After Aamina Ahmad’s debut novel, The Return of Faraz Ali, was published in 2022, it received high praise from authors like Kamila Shamsie, Yaa Gyasi, and Maaza Mengiste. Shamsie said Ahamad’s book is a “noir with a heart.” Earlier this year, Ahmad won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) Awards for the Best First Novel. Needless to say, she’s off to a roaring start.

Set in Lahore’s notorious red-light district, The Return of Faraz Ali is a noir that follows Inspector Ali, who has been asked to hush up the murder of child prostitute. It should be an easy task, but when the past grabs Ali by the throat, he finds himself throw into an unexpected reckoning with his own selfhood. For the first time in his career, Ali refuses to follow orders.

As the city assails him with a jumble of memories, he cannot stop asking questions or winding through the labyrinthine alleyways chasing the secrets – his family’s and his own – that risk shattering his precariously constructed existence. Ali goes back and forth in time – from the Second World War and the Partition to Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971 – in his quest to confront truths and make sense of his own identity.

In a conversation with Scroll, Ahmad talked about the moral dilemmas of Faraz Ali, the role of caste in Islam, writing about 1971 as an author of Pakistani descent, and the best writing advice she has ever received. Excerpts from the conversation:

The primary action in the novel takes place in the Old City of Lahore. Why did you choose that part of the city as the setting? Have you ever visited the area and how did you imagine the place would be?
I visited Lahore often as a child but didn’t see much of the Old City although it was quite near my father’s family home. But I was really struck by the way people who lived outside the Old City talked about it – as though it was a world away, truly separate from the rest of the city. When I finally did visit, I had that same sense, that it was mysterious and unknowable to outsiders like myself. But I was also fascinated by the history of the areas, the local legends, the architecture, and the maze-like streets. It seemed the perfect location for a noir; those labyrinthine streets felt like an appropriate setting for a knotty, complicated story.

The novel begins with a murder investigation but quickly expands its canvas to the Partition, President Ayub Khan’s term in West Pakistan, the Second World War, and the uprising in former East Pakistan. Was it always the goal to write a novel so expansive in its scope? What was the initial idea for the book?
Actually, my intention had been to write a very contained noir and it was a surprise when the novel kept growing and stretching into these various time periods. But once I had created my protagonist, Faraz Ali, a man who was born in the red-light district to a courtesan and then taken to live outside it, I knew I needed to understand the history of his parents to understand the trajectory his life had taken.

So I ended up also telling the story of his father, Wajid, who, as a young man, fights in the Second World War and is taken prisoner of war. And also the story of his mother and sister, Rozina, a courtesan who becomes for a short time a movie star. This allowed me to look at the world of the story through lots of different lenses.

Your characters talk openly about caste – the pride of Gujjars, the disadvantages of being Kanjars. The women in the mohalla are aware that apart from their profession, their caste identity also disadvantages them. How did you incorporate the caste dilemma into your narrative?
Islam’s emphasis on equality means we don’t often talk about the ways in which caste remains a powerful force in Pakistani society. But caste, class, and gender all play a significant role in shaping people’s lives. This is a society in which there isn’t much social mobility and I wanted the book to look honestly at that reality and at the kind of resilience the characters show in the face of those parameters.

Faraz Ali is one of the rare righteous cops in the police force. While he maintains a stoic outlook on death, we find him considerably shaken by the murder of the 12-year-old prostitute. His thoughts lead him to think about his own young daughter, Nazia – who incidentally, also shares “Kanjar blood”. I found this very interesting – how his identity as a father influences his duty as a policeman. What did your character sketch for Faraz Ali look like?
You know, I’m not sure I saw Faraz as righteous as much as I saw him as a man weakened by his class and social position, a person whose actions are often driven by fear, and also, at times, by shame. The novel opens with him beating a protestor and for me that was important. He is, as a police officer, a tool of the state and has subjected many others to violence in a bid to uphold a particular social order on behalf of men more powerful than he is. I’m not sure if it is better or worse that he knows what he does is wrong. But I did come to see, in writing his character, that he is also in a complicated situation; given his position in the world, it is strategic to align himself with those more powerful; a means of protecting himself.

