By Saket Suman
Whatever the state of politics between India and Pakistan may be, the citizens of the neighbouring countries, separated at birth, are naturally drawn to each other and you cannot stop that, says Fatima Bhutto, niece of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself the first popularly elected chief executive of the country.
Ace writer and author Fatima herself, though, has stayed away from politics — and a bloodied political saga resembling a Greek tragedy may be to blame, which has seen her father, aunt, grandfather and an uncle die unnatural deaths.
She said there has always been “great warmth” between the people of the two countries, and that she has personally been a witness to it.
“Whether it’s Pakistani serials or Indian films, art or books, as a people we are naturally drawn to each other and open and curious to learn more... Art has always broken barriers — it’s always been a powerful way for people to connect and communicate with each other and I think the ease of the Internet has helped us overcome physical obstacles,” the 36-year-old writer, who has been a critic of Benazir Bhutto, and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, whom she accused of being involved in her father’s murder, told IANS in an e-mail interview from Karachi.
Asif Zardari is a former president and co-chairperson of the Bhuttos’ Pakistan People’s Party now headed in name by his son Bilawal, Fatima’s first cousin.
She recalled that, in the year gone by, she read books by several Indian authors online and even discovered authors she had not read before such as Gurmehar Kaur, Supriya Nair and Raghu Karnad.
“No amount of downfall anywhere can stop me from seeking out new and interesting voices.”
However, the cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan have hit rock bottom in the past two years, with only books being the exception. On this being pointed out, and asked of her prescription for enriching people-to-people ties between the two countries, Fatima urged people to engage with each other’s creative and popular cultures.
“What we must do is keep insisting that we want to read each other, want to speak to each other and reject attempts to interrupt that,” she said.
Interestingly, her novel The Runaways — about radicalism and the confusions of millennial culture and how difficult it is to survive in a world on fire — which released towards the end of 2018, was welcomed with rave reviews in India.
She said when she began writing it, she was thinking primarily about her two main male characters — Monty and Sunny — who come from very different worlds but are thrown together in the wilds of Iraq. The narrative of the novel also makes it apparent that youngsters are drawn to radicalism as a result of societal and political pressures.
“The narrative we are fed today is that radicalism is borne out of religion, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think radicalism comes from a hundred different humiliations and wounds — not just one source. To boot, we live in a time where young people are subjected to an overwhelming culture of the self: Everyone wants to be famous, to go viral, to be seen, to be significant,” she said.
Asked if there there was a political ideology that goes into her writings, Fatima said she doesn’t set out to write about politics, it’s not her intention when she sits down at her desk, but it’s what she is drawn to.
“My way of seeing the world is shaped by a fundamental belief that politics is ingrained in everything. It codes the films we watch, the places we travel to, how we live, how we treat others, how we dress — everything. With The Runaways I wanted to write about what has to happen to a person in order to radicalise him — what does it mean to be at war with your society, your family, your friends, your world? But it’s also a novel about loneliness, about social media, about not feeling and wanting to be powerful. I’m not an ideologue, I’m interested in people — I don’t want to judge anyone but to observe them and hopefully understand them.”
The title of her novel may leave some readers wondering if the author is herself a runaway too, particularly in view of the upheavals that her family has been witness to in the political trajectory of Pakistan.
Fatima recalled she was born in exile and spent a good part of her life searching for the idea of home.
“I used to say that I always felt like a rootless person but that’s not quite correct, I think it’s the opposite — I have roots everywhere. Not nowhere. I have roots in Afghanistan because of blood and birth, in Syria because it was my first home, the first place I truly loved, in Iran because my Dadi was from Isfahan and so much of the language, the food, the humour of the country remind me of her... and it goes on. I’m at home everywhere in the world and rather than feeling displaced, I feel connected. Home is the people you love, it’s not a geography,” she said.
The Runaways is published by Penguin Random House and is available in both bookstores and online. — IANS
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