Sarim Baig writes in whatever “pockets of time” he can find while juggling his other job as a teacher of computer science.
His recent book of short stories, Saints and Charlatans, is set in a fictionalised neighbourhood in Lahore, a city where he has lived most of his life in at least 12 different localities.
He is an enthusiastic advocate for independent presses, one of which — Mongrel Books — published his book.
He is curiously insistent that the book does not reflect his personal experiences, although he does explain how his childhood roaming the streets of Lahore has inflected the picture he draws of the Rampura neighbourhood and the characters that inhabit it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This is your first published book. When did you get into writing? If there is such a thing as a point you can identify, where you thought that you wanted to be a writer.
I guess if you read a lot then there comes a point where you think about writing. And after that, it’s just about who is stubborn enough to keep doing it. When it comes to this collection, it represents the last four or five years. The work I have done in those years is consolidated into this collection.
This is a very connected collection.
All the stories are stand-alone. Every story is complete in itself. The connections that are there are primarily the connections of setting. Then, some of the underlying themes are common. And there are these floating characters that reappear across stories. But as stories, they are all different, meaning that they have their own beginning, middle and end.
They have their own logic, their own arc.
Yes, they have their own logic. You don't need to read one story to understand the other.
Who are some of the authors that you have been inspired by? Or some styles of writing?
I feel that the authors you read earlier on, in your teenage years, have the most lasting impact. I used to read a lot of Gothic horror. I’m talking about people like Poe, or Lovecraft, or Sheridan Le Fanu... he wrote this long story called Carmilla, about a vampire, one of the first vampire stories. It’s a wonderful Gothic horror.
And these writers are really good at describing stuff. Creating worlds which have very mysterious settings. The setting itself is an actor, and a lot of things are possible in that setting.
So that is one of the influences which I think I carry. Other than that, Latin American writers. Also some South Asian writers, I would say R. K. Narayan, Ruskin Bond. Some Urdu short story writers. People like Ghulam Abbas.
You said that one of the things you have taken away from some of these books is that the setting is itself an actor. How does that function in your book?
Most of the stories are set in Rampura, which is an imaginary place in Lahore. That setting feeds mostly on my own experience which has been a slightly different one because I have lived in at least 12 different places in Lahore, on rent. It is also different because it’s more like a street experience. I have had friends, street friends, across Lahore.
What is a street friend?
You know, when your mom is sleeping, you sneak out, and you find someone to play with, and he has also snuck out. That is a street friend. And he could be anybody.
He could be the son of a rickshaw driver, he could be the son of a seth. So you have this experience coming from all these rather different parts of Lahore which are also reflective of different parts of our society.
That amalgam shapes this imaginary place of Rampura. Which also has some additions in it. Meaning that there are things that happen in Rampura that cannot happen in the actual physical universe. So it’s kind of a magical real place.
Tell us more about this setting, Rampura.
I feel that my training in science has shaped my thinking in a certain way. So when I think of a character thinking, I am always aware of the fact that our brain itself is just part of the bigger universe, and whatever we call the setting is ultimately the product of our brains.
So to me, setting is a state of mind. For example, in Rampura there are these labyrinthine streets and gallies and a lot of people get lost in those. Usually when they do that, they are also lost in thought. So the mind and the world are kind of meshed together.
And I have lived around Lahore, and grown up there, in the streets of Lahore. I think that’s the experience that has fed the fiction. A lot of the characters in this book — although they are not real people — but if you went out looking you would probably find somebody close to each one of them.
Are there any characters that you keep returning to?
There is a boy in this book who is a trash-picker. I feel that the spirit of that boy somehow embodies the spirit of this book. Because he is literally living in trash and he has kind of stolen his own world out of it.
His own world which no one else knows about and he is the master of this world. And he is a survivor.
If you look carefully at a lot of these characters, they are like that. They’ve kind of stolen these worlds for themselves.
That child in that story, he is not only a survivor, he is also a bit of a caretaker. Because he takes care of what you find out is his dad…
Yes. But he doesn't tell his mom about this.
Because he is protecting his father, in a way.
Yes. So one of the themes of this book is — and that’s where the title also comes from — is that when your primary objective is to survive then you could be a saint — or you could pretend to be a saint and you are actually a charlatan.
