You were part of the clash of civilizations debate. What was your dominant impression from it?
I have been to India only a couple of times for short periods, so I have seen Indian politics only played out on the media. This was my first experience of watching Indian intellectuals and ideologues live. It was quite fascinating. There was Tarun Vijay – the right wing Hindu ideologue who I have only heard of. When he made that rather extreme statement that there is no clash of civilizations in India because on one side there is Hindu civilization and on the other, there is no civilization, only barbarism, I was really heartened by the reaction of the school children sitting in the front row. You would expect audiences in a festival like this to be full of bleeding heart liberals, but going by the way the kids booed him, one can see there are many new liberals in the making.
How do you understand the clash of civilizations debate? Have geo-political events really birthed one?
I think rifts that existed within societies have been sharpened. People who were on the real margins of society have suddenly got this new power. Even 20 years ago, if they tried to practice their ideas, they would have been considered complete lunatics, but now people give them ear. It’s the same in western and Hindu societies; it’s just a lot more visible in Muslim societies because there is more violence and bloodshed.
You said coming back from London to live in Karachi had put you in a dark mood. Are you finding it difficult to process your country as a writer?
Yes, I do feel overwhelmed sometimes. But we have seen these periods before. I was 16 in 1977 when Bhutto was hanged, I had no political awareness then, but it did seem the end of the world. Then there were the Zia years that we thought would never end. But it did end suddenly one day — or we thought it did. Then new cycles began. Musharraf – I felt he would never go. But he did, and there was a brief period of hope, but we are back in cynical mode now. So yes, as a citizen and a parent, I do feel overwhelmed sometimes.
But what particular aspect makes you feel the most hopeless? Or again, hopeful?
What really drives me to mad despair is when people who call themselves moderate find reason to justify things that they don’t agree with themselves, and would never accept in their own lives. For example, more than 122 schools have been destroyed in SWAT, thousands of kids are being denied school, and we have long debates among moderates about how if we imposed a limited version of sharia that would not happen. Another thing which drives me to despair is the complete indifference of our upper classes. The story of Pakistan you see on the media — talibanisation, gory images — is just one narrative. There is another narrative in Pakistan, which is about a very harsh economic climate. We have always had the poor and the very rich elite, but it’s now reached an untenable point. It drives me mad that people who have huge houses and spend a couple of lakhs on dinner parties act as if their world is falling apart if their servants ask for a Rs 1,000 raise. The only thing that gives me hope is that unlike our generation, people in their early 20s now are getting politicized. Perhaps when they get to the helm, things might get better.
Do you feel real breakthroughs are possible between India and Pakistan?
No, I think until the ruling classes in both countries make up their minds, nothing will change. There is no reason why we should not have more people to people contact, but I am not optimistic about it. We are just a tiny elite who meet in these bubbles and are very nice to each other. But it’s quite scary how every 7-8 years we find ourselves on the brink of war. If we had real engagement – had branches of Indian banks in Pakistan, had Pakistani students studying in Indian IITs, would it be so easy to whip up this hysteria? Unless we broaden the scope of engagement, what is at stake? A few comedians from Karachi, some singers, two-and-a-half writers from Pakistan? Who cares?
Is there any voice from the festival that has lingered in your head?
Sudeep Chakravarti. His conversation and book on Naxals was quite an eye opener. He’s invited me to Goa and offered to teach me how to climb coconut trees – I am looking forward to that.