Jewish Journal


February 7, 2011

Bonding with an ex-Karachi Jew against the Indians in Israel



Pakistani writer Mohammad Hanif at the Karachi Literature Festival. PHOTO: NEFER SEHGAL/EXPRESS

The Karachi Literature Festival took place February 5 and 6, attracting the best of Pakistani writers, at home and abroad. Back-to-back sessions ran for the length of the two days and hundreds of fans, intellectuals, poets, journalists, children turned out in the vastly successful event organised by the British Council and Oxford University Press.

As the city editor for The Express Tribune, I knew that we have to give it blanket coverage. The entire Karachi team was roped in. They filed over 20,000 words over the course of the two days. One item I would like to share with you is the session with Mohammad Hanif, one of Pakistan’s best-loved writers.

Hanif is basically a journalist. He ran the BBC’s Urdu service for many years. He shot to fame, however, with the publication of his stunning ‘A Case for Exploding Mangoes’ in 2008. The New York Times said: Mohammed Hanif’s exuberant first novel, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” extends this tradition of assassination fiction and shifts it east to Pakistan. The death at its center is that of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, president of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988.

But more importantly, we were infinitely amused by Hanif’s session at the KLF in which he talked about meeting an ex-Karachi Jew in Israel. I have taken the liberty of copying here reporter Salman Siddiqui’s coverage:

Writer Mohammad Hanif shared anecdotes from Israel and announced the title of his new novel at the Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday evening.

The ascerbic author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes had the entire audience in fits of laughter as he described his sources of inspiration, his experiences in Karachi and his recent trip to Palestine where he was on a creative-writing teaching assignment.

Once as a reporter for an international media organisation he was sent to Israel, where he was asked to address an event. “When I mentioned Karachi, I noticed that a man at the back row began to weep,” he said. “At the end of my address, I inquired and learnt that he belonged to the generation of Jews who once used to live in Karachi.”

The man told Hanif how life in Karachi was for the Jews during Ayub Khan’s time and asked from him the state of the city under the then new dictator Gen Musharraf. Hanif said the man recalled the names of cinemas and places he used to visit as a child despite decades passing by. When the writer asked him where he was living now, the man said a new colony called Ramlay had been built by the Israelis for them. “Here there are only two families from Pakistan, while all the rest are Indians,” the man complained, before going on to add that the Indians won’t allow them to live in peace anywhere. “And there I was in the middle of Israel, bonding with another Pakistani complaining about these Indians,” Hanif said as the crowd burst into another round of laughter.

Although Hanif announced the title of his upcoming novel “Our Lady Alice Bhatti” he remained tight lipped about the plot and only said: “It’s a love story, where there’s also a marriage gone bad.”

He read out passages from his new writings, some of which were autobiographical as they drew from his own experiences of living as a single man in Karachi. “I used to rent out different places from time to time and learnt many different things,” he said. For example, in the chapter titled Agay Samandar Hay (Ahead lies the Sea), Hanif describes the nauseating ‘piss-like’ smell of the beach. In Sabzi Mandi kee Sair (A Tour of Sabzi Mandi) someone borrows the character’s churridarr payjama whenever a trip to the MQM’s Nine Zero was planned. A womaniser in Empress Market Kay Badshah (King of Empress Market) wanted to score his 264th girl in his apartment.

And the Dead Poet’s House inspired by the late Salim Elahi’s apartment where the character inherits all the books left behind as the family simply wasn’t interested in them anymore and left it to the tenant.

Hanif, whose first novel is being translated in 19 languages, said it was very important for Urdu literature to be translated into Sindhi, Baluchi, Punjabi and vice versa.

He described his novel-writing endeavours as an act of ‘frustrated journalistic revenge.’ “As a journalist many a time we come to a point when we know that the kind of information we are seeking is just beyond our reach,” he said, adding that fiction gave him the liberty to imagine the truth behind the story.

The funny thing was that people told him that his fiction was actually very close to reality. “I met a general the other day who took me to the side and asked how did I get to know about the exact details of Zia’s plane crash.”

He advised aspiring writers to first develop the habit and love for reading. “Reading and reading well is the first step,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2011.
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