Before we meet the vivid red birds on the cover – and in the title – of Mohammed Hanif’s new novel, we encounter other sorts of animals. There is Momo the lab rat, an ambitious 15-year-old in a refugee camp, who becomes a research tool for a woman trying to understand the Teenage Muslim Mind. There is the American soldier, Ellie, a sort of vulture (or angel, depending on your perspective) who falls from the sky when his plane crashes and he goes from being a predator to becoming part of what he was targeting. And there is Mutt the dog who really is a dog but also a bullied victim and a savant for our troubled times.
Red Birds is Hanif’s third novel, after A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and like its predecessors it is marked by irreverent, absurdist humour and deep sadness – both things often coming together in the same paragraph. A sad woman is described as “making her afternoon tea and working her rosary with such passion, as if she was a teenage boy self-pleasuring”. The dog, electrocuted while peeing on a pole, screams and yelps like “a Mutt prophet who has just received his first prophecy and wants to return it to the sender”. Ellie discovers the gap between Desert Survival courses and real life, but doesn’t quite realise an important truth about his own state of being.
This book is about a madcap clash of civilisations but it is also about the importance of not forgetting, about lingering ghosts, and about the coexistence of the savage and the compassionate in human nature. As the pilot puts it, “If I didn’t destroy, who would rebuild? Where would all the world’s empathy go?”
In an email interview, Hanif spoke to Scroll.in about his new novel, his writing and the role of absurdism in today’s world.
You don’t name the novel’s setting – we only know it’s a Muslim country that the Americans first bomb and then set up refugee camps in. What was the thinking behind this, given that your first two novels were set in a very identifiable Pakistan, and built around real-life incidents?
I think the process with this novel was completely different. I of course exaggerate when I use the word process, I didn’t really have an excel sheet or flow charts. It came to me in little revelations, with long periods of silence and mourning. My eyes were mostly blurred during this period. It could be that when I wrote the first two novels and a little book of non-fiction I was missing Pakistan too much. I think maybe I got over that lingering homesickness.
The setting is not that abstract, I think, it’s a refugee camp. We have been at war for about forty years now, with a few years’ break here and there. The refugee camps of my childhood are proper slums now, some are even proper towns and villages. And new refugee camps are still coming up. We keep forgetting about the ones that were set up last year. So I guess it’s that idea about our own rather smug, comfortable lives that are made possible by forgetting that we set up a camp last year.
You have three main narrators here, which then broaden into many more voices later in the book. Which of these voices, if any, is closest to your own?
All the voices are mine, or at least they are filtered through a certain madness going on in my head. They are all me and I am trying to hear all those voices and then somehow try and recreate them on the page. I think finding Momo’s voice was a struggle, but having found it, it took me back to a much younger self when you used to be able to jump from roof to roof on a sizzling July afternoon and forget where you left your slippers.
Have your own experiences as a pilot informed any of Ellie’s narrative?
No, not at all. Except for some half-forgotten bits about jungle and desert survival tips.
Mutt the dog is – overtly at least – the wisest of the narrators and thinks of himself as a philosopher, though it’s also possible his brain got fried in an accident. Is he a prophet, a philosopher, just raving mad – or are they all the same thing?
I think before anything else he is a Mutt, I kind of refuse to believe that dogs don’t have philosophical thoughts or don’t deal with ethical dilemmas. Most prophets were declared raving mad in their times (and in some cases posterity confirmed it). He is a wild dog who is trying to curb his wild side for love, which is a struggle we are all familiar with or should be.
Momo is probed by a researcher trying to understand the “teenage Muslim mind”, but his mind is full of things that she probably wouldn’t have guessed at. Do you feel there tends to be over-analysis of what young Muslims are thinking? Too much presuming and judging?
Of course there is. We do the same thing. I live in a place called Defence Phase 5 in Karachi and most of us constantly judge people who live in Phase 2 Extension. White people presume more because most of them see us as a blur of brown or black or yellow faces, and think we have a claim to some silly innocence. A long time ago when a Pakistani could roam the streets of Delhi, I asked a young man what did he know about Pakistanis. He said they sleep with their sisters. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t even tell him that no I have never slept with my sister, and don’t plan to and I don’t know anybody who does.
I told this to a journalist friend in Delhi and he said the young boy probably meant you guys sleep with your cousins. And I was like, maybe he has a point.
In one passage, there is the intriguing suggestion that the cyclical process of destruction and rebuilding is organic to human nature. Is it futile to expect the world to ever become a better, violence-free place?
I have a young child, so I have to hope that this world will become a violence-free place. But I also realise we parents inflict a lot of violence on this world in the hope that it will become a safer place for our children. I don’t know how that can work out.
Simplistic question: what do the red birds in this novel represent to you? This is another way of asking what the book’s principal theme is.
Missing someone who is gone. And hoping someone who has gone misses you as well.
In all your novels, a fantastical, exaggerated approach is employed to deal with real and pressing issues. Would you consider writing a completely straight, dramatic novel?
Trust me, I start every novel as a straight, dramatic novel. And then the first bit of drama happens and you know that your characters are not as straight as they appeared to be. The world is not as straight as it promised to be. Increasingly, you can’t match the absurdist comedy going on around yourself, I think people like me have to actually tone down stuff – believe me, my books are much less violent and less absurdist than the life on my street. And I am not even talking about Trump, Modi, Netanyahu, Bashar ul Asad. I am just talking about my own neighbourhood.
Does absurdist comedy also help a writer be less pedantic? Your stories involve oppression and cultural hegemony, yet there is a lack of judgement or preachiness in the telling; the emphasis is on observing people and their idiosyncrasies.
I do get very angry sometimes and then realise that it’s just high blood pressure and my anger will fade away if I just sit down and have a glass of water. I do get angry when someone close to me is killed or dies randomly. But all that rage is quite impotent. So I think I do grief better than I do anger. I am sure I judge people all the time, but I think if you spend seven years with a character, you begin to empathise with their worst traits. (That already sounds judgmental.)
What about writing a novel in Urdu?
I do a lot of journalism in Urdu, so I guess Urdu ka shauq poora ho jata hai. I have recently started doing some video blogs in Punjabi and I feel more free than I ever have; it’s like there is no wall between me and the audience. I think I am very tempted to write fiction in Punjabi. But there are about seventeen-and-a-half people who read in Punjabi and most of them are my friends. But I think I’ll give it a go anyway.
You have also written a play, a libretto on the life of Benazir Bhutto, and columns that attempt to explain Pakistan while also satirising aspects of it. Which of these forms do you like best?
I think my favourite form doesn’t involve writing, it involves sitting down with a bunch of friends sharing stories, trying to remember old couplets, and songs – but that form doesn’t earn you a living. So I write anything and everything because that’s pretty much all I can do. Within that, novels are my favourite because you can spend year after year living with the same characters, in the same house, it’s like having an imaginary family.
You have a childhood story about asking your teacher “Even if Ahmedis are heretics, can’t we buy things from their shops?” and being slapped. Given the current controversy about the removal of Atif Mian from the Economic Advisory Council, so soon into Imran Khan’s prime-ministership, what are your expectations of this new era in Pakistani politics?
Oh dear. That was like forty years ago, I was probably in Class 2 and the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of declaring Ahmedis kafir. Since then we have declared them kafir many times over and we are still looking for new ways to torment them.
I do have expectations from this new era: they will find new names for old cruelties, they will inflict the same old insults on their own people. And I fear they will succeed.