‘I feel like I relate to Hamlet’

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: I am reading a novel by Kamila Shamsie titled ‘A God in Every Stone’. The book is set at the time of the First World War and the protagonist is a British woman, an archaeologist, who first goes to Turkey to an excavation site and later ends up at a site in Peshawar, where the rest of the book is set.

It deals with the colonial history of India and Pakistan and is set at a time when the British empire was collapsing. She has also included ancient history, from before Christ, as told by the Greek historian Herodotus and blends them together artistically. It is about the importance of war, society and culture.

She has woven important parts of history in the book that are normally sidelined from discussion. For example, she has written about the massacre of peaceful protestors, carried out by the British in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar in 1930.

I am also reading ‘Civilisation and Modernity: Narrating the Creation of Pakistan’ by David Gilmartin which discusses the conflicting interpretations of the partition of India and Pakistan.

We have the two nation theory according to which the Quaid-i-Azam wanted to create a country in which Muslims will be free to practice their religion and yet another theory says that the Quaid wanted Pakistan to be a secular state. So, he discusses various interpretations and theories.

And then it moves on to the political and public role of religion in Pakistan after the partition. There is a chapter on colonialism and baradari, which is very interesting, which says that while some people put up resistance to the British setting an empire here, yet others supported them due to the baradari system.

On the lighter side, I am reading Kishwar Naheed’s ‘Zagham Bardashta: Pakistan Kahani’. It is a collection of her reflections on various topics including Balochistan keh 22 mehekamai. What was refreshing for me, because I do a lot of heavy reading, is that she has not tried to put forward an intellectual argument.

She has just written, from her heart, about what she saw on her travels around the country, and what she felt about what she saw. It is like a retrospective look at family, culture and society in Pakistan.

Q: What do you plan to read next?

A: I do not get to usually pick what I read, because I have to do a lot of heavy reading for work as well. But I am planning to read Qaisra Shahraz’s Typhoon, which is a sequel of sorts to her earlier book, The Holy Woman.

Though her prose is not very impressive, Qaisra’s books are interesting to read because she sets the story in rural Pakistan and by making that her focus, she explores our norms, which are very restrictive to our women, and then discusses the role of religion and the way religion is understood and used by some people.

I am also planning to read Judith Butler and Athena Atanasiou’s ‘Dispossession: The Performative in the Political’ which attempts to conceptualise dispossession outside the logic of possession.

The authors discuss the concept of dispossession not only in the sense of physical dispossession or loss of land and citizenship, but also see it as the dispossession of human subjectivity and dignity in capitalist societies.

Q: Is there a character from something you read that has stayed with you?

A: George Eliot’s ‘Mill on the Floss’ follows the story of a girl named Maggie from when she was a little girl to a grown up woman. Many believe that the book was an autobiography and that Eliot has written her own story.

Maggie’s powerful imagination, her quest for knowledge, resistance against the patriarchal society and her resilience has always stayed with me and I find myself often bringing her up in conversations.

I also feel like I relate to Hamlet, because of how human the character was. One critic has said that you do not have to cross the road to understand Hamlet.

That is because suffering and agony through life is something everyone goes through and hence, everyone understands.

Q: Is there a great Pakistani novel?

A: Although many will disagree with me, I think Bano Qudsiya’s ‘Raja Gidh’ is a classic. It is about the concept of halal and haram and the book argues that once souls are corrupted, it does not stop or end with one individual and moves through and effects generations. It is a very serious and symbolic piece of work.

The other great Pakistani book is Quratulain Haider’s ‘Aag ka Darya’, though I don’t know if everyone agrees on calling her Pakistani. But the book is an all time classic, both the original and the English translation. I love the ancient history in the book and the description of culture and society through history, right up to modern times.

The book describes how conflicts have arisen out of religion in this area and how we ended up splitting into sects.

Published in Dawn November 16th, 2016

You can find the link to the story here

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