All the shades of our culture
By Amara Javed
Writing is no easy task — generations of writers would agree. With that in mind, I can speculate that having a book published is one of the most arduously accomplished feats in the world.
I’m sure Nafisa Rizvi would agree. Rizvi is not a fiction writer by profession but she has written for many years on social and cultural issues and has also been an art critic. Interestingly, Rizvi has also tried her hand at advertising in which she had an extensive. She has spent some time abroad studying and was working at the prestigious Indus Valley School in Karachi. Rizvi recently dabbled into her passion for literature with her published debut novel The Blue Room. The novel is an interesting attempt to explore the feudal world which remains largely unknown to so many of us. Rizvi takes us on a journey with Zaibunissa (mostly known as Zaib), the eccentric young girl with gleaming grey eyes and magical powers. As Zaib grows and discovers the many various aspects of life and the people around her, the reader is drawn into the distinct Sindhi feudal lifestyle and more than anything else, her character. The novel is interesting as it covers topics and issues familiar to anyone in the country. Religious hypocrisy is blatantly portrayed through the characters of the lecherous Maulvi Jalal and the fraudulent Pir Saheb. Zaib’s marriage to a much older man as a favour to another feudal family as her family helplessly watches represents the restrictions and impositions that women, along with their families, in this society are faced with — even in this era of liberation. The major impact of this novel, however, comes from the depiction of the family. Rizvi portrays a family system that is well-knit and fair and how it is unwound in the name of progression. There is formidable strife as the younger generation yearns to leave their ancestral home and move to the big city with hopes of successful careers and an urbane lifestyle while their elders are unwilling to sever the roots which are so strongly bound to Shahi Manzil. The News on Sunday (TNS) had the chance to talk with Rizvi about her debut venture. Excerpts are as follows:
The News on Sunday: What is the inspiration behind this novel?
Nafisa Rizvi: I’m not sure how inspirations come for novels. I think there were people I wanted to write about and ideas I needed to express and it came together in the novel. The kind of people who fascinate me most are the ones who are not what they seem, the ones who are strangely dichotomous and difficult to read at first glance. Unknowingly there is a divide between their thoughts and actions and they are more transparent than they think. These are the ones whom you meet most often actually though many times we take people at face value and form arbitrary judgments about them. You see in the book that Murtaza initially seems like a dreadful person because Zaib has these preconceived notions about him and puts him in the slot that she has created for him. In reality he is hardly that person.
TNS: Is the novel autobiographical?
NR: The novel is not at all autobiographical but I feel I developed a relationship with my protagonist during the writing of the book. How can you not if you’re ‘living’ with her for six years? Sometimes, Zaib annoyed me immensely, sometimes I felt sorry for her and sometimes I felt a fondness for her. But the point was that she is separate from me because she is wiser and stronger than I have ever been, even though she makes some absurd decisions in her life.
I think more than anything I wanted to write about family and the importance of it in the context of the present generation. Children nowadays are in such a hurry to leave and go away and they realise many years later that they made the wrong decision but usually when it is too late. In a sense Zaib’s leaving for the city is analogous to the hordes of people leaving their country for greener pastures and while they may gain in the short run, they have to deal with other sets of problems that they wouldn’t have faced at home. I mention the thought many times in the book that came from a poem by Pablo Neruda which says in effect that if you cut off your roots, you are bound to bleed.
TNS: The novel is predominantly set in a feudal household. How did you tap into the feudal mindset? What was the inspiration behind Shahi Manzil and the family itself?
NR: The feudal background came from stories told to me by my mother, my aunt and my grandmother who lived that life long before I was born and although the feudalism in the story is unnaturally benign, I was keen to create the atmosphere of a time when families cohabitated and intermingled in each other’s lives. That kind of lifestyle was not easy on people who may have yearned for privacy or those who may have been the round pegs being made to fit into the square hole but it had its advantages especially in moments of crises.
TNS: You covered religious hypocrisy under the guise of Jalal and the Pir Saheb, what was the purpose of creating these two characters?
NR: The religious hypocrisy should be easy to read since we hear myriads of stories of maulvis and pirs who are hoaxes and continue to play with innocent lives and feed on the power and control they have over illiterate people.
TNS: You also delve into magical realism in the book. Did you draw inspiration for this from the likes of Salman Rushdie and Marquez?
NR: You are absolutely correct in connecting the style of the book to the magic realism of Marquez and Rushdie. I have read so many authors who have chosen to write in this genre and who all come from diverse backgrounds. Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the shore), writes in this style, as does Zafon who is Spanish (The Shadow of the Wind). And if you think that the style is limited to Asian and Latin American writers, there’s always Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum) to contradict that. I think the genre is relevant because in our part of the world, unbelievable stories mingle fluidly in our way of life and constitute our heritage. I have heard people telling me that they lived with jinns in the haveli as if they were members of the family. I really enjoyed writing in this style because there’s a kind of irreverence about mixing up fact and fiction. It’s almost like you’re doing something that’s not quite permitted and yet you know you’re going to get away with it, like eating chocolate after you’ve brushed your teeth!
TNS: There are constant literary references, Zaib (a feudal girl) is constantly quoting Western poets — what purpose does this serve your novel?
NR: The great divide between English and Urdu that we see today was not so pronounced in well educated families in the days I write of. The libraries were full of books in English, Persian, Urdu and even French. The men went abroad to study and sometimes they fashioned themselves after the English. If you study personalities like Nehru and Gandhi, or further back to the Jauhar brothers or Syed Ahmed Khan, they were well versed in both languages and that is why they knew the importance of having a language that you could possess and call your own. My grandfather use to quote Gahlib and Mir as fluently as Shakespeare or Byron as do my uncles even now. There was none of the divide we see today and yet today there is more illiteracy now than ever.
TNS: What is the significance of the blue room? Why did you create it?
NR: The idea of the blue room comes from an element in Greek tragedy which is the chorus. Consisting of three or more people, it plays the part of the all-knowing, the omnipresent sage that offers the audience the truth in the midst of anarchy and chaos. The blue room’s walls are Zaib’s guides and offer the reader an insight into Zaib’s mind.
TNS: How hard was it to tap into Zaib’s mental dilemmas?
NR: Once you’ve created a well-rounded character (which I hope Zaib is), it takes on its own persona and then the writer just has to imagine what a she would do in a situation like the one facing her. The character begins to speak to the writer
TNS: How hard was it to find a publisher in Pakistan? And was the response to your novel the same as you expected?
NR: It was not difficult because I came across my publishers through serendipity but that was after many refusals from other publishers. Also, I was determined not to publish in India so I didn’t explore the market there. The response to my book has been overwhelming. So far, it has been only word of mouth and I have sold a few hundred copies. When the book was printed I imagined a few dozen friends and family members buying it out of curiosity. But the book has done well in spite of lack of promotional activity or any endorsement.