Love Across Borders is an anthology of short stories from Pakistani and Indian writers and is nothing short of a a noble endeavour in its own right. These stories do not carry any political agenda with them, unless honesty and peace can be called as such. The first story is titled ‘That 70’s Babe’ and is a tale of unrequited love by Mamun Adil which is told in a defiantly confessional tone. It has the conspiratorial intentions found in Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria's Lover’, where a jilted man triumphantly, if tumultuously watches the destruction of the object of his adoration.
‘The Reunion’ by Naheed Hassan and Shweta Ganesh Kumar is an easy to relate to narrative about the reconnection between two friends through the realm of social media. It’s an honest portrayal of involuntary envy, grass-is-greener syndrome and the colloquial value we give to nostalgia. Another story, ‘Twelve Months’, is about a Pakistani widow on her annual visit to Hyderabad in India and the affiliation between her and her in-laws housekeeper. It is a simple story, one which outlines the unspoken expectations and pressures of society with minimal dialogue. As pointed out by its editors, it is no secret that literature is a medium very much dominated by the West and one of the purposes of Indireads is to help people see some of themselves within the plot. A lot of the romance in this region does not so much as concentrate on the physical dimension as much as the emotional.
True to its title, this is the Pakistani co-editor Sabahat Muhammad and writer Shuchi Karla speaking about their experience on collaborating to write a short story for the anthology:
Dawn.com interviewed the editors Naheed Hassan and Sabahat Muhammad in light of this collaboration to find out more about the future of their online publishing house and the process that brings them closer to the stories to bring us closer to each other.
Who is your target audience through your online publishing house? Do you think that by forgoing print you lose some readers you would have otherwise reached?
Indireads was set up to engage with and serve South Asian readers everywhere - both at home and abroad. The choice to publish as e-books only was very intentional. We realize that the e-books market in South Asia is still in its early stages, but we would rather be at the leading edge of a trend rather than trying to catch up. We have positioned Indireads to be one of the companies at the forefront not only of the e-books market development, but also in the development of a contemporary writing genre.
Our focus is on light, engaging reading – not literary writing, but contemporary fiction that engages, entertains and connects. A big segment of our market is therefore young, infrequent readers. Think of our mission as one of inculcating a reading culture or habit in the young generation. What we know is that this generation spends a lot of time online, is digitally inclined and will transition into e-books quite easily, especially given our pricing advantage. We recognize that we will lose some readers by going the digital-only route, but we do believe that this opens up other potential market segments, especially the diaspora market, which makes this choice strategically relevant.
How did you choose the stories published in Love Across Borders and if you could choose an ideal reaction from readers, what would it be?
We sent out a call for stories that showcased connections at a human level between ordinary people across both sides of the divide. The only real restriction in terms of content was to stay away from the past and for the stories to focus on the present. We generated a lot of interest and many writers sent in their contributions. We chose the final stories based on how interesting and engaging the story was, without preaching and sermonizing. The twelve stories that we have finalized are, first, all interesting reads in their own right, and then fit the Love Across Borders theme.
We are under no illusions that these stories will bring about instant understanding and bonding. However, we do believe these stories will demonstrate the many similarities between people on both sides of the border who share a joint history, culture and heritage and will also allow people, especially youth, to realize that connections start from a willingness to open up and see things differently. And that’s our main goal, for people to see that there are other ways of looking at themselves and their perceptions, and to shed some of the misconceptions about people on the other side of the divide.
Art has tried, many a time, to anoint the scars of separation across both countries. In what way are we failing, as creative messiahs, to induce tolerance and love between each other?
Naheed: Scars from the past, misrepresentation and mistrust, populist exploitation, political wrangling and military skirmishes have a hold over people’s perceptions and create a filter through which nothing can be seen clearly. Art and creativity has a supremely uphill task to counter such sentiments, and it is unrealistic to assume that once-off events and efforts can stand up against organized broadcast.
That said, I believe with all my heart, that the battle will be won one step at a time, by changing hearts and minds one at a time. Shakespeare’s immortal words apply to us, the ordinary citizens of both countries, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poisonus, do we not die?” We just need to understand that people laugh, cry and rejoice on both sides of the border and that on either side people want a better future for themselves and their children, and peace with your neighbor is a major step in that direction.
Sabahat: I would say that we tend to fail for two reasons: first, because our objectives are unrealistic. Our goal should not be to reunite the two countries, but to engage with each other, to earn each other’s respect. We do that not by trying to become each other, but by teaching our neighbors about ourselves, and showing a willingness to learn about them. Tolerance and love will follow respect.
Secondly, I think most people from Pakistan tend to approach this issue from a position of insecurity – we’re either shamelessly apologetic, or arrogantly dismissive. We need to recognize that we’re as talented, as capable as anyone across the border. When we’re comfortable with who we are, when we learn to respect ourselves, it’s much easier to give respect and to be tolerant of others.
In what ways have you personally felt the separation and unity across the borders?
Naheed: At a personal level I have extended family that still lives in Hyderabad, India where both my parents come from – and on my visits there I am instantly at home with the intonations, the stories, the amazing food and shopping. So for me, the other side has always been family. But in my interactions with Indireads authors, the majority of who have no family connections on the other side, I have discovered a real void in terms of understanding the other side – which cannot be bridged by watching Bollywood movies or television soaps and listening to the same songs. We need to showcase real life and real people. That is the only way we will all realize that ordinary people live on the other side of the border, and that the divide itself is a line drawn in the sand which does not have the power to change – only to separate.
Sabahat: I’ve actually never been to India, but like Naheed, my family also hails from Hyderabad Deccan. I am constantly amazed at the rich tradition that we have brought over to Pakistan, almost as much as my friends, who can’t seem to get enough of our food! That’s where my ‘unity’ with India has always remained, until I joined Indireads.
Meeting Indireads’ authors was a revelation. I expected them to turn their noses up at a Pakistani editor, but they are a grounded bunch—diverse, hard-working, and as curious about us as we are about them.
There’s a story in the anthology titled ‘The Old Willow’, which I totally get. Faced with a third entity (an American, in the story), my solidarity lies with someone who speaks the same language, and gets the jokes that Westerners just don’t!
Are borders what really brings these stories together and to us or is there another element that is integral to this anthology?
We believe that the sameness of people on both sides of the border is what lies at the heart of this anthology. We share not just languages and a history, but a love for pakoras and chai, monsoon showers, bhangra, jalebis, weddings and brides, clothes, music – I could keep going–all the vibrancy of life in the subcontinent. That is what the lives of ordinary people are made up of, that is what we share and that, is what I hope, will bring us together.