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