Photo: Shailendra Pandey

From your conversations here, did you feel that India’s middle-class mirrors Pakistan’s?
My belief always was that our rulers wanted the fasad (fight) between our countries, and that ordinary people were actually quite friendly. I did get glimpses of that. But I also saw another side. Although many Indians say they love Pakistani musicians and writers, there’s a strain of thought that Pakistanis are just coming here to make money off Indians. There is no end to the ingenuity of hate. Anything can be twisted to make it ugly.

There is some very high quality writing coming out of Pakistan. Is this tied with the turbulence there?
Yes, Pakistani writers and artists are becoming quite prominent, but I think what we’re doing is trying to understand our society for ourselves first, before trying to explain it to anyone else. If others do understand, that’s a bonus. People in India talk of the horrible things going on in Afghanistan and of how close it all is to Delhi. But I keep thinking, before it comes to Delhi, it’ll come through Pakistan and consume us all. We have to fight it with every tool we have. Writing is a part of that.

In your writing, you are both strongly critical of the Koran and seduced by its beauty.
As I said in our session at the festival, my father was a communist but my mother came from an orthodox Muslim family, so I saw both worlds colliding in my home. I’m grateful for that. Bizhad — one of the characters in my book, The Wasted Vigil — is the name of a great Persian miniaturist. But here’s the thing — if Osama Bin Laden or his aides were to get their hands on the paintings of Bizhad, they’d burn them. For them, that aspect of Islam is ugly, whereas every cell in my being celebrates it. That’s my way of standing up to the Al Qaeda; and also my answer to the bigots who say Islam has contributed nothing to the world.

What, for you, is the core problem in the construct of Islam?
There are obvious things. We understand that the Koran was part of a historical moment; there are things in it that are a response to historical events going on around Mohammad. If you look at him purely as a politician or statesman trying to create a state, you understand he needed an army, from which the idea of jihad stems; he needed taxes — zakat. But there are other things — its attitudes to women. How is one to talk about these things without inflaming conservatives or giving succour to the hate-mongers against Islam? It’s a very fine line. You have to do it intelligently, seriously, one step at a time.

Has the ‘war on terror’ crystallised a clash of civilisations?
I became a Muslim on 9/11. I don’t say my prayers or keep my fast, I drink alcohol and don’t wear a beard. But after 9/11, I thought it was important to claim my identity and send a message both to Osama and to bigots: the Muslim world includes men like me. Beyond that, the clash between civilisations is an idea I’m deeply uninterested in. There are ways of dealing with hatred — one just has to slowly and calmly find them.

On the flip side, does modernity have to come in clean-shaven trousers?
I’m now a middle-class man — I have some money and can move between cultures. My worry is about people who can’t, people like my cousins who leave Pakistan and work in Dubai on construction sites. You and I — we are equally fine in America or at home. We go there and say, how delightful, here homosexuals are free to declare their love. But someone conservative would be struck by horror — what kind of a hell is that? For some of us, then, modernity means ugliness and exposure to the horrors of the world. I understand that. I’m deeply fixated on the problems of the helpless.