Why would a Japanese living in the US half the year want to read my book about an Indian Muslim woman’s journey to Pakistan that comes with psychological baggage? Why am I posing this query when I do read Latin American, South East Asian, European and American fiction and non-fiction? In fact, given the new world order – a phrase I do not care about much – this should be a natural desire. India has always been an exotic place. With its progress, it is seen as exotic in quite a different manner. Celebrities still like getting married in our palaces. Pakistan has acquired some notoriety, and because of the Taliban there is much awareness and interest. Therefore, again, why did I pose the question? A few reasons:
1. There is no attempt at exotica; if it seeps in then it is part of the backdrop or real experiences.
2. No tourist site is without a reference point, often political or deeply personal.
3. There are references that may seem out of range for an outsider.
4. There is not too much dry background history, so the reader has to know or trust me!
5. There are extremely emotional moments that even an Indian or Pakistani might find a bit strange.
So, when Keiko Amano posted a comment (and has put up a review on Amazon too that is slightly different) saying that she had ordered the book, read it and posted her feedback, I was excited and curious. She is not the first ‘outsider’ to read it. There have been a few others, but they were exposed to my political writing and are already in fields that gave them some perspective on the subject. On the other hand, not all Indians and Pakistanis who have read it found a connectivity chord. It makes one wonder what resonates with whom and why?
I can understand books or articles where the subject has universal appeal, though there has to be a check on the random painting of universality with one brush. We have different opinions about laptops and cellphones, which are commonly used products. How can we then have universal ideas at all about anything? Is the individual identity superimposed on other identities?
I would like to reproduce Keiko’s reading from the comment and respond because, even if it is about my book, there are factors that may have ‘universal’ appeal!
I wanted to read your book, "a journey interrupted" for a long time, but I didn't know if I could digest it because I didn't know too many things. But after the tsunami period, I decided to order the book when I got to the U.S. I was excited to order your book. Then I waited three weeks. So, I was very excited to read and finished the book. I cannot say I digested it all, but that doesn't matter. I enjoyed it.
Through the scenes and your narrative, I felt closer to the characters and situations although I don't even know any of the Pakistani writers or other well-known people in India and Pakistan. But, all the more, the world the narrator describes drew me to that world. For me, this reading was truly special. Out of all the elements, politic, religion, history, travels, and personal accounts, I trusted the narrator in language. That's the single point I was attracted to this book and still the single point I was satisfied in reading."
I am intrigued by the reference to the ‘after the tsunami’. At this point deeper probing might not seem appropriate or even germane, but sometimes a natural calamity makes us realise that the world, especially the emotive content of people, are pretty much the same. It nudges us to explore other areas of concern. I could be wrong in this case, but I have experienced this.
The reference to “characters and situations” in a non-fiction book is gratifying, for that was part of the flow. It is the flipside of fictional characters that are based on real people. In some ways, as narrator, I also became a character. There were moments when it seemed like I was watching myself watching others. The language had to be as fluid and sometimes jerky as it is. Few people – reviewers included – noticed this aspect, much less trusted it.
"Through this book, I learned many facts. First, I knew many Muslim people live in India, but I didn't know more Muslims in India than in all of Pakistan. Most of my friends probably don't know that. And I was even more surprised to find that 3 millions Hindu people live in Pakistan. I thought to myself, "What a simple imagination I had!" Second, Goa, India, was occupied by Portuguese until 1961. That wasn't too long ago. Third, atomic bomb dropped near Bikini Island was made by Pakistan. In 1954, a Japanese boat happened to past there, and the captain died eventually from high radiation."
One culls facts and all these references are part of the backdrop. Many people are indeed not aware of these, mainly because it is not part of their immediate environment or of any real concern to them even politically. As my subject was about what I called the “amputated limb”, I admit that it was a personal necessity to put things in order inside my own head and deal with the question of minorities in both countries.
"About terms, I thought it interesting to see such as atheist Muslim or secular government because I thought governments are to operate independently away from religion. I guess I'm taking this kind of things for granted. Historically, Japan has religions, of course, but most Japanese do not go to a temple regularly or listen to monks or read a sutra. So, we have no need to label one another a name related to religion. But by reading this book, I start to understand such needs even if the narrator is against labelling. It made me think."
These terms may seem contradictory to those not living in the Indian subcontinent, but they are a part of our very ethos. India is a ‘secular republic’; Pakistan an ‘Islamic republic’ – both are democracies! India has a whole variety of religions and sects; Pakistan has primarily one religion that it abuses. India has a wider choice to abuse. Essentially, it is the idea of a pluralistic society where different faiths live in harmony. It is amusing to see the amount of religion that seeps into politics in India.
The ‘atheist Muslim’ tag I have had to use because after the riots of 1992 following the demolition of the Babri mosque, the whole idea of secularism went through a change. My name is so obviously Muslim that there was no way out. For most of us who had no religion or at least any ritualistic faith the mere fact of our origin branded us. There is no denying one’s identity but this is only one aspect. Another reason I chose labels in the title and the blurb was to convey clearly where the writer/narrator came from. I did not want to in anyway mislead about intent that it was charting history. I was interested in how history was still affecting the two countries and how the Partition is raw and often renewed.
"About language, I enjoyed reading Urdu dialogues. Even though I don't know the language at all, I read each dialogue hoping to pick up something. I did, but only 'hai'."
Well, ‘hai’ is often used at the end of sentences and means ‘is’. It was crucial to retain some bits of conversations in Urdu (with translations) because we again enter the territory of common heritage. We share a language and isn’t language a large part of expression?
"About honesty, the author/narrator's voice seeps through, and I just love when her honesty spills humor. A few times, I chuckled, and I didn't know if I was disrespectful. I thought maybe she was serious. One example was in acknowledgement: "I will not thank my mother..." I couldn't help but laugh. Second was "I was lonely." I forgot where it was, but it was the only one. It was not humor, but made me smile. Also, on the narrator's first visit to Pakistan and about to be deported, (P. 15), a Pakistani driver says, "When you return home you can at least tell people you saw the best sight in Karachi." Haven't we all had such experience? And the narrator says, "I did not know what I had ‘seen' since my back was turned to it." I'm giggling as I write this. And about plastic surgery, the question comes up, "Don't the husbands find out later?" The narrator says, "That is the irony. The men hardly notice." This is hilarious, but must be true. I don't doubt it. I stop for now because it will go on and on. But just one more is that a fortune teller says to the narrator, "Men will cause you troubles." And she writes, "You could tell this to any woman in any part of the world and she would agree." Ha ha ha ha ha. Don't I agree more!"
I am glad you noticed the humour; few people think one should draw attention to it in what is primarily a subject of introspection. Let me just say that I was smiling as I wrote most of the phrases/anecdotes you mentioned as well as a few others, including the one about how Indian camels at the Rajasthan border go across and mate with Pakistani camels, whereas people have trouble just managing to visit…that got me into some trouble because the impression was that I was not giving the peace process enough importance.
It is truly gratifying to see one’s work understood and debated. For, these are the very issues that need to be but are not always brought out in the open. It happened to be the first non-academic book on Pakistan from an Indian Muslim perspective. I should have pushed that point, but it is better that people discovered it on their own…
And before this turns into a review of a review – it probably has – let me end by saying that the thread running through all the feedback, in the media or by readers directly, has been ‘honesty’. Most of that honesty is about myself and may haunt me forever. I guess in that respect, this book is destined for posterity!
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Keiko's review at Red Room: