"layered like a palimpsest": Review in 'The Other Side'

Library, 'The Other Side'
Reviewed by Jaya Jaitly

A Journey Interrupted
Being Indian in Pakistan
Farzana Versey
Harper Collins Publishers India 2008
Pages 279
Price Rs 295

Farzana Versey is a well-known, independent minded and rather spunky writer whose introverted public personality camouflages a healthy irreverence in her writings for many of the popularly acceptable norms of society. Her personal tale of many journeys to Pakistan as a proud Indian has not received the kind of publicity it is due. This is probably because she is not the wining and cheesing at a five-star hotel type. Publishers probably do not find her persona fitting the Page three book writer type either.

Despite having made a rather quiet entry onto the bookshelves at bookshops, and not being displayed in the show windows, this is one of the more genuine and perceptive books written on the layers of culture, society and history that make up Pakistan. The mannerisms of its people appear to be alien but we soon realize there are their counterparts in India. When seen through the eyes of an Indian they become instantly recognisable. At one point Farzana comments on a man she meets at a social occasion: “Fazal was a man on the make and Aijaz was a collector – a collector of contacts; he called them friends to legitimize his desperate need for networking”. The young show offs in drawing rooms and wedding entourages in so many cities of India are mirror images of these two Pakistani Punjabi men. It makes one give a further thought to Asif Zardari’s recent statement that there is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani in every Indian.

The author’s views and experiences change in nuance and understanding during her many journeys to Pakistan. They get layered like a palimpsest through which similarities and differences in textures are revealed. She probes with her curious mind the simplest of gestures and mannerisms and tells herself, more than the reader, of how it is to be an Indian visiting Pakistan. She asks, “Is there a place for secularism in an Islamic society? Or Atheism? Atheism remains the invisible minority: they have no heritage to uphold. No blasphemy laws apply to them. Non-belief is a private wound that you nurse quietly”. In a form of anwer, she shares a note she received from a Pakistani before she even went there:

When I was a child I used to think a lot about God and admired his power and grandeur. Then I thought I should find out whether this guy exists or it’s a hoax. I did it this way. I decided to talk to God, and I said “ I will call you an s.o.b. If you respond, then you exist and if you don’t then you don’t , then I am your creator and not the other way round, and if you hurt me for calling you an s.o.b., then you are an s.o.b. and not God” . Nothing happened. I therefore concluded that he did not exist or I left him with no choice but to remain silent”.

Written with a light touch, but with deep thoughtfulness, this book is one of those that stand out because the writer is both natural, sincere, and does not fear to be what she is.

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Jaya Jaitly is editor of 'The Other Side', a socialist journal, and has been working for the revival of Indian crafts. She is the innovator of Dilli Haat and the former president of the Samata Party.

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This review appeared in an issue in 2008, but I discovered about it only a couple of months ago!

A piece on writing about travel is on 'Cross Connections'


Stepping Across the Line
Shobhana Bhattacharji
The Book Review Literary Trust

A Journey Interrupted is a secular version of nineteenth-century Indian women’s hajj narratives in which their sense of their Indian identity became stronger and stronger as their pilgrimages proceeded.1 At its simplest, A Journey Interrupted is about a Bombay-based Muslim woman journalist’s trips to Pakistan between 2001 and 2007. She visited and revisited Karachi, Islamabad, and Peshawar; she spoke to friends, politicians, army officers, socialites, poets, prostitutes, chai-wallahs, taxi-drivers, and others; she initiated conversations and had them thrust upon her; she experienced the legendary Pakistani hospitality and hostility; equally, her travelling to Pakistan was derided by friends and acquaintances in India. Summed up like this, we have another cliché, which it is not.

It is the first time I have read about feelings, ideas, and attitudes which must be part of the emotional and conversational furniture in Muslim homes but which the rest of us are not usually privileged to share. Being Muslim in India is tough enough in the normal course, with Muslims having to constantly prove their loyalty to India. It is complicated by their having close family in both countries. (This is true of other minorities like Christians as well, but that story is yet to be narrated, the dominant post-partition story being occupied by the two major affected religious groups, Hindus and Muslims.)

Versey writes as a second generation Indian affected by partition, one like me who grew up in India but among parents who knew undivided India. In the early years of this century, Asma Jehangir used to say with passion that unless our generation worked for peace between the two countries, there was no hope. Our generation, even those of us who are midnight’s children born after partition, feel we have lived in undivided India because we share our parents’ memories. But history has changed later generations.

To paraphrase Versey, they are bombarded with new weapons of hate and do not have the tolerance of the older generation who, she says, felt we should try and forget what happened and get on with life. They do not have the partial understanding but strong desire of some of our generation that we can at least cooperate and live in peace. This sounds like some more been-there-done-that.

The new thing about this book is that its rather impressionistic and sometimes dateless-diary mode is held in the strong clasp of a preface.


 (Review updated on blog in Aug 2015)


"The narrator drew me into her world": A new review at Amazon

July 17, 2011 
By Keiko Amano

It took three weeks to receive this book, but it was worth it. I was very excited to read and finished the book. I truly enjoyed it.

Through the scenes and narrative, I felt closer to the characters and situations although I didn't even know any of the Pakistani writers or other well-known people in India and Pakistan. But, all the more, the narrator drew me into her world. This reading was truly special to me. Out of all the elements, politic, religion, history, travels, and personal accounts, I trusted the narrator's wisdoms and sensitivity in language.

From 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. I thought most of the people I know probably didn'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 simplistic imagination I used to have!" Second, Goa, India, was occupied by Portuguese until 1961. That wasn't too long ago.

About the terms the narrator used, I thought them interesting, such as atheist Muslim or secular government because I thought governments are to operate independently away from religion. Obviously, I've been taking this kind of things for granted because I'm Japanese. So, reading this book, I started to understand the needs of such terms even though I understood the narrator was against labeling. It made me think.

About Urdu, I enjoyed reading dialogues. Even though I don't know the language at all, I read each dialogue with much interest. I appreciated the narrator's deep knowledge of the language and culture.

About honesty, the author/narrator's voice seeped through, and I just loved when her honesty spilled humor. It was like Flannery O'Connor, my favorite American author. The narrator made me chuckle more than a dozen times, but I would give just two examples. On her first visit to Pakistan and about to be deported, her 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? Then, the narrator says, "I did not know what I had `seen' since my back was turned to it." I imagined the seriousness of her situation, a famous ancient site in Pakistan, and the driver's concern for tourists, I started to giggle reading late at night. Second example, a fortune teller said to the narrator, "Men will cause you troubles." She said, "You could tell this to any woman in any part of the world and she would agree." Ha ha. I couldn't agree more!

I learned a lot from this book and very satisfied with it.


An Indian in Pakistan - Interview with FV

By Raziqueh Hussain
8 October 2010, 
Khaleej Times

The title Being Indian in Pakistan: A Journey Interrupted is enough to get one excited. It’s a book that “There was no inspiration as such to write this book,” she says. “I was sitting in a coffee shop and a friend introduced me to someone as a writer. He asked me what I’m writing and without a blink I said Pakistan, because I had just returned from there. After I reached home, I realised oh, now there’s a book,” she recalls.

With vast material on hand, but without a manuscript or a query letter, she simply sent a note to the publisher saying that “I’m passionate about writing this. If you are interested, let me know” and pat came the reply within two days.

Versey had done a lot of interviews with people like the legendary poet Ahmed Faraz which she put into this book — an absolute delight as it allows us to peep into the revolutionary poet’s mind.

She has also written opinion pieces, feature articles and interviews for several publications for two decades. “No one likes to call me a journalist. In those days, they would spit out, ‘You are just a writer.’ But still I considered most insults coming my way to be hugely complimentary. Now that I have published my first book, some reviews have called me a journalist!” she says.

The book is a collection of vignettes about the many journeys made by the author to Pakistan between April 2001 and May 2007. These experiences are reflective of the changing geopolitical landscape with the 9/11, NATO in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Gujarat, Karachi, Lal Masjid and many other incidents impacting the period of her reportage. “The Lal Masjid incident had happened and I felt strongly about it, especially the repercussions that took place. I am a big supporter of women out there. Theirs was a dissent of a certain kind. See, we all have standard ideas about what dissent is, what protest is; everyone wears a T-shirt and shouts slogans. Bob Marley songs are not dissent. Basically, I feel indigenousness is important. And it has a lot to do with identities,” she says.

This book is about the identity question in large measure — the Indian Muslim identity, the Pakistani identity and a woman’s identity too. Versey grapples with the conflicts between societies, politics, nationalities, religions and genders and these conflicts play out in her interactions across a wide section of society on a “foreign” land. She meets Pakistani cultural icons and ventures out into other unexplored nooks and corners of that “land of the pure.”

“I don’t think a man would ever write about Peshawar the way I have written it,” she says, adding, “I do believe I have shown the women of the frontier province as I saw them; absolutely the way they are. I saw an amazingly courageous rebel in a village here and it may come as a surprise but Peshawar was the only place that they didn’t give much attention to my religion, as opposed to other cities.”

She doesn’t like labels or genres that can pin her down and so won’t describe what kind of author she is. “I cannot blindly believe in anything in the environment and have to question everything, including myself. I have a healthy disregard for objectivity. Give me an ‘ism’ and I shall give you a subjective opinion,” she says. Nothing defines her more than the written word. “The stark black and white also reveals the extreme positions I take on almost all issues. On the other hand, I can sit at home for a month without meeting anybody and still entertain myself,” says the author, who writes poetry as well as paints.

Talking of her influences, anything of consequence, she avoids reading {on the topic, other than factual accounts - ED} so that it doesn’t jar her thinking. “I don’t want other people’s words to inflict an influence on me. Even if it’s a bad news, I’d rather mine is worse than anyone else’s. But there are a few authors that I identify with, like Ismat Chugtai, Sadat Hasan Manto; it turns out that they are writers in Urdu though it is not my first language. I like Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf and Henry Miller, basically any writer who has an element of passion in writing,” she says.

She is equally scathing on the right-wing Hindu fundamentalists, as she is on the Mullahs, or on the US imperialism and even tougher on the Wagah candle-lighting peace talks. Her clash of identities — of religion, culture, gender and nationality — makes for a potent concoction when blended with her independent take on all issues. “I’m judged all the time based on what I’ve written and I just love people who have not read me because they are coming to me fresh... people who are illiterate, uneducated and ignorant technically — I find them very enlightened. I can learn a lot from them. I’m not being patronising. They could be very good in their respective fields, it’s just that they don’t read and won’t even spend Rs295 on my book. It’s another matter that I read out the excerpts to them,” she says.

Her biography on former Indian Prime Minister, the late VP Singh — which was supposed to have been her first book — is already written. “I find him fascinating as he altered the face of Indian politics with the Mandal Commission,” signs off Versey, who has plans to write a novel next.

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If you have not already read it, my experience with interviewing will put this in perspective. It is here


Tracking Naheeda, the Pathan Village Woman

Tracking Naheeda, the Pathan Village Woman
(This is an extract reproduced from ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’, Harper Collins, India.)

* * *

The room had a television set, a music system, and fine crockery; they were a comfortably-placed family. There was a basement to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. I was allowed to take pictures. The father had even granted his daughters permission to have their photographs taken, but they were too shy. Endless cups of green tea, like mossy liquid, were served. There was no chariness that Salim and Ali were chatting so openly with me, sitting cross-legged on a cot. Both the brothers liked their free-spirited young aunt, Naheeda.

We went to her house a few doors away. The chachi (paternal aunt) truly turned out to be quite an unusual creature. She had been educated in Islamabad. How did it feel to move to Peshawar? Was there a cultural difference? She spoke with a remarkable degree of confidence. ‘Initially, I could not understand some things, but now it is better. I do not wear a burqa even when I go out, so people have become used to it now and they don’t care. I also insisted on planning my family, or else in these seven years I would have six kids…now I have three. People here like to have children around the house.’

She smiled indulgently as a naked little one, the youngest, kept jumping on the bed. We sat in a small, dark, unkempt room. There were some Afghani rotis (bread) and curry in an aluminium bowl on a table; the older children would occasionally tear large chunks of the bread and dunk them in the gravy, holding the rag-like bits over their open mouths as the liquid left trails of speckled brown on their chins. Naheeda shooed them away.

She had not let childbirth and housework mar her looks, although some chubbiness had settled on her cheeks and chin. Her head was uncovered and her black hair was tied in a loose braid. ‘I want to work too, but I get no time. The schools are far, so I have to drop the children there. Women rule in the house. If I were under any restrictions, do you think I could talk to you in privacy? My husband is there praying, he could have stopped me.’ Just then he called out to her. She returned within minutes. ‘He has asked me not to let you leave without having lunch with us. He has to remind me to be a good hostess, I just talk so much that I forget basic manners.’ And what happened to the education she had acquired? ‘In future I don’t know, but for now my children will benefit. And it shows in the way I conduct my life. No one can boss over me.’ While her husband and mother-in-law were busy with their afternoon prayers, she did not feel it necessary to join them.


Reader views

Still getting responses...in the mail and posted elsewhere 

Dear Ferzana,

I wanted to read your wonderful book once and "study" it a second time before writing to you. First reading fascinated me. The way you have, after starting off as a travelogue, weaved history of a period that I have been conscious of is superb. You did manage to meet, talk to and interview a whole range of personalities from almost every walk of life I enjoyed reading the book. Thank you.

A word about Lahore. I have never visited it but have seen many friends who migrated from Lahore to Delhi. They are very proud of their being "Lahorians". It was the best cantonement of undivided India. It also boasted some of the best colleges. I suppose you know that the film actor Dev Anand and his wife Kalpana Kartik (Mona Singha) are from Lahore. Her sister Sona was the wife of one of my bosses in service. And her brothers were in the armed forces. One of them, an Air Force officer got married to the daughter of the police commissioner of Lahore. I met the chaming couple when they spent (a part of) their honey moon in a tent in Doraha in Punjab. I used to enjoy the chilgozas she would pass around sitting on the canal bank. I do not know if the Air Force got him to take premature release because I never heard of them afterwards. What I started out to say to you was that Lahorians being a little snobbish is forgivable. In the second reading I was "reading" more the author than the contents.

First, I admire the courage (once or twice bordering on foolhardiness which just happened to pay off without getting you into trouble) you showed in making your trips and organising meetings.

Your intellect I shall not comment on for fear of getting branded as a flatterer. However, I was surprised to find that occasionally acted so naive! Sensitive you have to be to be what you are. Sensitivity and intelligence go together. What i had not noticed earlier is the insecurity you inwardly feel.

Of course many of my muslim friends in Bombay feel slightly insecure because they were touched though remotely in the riots sponsored by our Hindu extremists ("terrorists" ?) I do not know your or your familiy's direct experience in that context. But the feeling of your insecurity hurts me.as a human being, not as a Hindu because I am virtually an athiest - or "rationalist" as I would prefer to be called. If there is insecurity, there must be a solution somewhere!

- (Rt. army officer, now living overseas)

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Dear Farzana,

I just finished reading your "Journey". What can I say? I am speechless. It is so exhaustive.....history,politics,sociology,economics, people ranging from the poorest to the grandest, poets to dancers, gays to lusty hetero's,military to the artistes.

