You are very interested in “wonder’. Your novel, Hassan’s State of Affairs, begins with the story of an accountant, Hassan, who is astounded by the extraordinary things that happen on his commute to work. In fact, you even say in the novel that you’re not writing a story, but a “wonderlogue”. The whole novel seems to be grappling with this question of how we experience and process wonder.
This is because I am always in [a state of] wonder! And this is not a metaphorical statement. It is literally true: I am always in wonder. I don’t know what is going on.
Aristotle said that philosophy starts with wonder and I believe it ends with wonder too. I mean, I can’t rest anywhere, I can’t make myself stop at one place, I can’t delude myself with some notion of certainty. Why should I? Certainty doesn’t convince me.
I am also a student of physics, in a way. When you study cosmology, you find out where this universe came from. The Big Bang thing that happened 13.7 Billion years ago. The universe exploded out of the singularity and density of this event. But then the next question arises: What was there before the Big Bang? What was there before 13.7 billion years?
Religious scientists, I mean the very dogmatic kind of scientists, reply that this is an absurd question. It is a metaphysical question. There was no space and time before the Big Bang. But imagine that. Can we conceive of a state of affairs where there is no space and time? Aren’t you in wonder?
Without wonder there is nothing. I mean, you can’t proceed anywhere, in knowledge, literature, philosophy. Wonder is in every moment. If an artist, or a scientist, lacks this ability to wonder, they cannot be creative. They can be assimilative, they can understand things, but it is wonder which gives you a jump into the unknown. And there again you are in wonder.
The question, or maybe the experience of wonder, leads you to continuously play with the form of your novel. You don’t follow a conventional narrative form. You insert screenplays in your narrative, you go on tangents from the central plot, you shift times and spaces within chapters. You introduce different surrealist techniques. Why do you like to play with form?
No, it is not a conscious decision. I don’t determine it before I begin writing. I don’t say, I am going to play with this form, break this form. When I start writing, the writing determines the form and proceeds in that way.
Yes, it’s true that I don’t follow the traditional linear form of fiction. It’s because life itself is not linear. Is it? The linear, conflict-based or conflict-oriented fiction that originated from Aristotle’s Poetics and has the tradition of Greek plays behind it. You know the model: the tension between good and evil, good guy and bad guy, and then it reaches a high point, climax, and then it resolves. I think this is only one possibility of narrative.
It may be of high intensity, it satisfies a need for suspense and catharsis. I am not against linear fiction, I love it, I enjoy it. But my point is, it is not the only criteria. What I try to do is to write prose which is interesting without some high conflict and all that. Because in life you find situations which are just there. In my book, you will see, at some point, there may be a conflict but it is not similar to the conflict between good and evil.
Actually, I was thinking about this a few days ago. I might be wrong, I’ll leave it to the critics to decide, but I was thinking that the form of our tales, the old stories we heard growing up, is also different from this intense conflict model. Like the Seven Voyages of Sinbad. The protagonist goes along with different situations. A man heads out and different things happen to him, he wanders here and there and everywhere, things like that. It still captures the interest of the reader.
Hassan’s State of Affairs is also about a specific historical moment: Pakistan in the 1980s, Zia’s Pakistan. It deals with the rise of authoritarianism in Pakistan. But you don’t write explicitly about politics. You are interested in playing surrealist games with your politically charged narrative. What do you think about literary activism, writers becoming activists? Urdu has the rich tradition of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, writers like Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi.
Among western philosophies, Marxism was the first to come here. The Progressive Writers’ Movement was influenced in one way or the other by this. It has its own style. I don’t have anything against it. I was also a student of Marxism once.
There was a time when it appealed to me, but that time has passed. There were problems that I couldn’t resolve with Marxism and dialectical materialism. There was also a time when I was influenced by existentialism, but that time has passed too.
I think these concepts often rest on some idea of a universal human being, given by the Greeks, which is the main assumption behind every theory of knowledge, but it does not work in reality. People are so influenced by cultural forces – culture, society, ethnicity etc. that it seems the rational definition of Man is totally rubbish.
This is the paradox of the present time, I think. On the one hand, we have never been more global than today, as far as connectivity is concerned; on the other hand, we have experienced a lot of fragmentation, new tribes have emerged. I find this very interesting.
But my personal view, it’s only my personal view, is that I am as much in wonder as I was as a child. I don’t know, I won’t claim certainty when I don’t have any. I play around with philosophies, as language games, verbal games, and ontological games, “games” in a very specific sense.
These games can create moments of enlightenment. I mean, not enlightenment, not Kant’s enlightenment, I am not talking about that enlightenment, you can say, enjoyment, maybe, and these games, this enjoyment, becomes a part of the literature.
So you find it hard to connect with universal philosophies of being or politics? In the sense that how do we apply them here?
I mean, if I tell you what Derrida says, or Foucault, or Lacan, or whoever, or give a comparative analysis of them, as people do here, what big thing have I done? The problem is, this is something very important to me, I was talking about this with my translator, Haider, the other day, my point was that our social sciences departments, like political science, psychology, etc, if they don’t show the local and creative dimension of their subjects, then what are they doing?
Take a simple example: progressive students took out a Students’ Solidarity March. It was a big event across the country, but our political science departments have nothing to say about it. Just look at it. Why do we avoid what is really happening in the street and in the world in front of us. What are these universities for if they don’t look outside their campus walls?
They don’t engage with local politics and culture. They are only interested in regurgitating continental theory or Anglo-American theory. All this western knowledge, western theory has become a commodity. Just like our cell phones are imported, our theories are imported too. Academics and writers digest them and blurt them out at suitable times.
I am interested in engaging with western philosophy in a creative sense by locating it in my world. My problem is creativity, wonder. If you are doing philosophy, you should have something to say which is new and which is connected with your own cultural location. It is possible to become acquainted, you know, through your MA in Philosophy, with what has been said by major western philosophers, but doing philosophy creatively by placing it in your own position, in your own culture, which gives a new insight – this is different.
This will require the discovery of new forms of expression or writing. This is what I have tried to do in my fiction. When I was writing my fiction, at the back of my mind, I was thinking that a new form of expression should be developed, which could incorporate what I have to say philosophically in fiction. [The] novel as a vehicle of creative philosophy.
I think this is more relevant for the non-western world than it might have been for the western world. We have our own traditions as well as the western philosophical traditions that have come here through colonialism and now through globalisation and high-speed connectivity and commodified forms of academic knowledge. How could I incorporate all this in fiction? This is how my creative expression developed.