Review in Deccan Herald

Negotiating for an identity
Deccan Herald

What begins as an exciting concept soon descends into confused dialogues and reflections. A Journey Interrupted becomes an opportunity interrupted. Farzana Versey embarks on a unique journey, as an Indian in Pakistan. But what makes her journey unique is that she is not only Indian, but an Indian Muslim and so, much information not easily accessible to many Indians becomes accessible to her. She takes the reader with her to Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and many other interesting and unique places, some known, others little known places.

The book tries to give as complete a slice of Pakistani society as possible, without any obfuscation no matter how disconcerting the narrative and introduces an array of interesting personalities. So when the Karachi teenagers tire of pornographic sites, they ‘visit Indian sites. There are fights about Indo-Pak issues...and Kashmir is top in the list; then we discuss films, cities and politics.’ UK-based Sikh Satwinder, is rebuilding his father’s lost-in-partition empire in Lahore, ‘...his way of hitting out, telling Lahore that he is rebuilding his father’s life’; Shujat, wants to have an affair with ‘Not just an Indian woman, but a Brahmin one’, which would not be ‘about love, but hate...like war’; Tariq thinks ‘..the Hindu is a stigma for Muslims, anyway, they are definitely not seen as the same as us’.

Against them is juxtaposed Jeremy, the Christian, who does not care that he cannot discuss Christianity in social gatherings like Islam is discussed, so long as ‘I am allowed my drinks, I carry my name and I go to church...’, Nihal, who wants a break in Bollywood for ‘Bollywood is the place to be, even our established actors want to make it there.’

Khalid Ahmed, in charge of the ‘Beyond Borders’ concept in Pakistan, who, born in Patna came to Pakistan as an adult and carries all these — ‘a Bihari identity, an Indian identity and a Pakistani identity’. Sheema Kerwani ‘dances in a society where she is not permitted to, to the strains of Indian music in a form that was created as a celebration of Hindu gods. But for her Lord Krishna is not just a clay idol, but a vision of love...’. For Ardeshir Cowasjee, ‘a motherland is a motherland. If I am asked where I was born, I would say India. In 1929, this was India’. And Parvez Hoodbhoy, who rejects that there is a Pakistani culture and sees a ‘deliberate attempt to ‘Saudi-ise’ it, as opposed to accepting a South-Asian identity’.

The academician, the harlot, the delinquent juvenile mystic, the rich Sindhi Hindu, the gay, the lesbian, the Afghan refugee, the poet, the civil rights activist — all are touched upon.

There are some beautiful imagery and moments of reflection. And the author’s own journey through her many fractured identities — as a woman, an Indian, a Muslim, a Muslim in India, an Indian Muslim in Pakistan — ‘the emotional mulatto. The fence sitter who could not make up her mind. But when did I have a choice?’

The style at times is reminiscent of M J Akbar, but unfortunately the author is unable to sustain it and the reader’s interest. So it becomes an endless series of interviews culminating into analysis often defensive and judgmental. The incessant questions, the disjointed narratives and the constant refrain of the Babri Masjid demolition combine to dull the reading. There are also some sweeping and simplistic generalisations: ‘Unlike in Mumbai...in Pakistan a Parsi can at least die with his faith intact’, 'This was how the Hindu mind, the urban, western-educated mind was thinking’, and a sorry apologist argument about the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

The ending is poignant; witnessing the ‘Beating the Retreat’ at the Wagah border on the Pakistani side, the author bursts into tears when she hears the voice of Lata Mangeshkar from the Indian side against the Pakistani backdrop of Allahu Akbar. “I could not explain. Allah-u-Akbar and Lata Mangeshkar are both embedded deep in my consciousness. Both are part of my personal history.” These lines convey the message that the rest of the book struggles to. All the challenges, the contradictions, the anger, the pain and smugness of being a Muslim in India come gushing forth. So while A Journey Interrupted leaves one with insightful vignettes of Pakistan, its tortuous tryst with its identity-based destiny, the book is also about the author’s attempt to negotiate her own identity.

"we do not 'need' peace with Pakistan": FV interview

Author Of The Month: August: Farzana Versey

In an email interview to Dhvani, Farzana Versey talks about her book A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian In Pakistan

Q: I think your book in ways tries to say that, "Yes we have our differences but let's leave out the politicians and begin the peace process." Comment.

A: The 'leave the politicians out' bit is right, but I don't see why we need to start the peace process. Such processes are in fact a political agenda. Socially, we do not 'need' peace. We just have to get rid of this anguish about a lost land. No one asks us to start the peace process with Nepal or Sri Lanka or even Bangladesh. And we do have political turbulence with these nations. So, why Pakistan?

Q: How was the response to this book in Pakistan?

A: They are still waiting for it! But after reading my interviews and a couple of extracts, some Pakistanis have written to me to say that I have rubbished their country. It is not true and a rather simplistic reading; it is like saying that when I critique a poem, I dislike poetry. Yes, a few expat Pakistanis have read the book. Some have picked holes and asked why I did not have paan at a landmark place and someone else wants to know why I am obsessed with Gandhi when I don't even like Gandhi....There was an unusual opposite reaction from another Pakistani who said, "Why do you not like that poor man?" I could only say, "It is because I do not like poor people!"

You haven't asked me about the response in India. I find that curious. It is written from an Indian perspective, in fact, far too much at times. I shall answer the unasked question anyway. I have got letters from small towns even before the book was formally launched. These are not just letters congratulating me. They have taken pains to point out page numbers and what those words there meant to them or in some cases did not mean. This is immensely gratifying for what people would call non-fiction. It reads like fiction, I am told, and it only buffers the cliche that truth is stranger than fiction.

Q: In A Journey Interrupted, is there a hint of a nation interrupted? Does your being an Indian take the taste out of the peanut butter?

A: If we use the Charles M. Schulz quote, "Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love", then let us just say that which was 'unrequited' was mutually so! To talk about the 'nation interrupted' would mean having epic ideas. I prefer the minutiae. It is true that Pakistan is in denial just as much as India is. But Pakistani denial is more obvious.

Q: Do you think the Indo-Pak conflict has begun to lose relevance when so many singers, actors and models are making a mark in the Indian Film Industry?

A: How many? Where is Meera? And I do have strong reservations about why they can make it here - at least the singers - and we cannot. How many of our singers have performed there? It seems like we let them participate in our music shows, it is entirely possible that it is a strategy for TRPs. Do we realise that it makes Pakistan, our neighbour and supposedly close to us in cultural terms, seem like Mogadishu. This is weird.

Q: You write blogs too, does it give a sense of freedom, to be easily politically incorrect.

A: I have always exercised my ability to be politically incorrect, whichever forum I choose to express myself in. I don't think we should have different standards for writing. A doctor uses the same instruments whether s/he is performing a surgery at a private or public hospital, right? A writer should follow the same principle. The technique for an article may differ, but in my case that too applies rarely. Blogs only give me an opportunity to indulge my vanity a bit more.

Q: Do you have feeling that in India there's a double identity conflict? One is that of the faith and the other is class? Consider this statement by Shah Rukh Khan, "My success is a biggest proof that India is secular."

A: India has multiple identity crises, but if we restrict it to one community then faith and class do come into play. A Shahrukh Khan can talk about his success being the proof of secularism because that is the yardstick - achievement. If Shahrukh Khan did not live in a mansion and was resident of Behrampada doing odd jobs then he would be just a number (and I do not mean Number One). I find it odd that we still have to talk about proof for secularism. This is a sign of insecurity.


Now available in Pakistan

To anyone who is interested, Liberty Books in most Pakistani cities will have my book or get it for you. Also can be purchased at their website