‘The job of a novel is to fill the gaps in history books’

You have said your novel Mehr is your attempt to understand the depth of obsession in its many forms like love, patriotism and religion. But interestingly you have chosen to explore these obsessions through the medium of a love story than that of a political drama where they are supposed to play out, more so in the context of current South Asia.

Love is an annoyingly difficult emotion to understand. Every one of us struggles with it. What does love do to humans? Does it lead to happiness or sadness, fear or courage, despair or hope, loss or gain, destruction or creation, freedom or imprisonment, unity or division, permanence or impermanence? Why does love alter the course of people’s lives? Why does it change their destinies? Is it borne of reason or of madness and obsession? What then is love? What is its true nature? What must one expect of it? Can it ever be attained? How then must one love?

In the novel, the two principal characters — a Pakistan woman living in exile in London and an Indian Intelligence Operative — are caught in a vortex of strange yet life-threatening situations wherein they get to explore some of love’s deepest mysteries. The novel is also an attempt to understand the philosophy of love, and its politics.

On its face, the love story bears some resemblance to that of Nihal Ansari, the Indian national who was recently released by Pakistan after serving a six year long prison sentence. He had reportedly gone to Pakistan to meet his girlfriend whom he had met online. There have also been marriages between leading Kashmiri politicians and Pakistani women. Any inspiration from them?

I started writing Mehr in 2013. There have been countless inspirations. Love between the two countries — India and Pakistan — seems unimaginable, given the history, the political environment, and the decades-long strife over Kashmir. But love between two people living on the two sides of the border is inevitable. Such love might write the future history of the two countries. Who knows what people are capable of when they are in love?

Maybe there will be some men and women in India and Pakistan who will fall in love as if they have no other choice, and as if love is their only chance, their only hope. Maybe the two countries will then realise the futility of all barriers and come to each other’s rescue.

Maybe they will listen to the voices in people’s hearts and not to history that still bears scars of the partition. Maybe love’s triumph over hate will unite the ordinary people of the subcontinent. If that happens, future generations will be saved from ruin.

In Mehr you have moved away from the issues of exile and loss you tackled in The Garden of Solitude. It tells a cross-border love story which runs into conflict over Kashmir.  Was it a conscious decision?

The novel Mehr is a sequel to The Garden of Solitude. Major K, whose full name—Major Sridhar Kaul — is revealed towards the end is Sridhar of The Garden of Solitude. Mehr (the heroine) returns to Karachi not knowing what she will experience there. Their paths cross in the most bizarre of circumstances. What follows changes the course of their lives. Kashmir continues to inspire me. It has become a Macondo-like place where I can go only in dreams.

Why did the woman have to be a Shia? Does it have a meaning beyond her identity?

I grew up in Safa Kadal (Downtown Srinagar) which is full of Shias. The Shia way of life has left an indelible impression on me.When I was ten years old, my grandfather took me to see a Muharram procession in Naala-e-Maer.

At first, I was horrified seeing kids my age drenched in blood and lashing themselves with knives and swords. When my grandfather explained everything to me, I felt lucky that I wasn’t a Shia. Year after year, I stood by the roadside and looked at Shias flagellating themselves.Looking at the bloodied faces of young boys, I couldn’t tell mourning from euphoria. My father taught me Islamic history.

The story of Ali, Hassan and Hussain, and the battle of Karbala fascinate me to this day. How Ali, Hassan and Hussain lived and died, and what they stood for is an ultimate lesson in morality, courage, valour, dignity, loyalty, faith, love and the noblest of all human virtues, sacrifice.

To belong to a community whose history is marred with betrayals and persecutions is a terrible thing. Shias are still living with a sense of persecution.

In the novel, Mehr undergoes transformation. And at the heart of her transformation is her identity as a Shia which assumes a deeper and a more complex meaning only when she
returns to her homeland, Pakistan.

Kashmir has become a battleground of narratives. How challenging is it for a writer to rise above them and get to the objective truth?

This is a question I ask myself all the time. One thing is clear. There’s no ‘rising above’ the harsh reality (history and the situation on the ground) however conflicted and troubled it is. I carry the burden of being a Kashmiri who’s unable to go back to Kashmir and reclaim all that’s lost. I carry the burden of being witness to terrible things.

This is the age of Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook. People have access to everything and anything. It’s not easy anymore to differentiate truth from untruth. The very idea of truth is being questioned on a daily basis. We vacillate between extremes. We take positions and sides based on what we see and hear on Social Media. We find ourselves in situations wherein love turns to hate instantly. We react without thinking and knowing. What is lacking is the experience of humanity as it unfolds near you and elsewhere. This is where good novels come in. Good novelists see everything compassionately. They don’t rush to conclusions and judgements.

They create distance between the story, the characters and themselves. They empathize with the unempathizable. It’s like walking the razor’s edge. The job of a novel is to fill the gaps in history books. To reveal what’s outside the frame and what’s hard to find. The end goal is the constant pursuit of truth — the truth of human condition. And it is non-negotiable.