But you are very right that being a father is a critical component in his makeup and that it is this personal connection that is the deciding factor in his decision that he won’t, on this occasion, follow orders. A decision which will have dangerous repercussions for him and those around him.

“He held her close…and she squirmed away from him, he [knew] he would never be enough. This is what it should be.” The “her” here is Faraz Ali’s daughter, Nazia. Not just Nazia, almost every character in the story is without a father figure and the mothers are the primary caregivers and dominant presence in the child’s life. In a way, this was true also for Faraz Ali. What did you realise about fatherhood while writing the book and do you think many fathers tend to feel that they will “never be enough”?
Interesting question! I am not sure if many other fathers think they will never be enough but Faraz as a man whose mother has been lost to him, and who, in his own way feels lost, certainly feels this way. Some deep sense of belonging was ruptured when Faraz was taken from his mother and we see how navigating a life with that chasm at its centre has shaped him.

In addition, Faraz’s relationship with his own father, Wajid, who has “saved” Faraz from a life in the red-light district thinks of Faraz as being indebted to him and this breeds both resentment and shame in Faraz. Parent-child relationships are often complicated but I think Faraz’s unfulfilled longing for his mother’s love haunts him; he does the best he can as a father but seems unable to shake the feeling that it is enough, that he himself is enough.

We don’t find mention of the Liberation War of East Pakistan in too many books by Pakistani writers. Faraz is sympathetic to the cause while his wife, Mussarat, feels that the Bengalis blame them for “everything”. Shamshuddin is an outspoken Bengali who freely talks about the “occupation”. As a writer of Pakistani descendant, were you at all worried about the backlash you might receive for writing about 1971 and what preceded it?
I don’t think there’s a lot of conversation around the 1971 Liberation War in Pakistan and I think that kind of erasure is dangerous; nations often don’t want to confront troubling histories but it strikes me as imperative that we do.

Despite the fact that the women in the Old Mohalla have been pushed into a corner, they resist and exist defiantly. Were you inspired by any real-life women when you were constructing your female characters?
I didn’t meet any women while writing the book but I was able to read some really insightful ethnographic studies and see a range of contemporary documentaries which made for very useful research. There were no specific characters but I was very inspired by the resilience of the women who often have to work in dangerous and difficult conditions. Their commitment to looking after their families come what may and their resourcefulness in finding ways to survive in a world that offers them little support, security, and safety was striking.

Your sources show that you have done your research meticulously. How long did it take you to write the book and were there any roadblocks?
I first started thinking about the idea for the book about eight years ago and then wrote on and off, so I had a long period of research. And yes, absolutely, there were research roadblocks! For example, the role of Indian soldiers in the world wars is a growing area of research but given the volume of material about the second world war generally, there was relatively little detail about them, and even less on Indian prisoners of war. There was a book I had heard about on an Internet forum about a World War II prisoner of war memoir by an Indian doctor; I tried very hard to find it and just couldn’t. In the end, I gathered as much research as I could, and then used that as a springboard for my imagination, filling in what I couldn’t find.

Now that your novel is out in the world and has been so warmly received, do you feel relieved or are you already feeling the pressure to write the next equally (or even more) impressive book?
It’s definitely very nerve-wracking to put a book into the world and so it has been amazing to meet readers, to read their messages and to feel that the book has found an audience who are invested in the story and the characters. I do feel pressure to write the next book but only because I am happiest when I am deeply immersed in a project; I feel a bit lost without a story to chase, and between life, work, and the book coming out, I haven’t had much time to do that. However, I am excited about getting back to my writing table and meeting some new characters who I hope I will spend some years getting to know.

What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
Don’t revise as you go. Just keep going forward until you find an ending; you can go back later but get words (even ones you don’t like) down on the page.