But if the primary motive is to survive, then a lot of these lines are actually grey. You can’t tell who is a good guy and who is a bad guy.
You also have the presence of saints like Sain Siraj in the book, and the mosque also plays a role, with characters like Maulvi Muhammed Ijaz.
I am always wary of these characters — the character of a cleric, or a hardliner. Because it is easy to caricature it, to make it a cliché.
If you really think about it, that character in my collection doesn't have a story of his own. Instead he appears over and over again in various other stories.
It is how the presence of that one man impacts other characters. And these other characters impacted by him are at various stages of their life.
There is a kid, in The Path of the Man-Eater, who sees this guy beating up other people, and trying to enforce his own will on others.
And then there is an old man at the end of the book who has suffered a great personal tragedy due to the hatred spread by the cleric. So that one character is an influence and a presence hovering around the other characters.
Another theme that you deal with is characters not knowing their place in life. In The Third One from the Left, it says that Bubloo does not understand his own purpose. And that is his problem in the entire story, that he doesn't know what the “right sort of things” to do are.
This is a character who has never been able to ask himself what he wanted. He always had answers given to him.
First by his dad. Then by his father-in-law. And then life itself just kind of grabs hold of him. So there is a point where he thinks, “when my father was alive he used to beat me, but that was better because at least I knew where things were going. Now I have no idea.”
And in the end he finds some kind of spiritual solace in becoming more religious. But throughout his life, he can’t resolve that question of what he wants. And that is because he is not free enough to do that.
He never had the options?
He never had the options. And to understand this character we also have to look at the other boys in the story. They seem to know exactly what they want. They just want to get out of this place.
But it doesn't work out for them either. So you end up questioning whether it was even any use to them to know what their purpose was.
What experience is your material tapping into? Many authors say that if you are a novelist or a fiction writer, you have a problem finding material, because fiction writers write about their childhood, their family, their marriage, and after the first book you have said it all. And then you have to find new ways of saying the same thing all over again.
That is perhaps true. I have also heard something like that said, that every writer just writes one story. But if you look at this book of short stories, if you go through it, I think I have not written about my life yet, at all.
And perhaps I will never write about my life. That would be fine. There are some other lives I know that I could write about. Maybe.
The decision is taken not by me but by some character. If a character comes and is so powerful that they drive the narrative, then I will end up writing about that. And of course certain themes are always interesting.
Also, I think the format of the short story allows you to write the peripheral narratives, the narratives on the edges of literature.
For example, it would be difficult for me to write a novel about a trash-picker. But for seven pages I don't care. Let me get into his head and let me write about him.
I can get into the head of the harmonium player. So all these peripheral narratives on the edges of society can easily take centre stage in the short story format.
So for those seven pages — where are you drawing those from?
I think a bit of that is natural. Because I feel that if I have a character to write about then that character will come to me talking. He or she would not be sitting quietly. I just have to listen to them and they will tell me their story.
Can you elaborate?
Personally, I primarily conceive characters first — of course these are characters I feel for or that intrigue me — and then the narratives follow as circumstances, situations and other characters arise around them. It might work differently for different writers.
For me, certain settings are also more fertile, you may say inspiring, than others. The trash heap, the doonga ground, the roof of Heartbeats hospital, the Lucky Turkey Circus and Jojo ka Snooker Club are places brimming with stories.
Which characters were easy to write for you? Which were more difficult? For example, I noticed that women don’t narrate any of these stories.
Outside of this collection, I have written other stories where a woman is telling the story. But this collection is about these street folk who are mostly men. And the women in these stories are really representations of what those men are making of the women in their lives, rather than me portraying a woman.
I was joking to my publisher that we could have named this collection “Men Without Women 3”. I haven't gone into the head of a woman in this collection. Maybe at some point as a writer I will.
What are some of the challenges that you anticipate in such an undertaking? How do you think you might be able or not able to do that?
This might be a disappointing reply to your question, but I’ve never quite been able to challenge myself to do a particular type of writing or create a certain kind of characters.
I can only write what I can envision, what is of interest to me and takes me along. This wouldn’t change even when the central characters are female.
