Aamina feels thrilling to have that kind of imaginative space


Stressing that she feels lucky that growing up, there were chances to visit Pakistan frequently and spend much time with a large extended family, nevertheless, she had to do much research into many aspects of Pakistani society that she had little experience of…writes Sukant Deepak

Lahore comes alive here. The many facets of its walled inner city where the red-light district exists, open with diverse contrasts — of people and the lives that envelop them.

In author Aamina Ahmad’s novel, ‘The Return of Faraz Ali'(Westland Books), memory, power, caste biases, and questions of self-encounter each other in the labyrinthine streets perfectly to carve out a structure of the book that moves like a noir.

The protagonist, Faraz Ali, a police officer returns to the mohalla to cover up the violent death of a young girl. But the memories of the day he was abducted from the home he shared with his mother and sister there, at the direction of his powerful father, who wanted to give him a chance at a respectable life are still alive. While this should be a simple assignment to carry out in a marginalised community, for the first time in his career, Faraz finds himself unable to follow orders.

As the city takes him on with a collage of memories, it is tough for Ali not to chase the secrets–his family’s and his own–that risk shattering his constructed existence. Ali goes back and forth in time — from the Second World War, Partition, to Bangladesh’s Liberation War as he confronts different truths while making sense of his identity.

The author says that the book actually began its life as a short story. She persisted in trying to make it work as that until it became clear that the story really wanted to be a novel. “I think it took around eight years in all, so a fairly long time,” says the British fiction writer and playwright of Pakistani- origin based in the US.

Interestingly, the many lives in the book are never divorced from the larger political and historical backdrop, and it was important for Ahmad to establish that personal cannot be divorced from the political. There are a number of characters in the book who are, in one way or another, trapped on the margins of society–Faraz, the protagonist, is a police inspector but as far as polite society is concerned, his origins in the red-light district make him a disreputable man.

“His sister, Rozina, is a courtesan, later an actress, and must survive in a world that offers her little security and safety. In so many ways, their lives are shaped by their position in this society in particular by class and gender. Given the way these parameters shape the course of their lives and limit them, it seems to me that personal can only ever be political,” adds this professor in the University of Minnesota’s creative writing department.

Talk to her about the fact that the setting and structure of the book come extremely close to noir, and she smiles that she loves the genre although she had not really read any until she went to college, discovering Chandler there.

“And when I did, I was floored. I loved the complex, knotty plots, the tension, and the sentences, but as I read more, Highsmith, Hammett, and others, I grew really fascinated by the feel, and the atmosphere of noir… it is attitude and I very much hoped to emulate that attitude in this book.”

Ahmad’s favourite character to sketch was ‘Rozina’, the one that she got to know over many years. After researching some of the complex parameters women in the entertainment industry must navigate, the writer says she was struck by how resilient and resourceful they must be but also by their commitment to their families.

“I knew I wanted to touch on that in her character–the ways in which she strives to take charge of her life despite the limits imposed on her but also her humour, her ingenuity, and her occasional moments of defiance,” says this Pushcart Prize, and a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award winner.

Stressing that she feels lucky that growing up, there were chances to visit Pakistan frequently and spend much time with a large extended family, nevertheless, she had to do much research into many aspects of Pakistani society that she had little experience of.

And how was it looking at her country as an ‘outsider-insider’ — did that give her a peculiar perspective? “It was sometimes difficult working towards this goal of depicting Pakistan at a particular moment knowing that I was an outsider and I worried often about what I might get wrong. But in some ways, my own experience of being an outsider in Western society where I am part of a diaspora community and where we are often seen as ‘other’, was a useful position from which to start to imagine the lives of some of these characters.”

Adding that as a member of a diaspora community, she was always evaluating her relationship with Pakistan, Ahmad adds, “Much of my work which is about Pakistan has very much been about me trying to better understand the country; I think I wanted in some ways to pin it down as I wrote the book. But over the course of writing the novel, I came to realise that places are constantly evolving, that whether you’re an insider or an outsider, this is an impossible task.”

Born to a writer mother, Ahmad feels it was particularly inspiring to have a mentor available to her all the time.

“It demystified the process of making art, taught me a great deal about the importance of artistic community and she was and continues to be a brilliant and encouraging first reader.”

The author who also wrote the play ‘The Dishonoured’ stresses that she loves both mediums–that there is nothing quite like the thrill of live performance and the collaborative nature of theatre given how solitary novel writing can be.

“But it is hard to give up the freedom that comes with writing a novel–there are no budgetary or scheduling limits to consider and this means there are no brakes to your imagination. It’s thrilling to have that kind of imaginative space,” she concludes.

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