Tears sprang in my eyes when I read of your hurt at the Wagah border callisthenics.

The 3 books that seriously affected me have been ...Dosto's' Crime and Punsihment', Camu's 'The Fall', Kafka's 'The Trial' and Capote's 'In Cold Blood'. But then there are so many of them out there that I have read and deeply enjoyed. But the books I have mentioned are embedded in my heart. And now your book. This one too has not only clasped and embraced me tightly it has already begun engraving herself ( I cannot use 'itself' ) in my very soul.

I must thank you for so lucidly informing and educating me on Pakistan. I could talk to you for hours and hours on the Partition and the new State and the never ending tragedy unfolding repeatedly year after year and day after day. These are flames that can consume so many for absolutely no reasons whatsoever.

'Rajhish hi sahi...'is saved in my iTunes library and never fails to stir me. Once again one of my favorites and you interview the Great Faraz himself in your book. I admire you for your sensitivity, astuteness and courage.

Yes I have questions, maybe a couple of disagreements also.These are triflings...... but ultimately my heart beats for what you write in this book.



Although the book is based on author's 4 travels to Pakistan between August 2001 and May 2007, it is not a travelogue, says the author and rightly so. Unlike travelogues, people (known, unknown, blurred) are the subjects of the book, not places; latter merely provide the backdrops.

The book does not have a single photograph from any of the four travels, which underscores the fact the it is not about places or even faces, but views. The reader does get a feeling of the journeys being narrated. The narration is so engaging that the author swiftly embeds anecdotes to factual details without disrupting its pace.

The author has been able to include Manto's memories with the same ease as her meeting with Ahmad Faraz. Apart from Faraz, the readers get rare opportunity to know up close some other well known names like Ardeshir Cowasjee, Pervez Hoodbhoy. However it's the unknown names (till you read the book) like Saqlain, Bilal, Shujaat, etc., who tell about that country, often without telling, what makes this book different. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of Dr Abdus Salam. Besides, how could Pervez Hoodbhoy say "... There is no major Muslim scientist or ...". So, for him too, like many Pakistanis, Dr Salam was not a Muslim.

Author, no point in guessing, is the protagonist, besides being the narrator. How she is seen in Pakistan and her reactions to how India (and Indian Muslims in particular) is perceived by Pakistanis naturally makes her the protagonist. Her style of describing women is graciously sensuous and reminds me of Ismat Chughtai.

The book is an essential read, if one wants to read about Pakistsn as a person, not as a strategist or even a peace activist. I never imagined myself visiting Pakistan, but after reading the book, I may plan to travel to Pakistan as a curious traveler the day it starts issuing tourist visas to Indians, as I have neither relatives there nor I'm an Aman-ki-Asha activist.

Ayaz Alam


These are the fateful queries that partition raised and whose answer still haunts us! A lot has been written about identities whether Ethnic or Religious, but in this present book Farzana Versey raises some distinct and distinguished insights into this complex problem of identity. Though this book is neither a research work undertaken by the author under the auspices of a grand university and seasoned researcher nor is it a conventional travelogue, though one may find certain traits of travel writing in it.

Mushtaq, India


Review in Swagat

This is a review that has appeared in the November 2008 issue of Swagat, which is the inflight magazine of Indian Airlines. Their website says it is read by 2 million upmarket passengers every month. But they will still read Paulo Coelho da jawaab nahin!

As with all reviews, I shall not comment, except to clarify that nowhere have I mentioned that Aga Khanis are a persecuted lot in Pakistan.


Pakistan visually....

They say pictures speak louder than words. I don't know...some do, others are there to convey a moment.

Those who have read my book A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan will be familiar with some locales. Most of these photographs have been taken in May 2007; there are a few that are from the summer of 2004.

On the earlier trips I had not used a digital camera and many, many more need to be scanned.

Until then, here is what I have managed to upload...most are not about 'sights', as is evident even in my book.