Interview

‘The story has to come from within’

Print edition : July 05, 2019
Interview with the Pakistani author Uzma Aslam Khan.

TO read Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is to experience love—slow, gentle, leisurely. As the Pakistani author herself says: “Love is the opposite of hate… you love who you love.” She has been in love with the business of words, or maybe the life of words and letters, and the characters that inhabit her works. Her work Thinner Than Skin was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and Trespassing was nominated for the Commonwealth Prize. Thinner Than Skin won the French Prize for the Best Fiction at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2014. She won the Bronze award at the Independent Publisher Book Awards for The Geometry of Gods.

The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali defies easy definition, and that is reason enough for the author to call it “historical fiction”. Set in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the book covers the period of the Second World War and the intertwining of the lives of prisoners on the islands with the seemingly intractable fights and biases of the colonial masters and their enemies.

On the one side, there is the British who could not care less for the prisoners who, even after serving their term, or on being acquitted, could only hope to live on the island on a plot of land granted to them. On the other, we have the Japanese who have the backing of the Indian National Army (INA), but the INA is unable to rein in their extremities. Amidst all this is Nomi and her brother Zee as also their friend Aye. Their lives are entangled with the inscrutable ways of world powers. Interestingly, each of the countries where Uzma Aslam Khan has lived features in some way or the other in her work, including England, Japan, the Philippines and Oceania.

It is a plot so complicated that it took her 26 years to complete the story. She wrote four novels in the meantime, but she had an abiding desire to finish the story of Nomi Ali. And to think that this work came about by accident.

Many years ago, Uzma Aslam Khan was browsing a library shelf for a preferred title when a book fell off the shelf. She picked it up and read the title and the information on the jacket. She was engrossed. It was about the Andamans. That set the seed for Nomi Ali’s story. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

In India, history is being written anew. Some critics even call it, half in jest, historical fiction. As the author of “The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali”, what does historical fiction mean to you? Where does history take a back seat to fiction?

The rewriting you speak of is done by those with power. Its purpose is to erase the stories of people without power. For a woman from Pakistan who grew up with a history constructed by power, historical fiction serves a different purpose. It is not to silence and hate but to enrich and empathise. We have to always reject the notion that the history we’re given is the only one there is. Historical fiction is a way to embody stories not meant to exist.

Where do you start?

I devoted considerable time in researching but had to let go of most of it to let history take the backseat, as you put it. As with any fiction, historical or contemporary, the story has to be felt. It has to come from “within”—from what makes sense in the body. I had no outline, no shortcuts. I didn’t know what would happen to any of the characters until it happened. I had to feel my way to the end. The characters stayed primary as history became secondary.

There are many histories and many ways of looking at history. Yet there is a common strand of marginalisation of the role of women, their accomplishments, their suffering. History is often told from the male point of view. How challenging was it to address these inequities in a work of historical fiction?

At the start it wasn’t challenging so much as frustrating. I encountered references to women in the freedom movement as either feminine ideals—dutiful and chaste sisters and wives who supported the efforts of men, mostly through social work—or else championed for being “as strong as men”. There the narrative stopped. The social and sexual stigma around their life in the prison colony meant that they were barely, if ever, mentioned in books written by men.

It must have been frustrating?

At some point in my journey to writing the novel, I stopped caring about what had or had not been said. I entered that other world, the one of fiction, where the focus is on language and character. The unnamed political prisoner in my novel was the first character I wrote over 26 years. My interest was, from the start, in her daily and interior life, as someone transported and imprisoned, more than in what she did to end up there. I didn’t want to erase or champion her: I wanted to know her as a person, in her entirety. She was a seed that I carried with me, across many seas. I just had to be patient. I had to let her speak. The same was true for Nomi, who in a sense becomes the keeper of her family’s history. I wanted to know how she got there. I wanted to value her life, as a young girl who grows up not only between two colonial powers, but between two parents who largely don’t see her. I just had to hold her, and listen, and forget about anything else.

You talk of the Andamans as the prison island about which there is little history. We, in India, know for sure of a prisoner who used to write apology letters to the British and pledge to work for the perpetuation of the British rule over the subcontinent. Did you, as a researcher, come across other such letters of abject surrender?

Yes, of course, I do know who you speak of. My focus in this book was not on those who might be considered, or have considered themselves, “special prisoners” (because of their gender and caste, among other reasons). They have already been written about.

You have said in your book that your characters inhabit India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Did this complexity lead to a deeper layering of your work?

I hope so.

The book took around 26 years to be completed. Yet it has a seamless narrative. How challenging was it to keep coming back to it after each of your other novels?

There is a lovely compliment embedded in your question. Thank you. I have actually asked myself the same question. How did I slip back into this book, after immersing myself totally, body and soul, in each of the others? And now I am not complimenting myself so much as acknowledging that I don’t quite understand. I think the simple reason is love. The unnamed prisoner, Nomi, Shakuntala, Aye, Haider Ali—I simply could not abandon them. They seemed to know it because they never left me either.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I love the characters in my other books any less. It means there is never a choice—you love who you love. Through writing, I’ve discovered a greater capacity to hold love for multiple people across time and place. Fiction is primarily about compassion for another life.

You have your set of dedicated readers in India. As a Pakistani writer, how different do you think is their mindset and their acceptance of your work?

For my previous four novels, I haven’t encountered a difference. It depends on the reviewer—there are those who connect with a book regardless of their nationality. For this book, so far, there has been more press in India. It is perhaps too early to say.

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