"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