Just as it doesn’t change when the central characters are different from me in other respects than gender.
And the other characters — I think from the perspective of this collection most of them are just these street guys.
The kind of people who will talk to anybody, if you approach them. The kind of people who will make a comment even if you don't want them to make a comment.
Who are incorrect about things. Who are not really concerned with what is right.
And also who are kind of open about the hypocrisy and embrace the hypocrisy that defines them.
And in some cases are proud of it, proud of how they have perfected the art of being hypocritical while at the same time making it work.
Can you give me an example of one of these characters?
For example, the quack. He thinks he is really doing something for society.
He starts off the story by saying I am a quack but —
“I am a quack but when the disease is incurable what is the difference? I am giving people something, I am selling people hope.” So he has justified it, whereas, of course, he is giving people steroids. Although, he does lie about the steroids, so he knows at the same time that he is wrong.
And then a similar character, Uncle Zuber —
Yes. Actually a lot of people who have read this collection like that character. That character came out of a grievance that I have with our society, which is that there is nothing here for single men. Or for single women.
You go anywhere and everything is for families. So this guy is the ultimate example of a guy who cannot penetrate the family structure. There is no place for him, there is no home for him.
Like that trash-picker boy, he has kind of stolen a family for himself. He goes to these places when someone is in an emergency situation and everybody is being very kind to everybody else. He goes and inserts himself into those situations. He feels like he is in a family.
You said that you were also influenced by Urdu literature. When you started writing, was there ever a decision to write in English? Was there a question mark? Or was it just natural that this is what you were going to do?
You know, I am a typical trilingual mess kind of a person. It’s difficult for me to speak two paragraphs in a single language. All my schooling was in an English-medium school, university life again in English, books in English. And so I think my Urdu is just not good enough. Simple as that.
Did you ever think of writing in that trilingual mess?
If you are writing in English here in Pakistan, or even in India, you are writing about people — particularly in these stories, for example — people who do not speak English, people who do not think in English, they don't describe the world around them in English.
But they do all those things in your stories. So obviously there is some transformation that is taking place. And I don't understand the dynamics of that transformation.
But it is a transformation that only a writer writing in English experiences. If you are writing in Urdu, or in Punjabi, you can just convey the language of that character directly onto the page. But if you are writing in English, what do you do?
So, for example, I love the early Naipaul, his books set in Trinidad, writing about the Indian community there. And that Indian community in Trinidad speaks a certain kind of English. If you take that dialogue out of his book, those books would die.
Now I think about my problem. If I walk into, say, Lohari Gate, those people are speaking Punjabi, but it is not the same Punjabi they are speaking in Liberty. Or in my own house.
They are speaking a different kind of Punjabi. How do I convey that difference in English? One option is to leave it out. The other is to let that feeling somehow seep into the language. Somehow. I like to think that I try to do that in this collection.
What’s next for you? Is there another project that you are working on?
I am just going to let my own writing evolve in whichever direction it wants to go. I have no particular formats in mind. I think at the end of the day all these formats, like short stories, novels, plays, they are imposed on the act of creating fiction.
I will let my writing evolve in whatever way it does. If at all. This could be the only book I write.
And you don't have a problem with that?
I don’t have a problem with that. If I don't write another book, it’s okay.
Any last thoughts?
I want to give a shout-out to independent publishers. I think they are very important. And we also need our own local editors. Who can make the editing calls — that this is good writing, or good Pakistani writing.
More indie publishers will allow more people like me to write and get published. They will allow greater freedom.
And more authenticity?
I am not sure what authenticity is. But more diversity for sure.
"You never know what you’re going to find in the garbage," the old man warned. “Oh, and you can’t unfind it. No way in hell. It’s going to be yours forever. Nobody’s going to come to you and say, 'Here boy, let me take it from you.' No. If they cared for those things, they would never throw them out. What’s more, you can’t get rid of the things you’ve already picked. What I’m saying is this: there’s no garbage for the garbage. Once you picked something up, you can’t toss it out. Coz there is no 'out' for you, damn it, you are the out! It's going to stick with you. You could throw it away if you wished, but then, some other day you’d come across it again. Are you listening to me?"
The boy never listened.