and independent and it’s good for me to have my space and them to have theirs,” he says firmly.

Topping his priority list, however, is translating The Wish Maker into Urdu himself. “I want the people of Pakistan to read it,” he says. The book has already been translated into Italian, Dutch, German, Hindi, Chinese and Turkish.

But he’s sure that he wants to spend more time in Pakistan as he has been away too long. He loves Lahore and couldn’t stop thinking about it when he was in the US.

“My life is here, with my family and friends and I must learn to deal with the situation here. I can’t ignore it, run away from it or pretend that it isn’t happening. And I want to actively participate in bringing in a change,” he says with a hard tone.