British-Pakistani writer Aamina Ahmad recently won the Best First Novel award at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards for her critically acclaimed debut work The Return of Faraz Ali, set in Lahore, with episodes in East Pakistan and the Second World War. In this email interview with Eos, she discusses her book with Muneeza Shamsie

Many congratulations on winning the Writers’ Guild Award for The Return of Faraz Ali, a riveting, carefully structured novel revolving around a murder in Lahore’s Shahi Mohalla, yet moving far beyond that. How did it evolve?

Thank you for your kind words! The spark for the novel came from the city of Lahore itself. I love noir as a genre and am a fan of writers such as Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith, whose novels brim with tension and have intricately plotted storylines which I wanted to emulate. The setting often plays an important part in a noir novel, and the old city of Lahore seemed like a great location with its winding, dark alleys — a perfect locality for a complicated, maze-like tale. But, as sometimes happens with writing books, the story moved beyond the Walled City.

Initially, I wanted to focus on the pressures on my main character, Faraz, a police investigator sent to the red-light district to cover up a murder. He has a secret connection to the neighbourhood. I thought he would investigate the crime and his past and that the story would be very contained, but it started to grow in unexpected directions.

To understand Faraz, I needed to understand his parents whose actions had determined his fate as a child. And so, I turned to the history of Faraz’s father — a powerful bureaucrat, but a man deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner-of-war (PoW) in Libya during the Second World War. I kept thinking about how much our lives are shaped by historical events. This exploration of the relationship between our individual and our collective history resulted in the book evolving as it did.

What determined the time frame and locations?

I set the story in the late 1960s, when street movements were exploding across the West, and was interested to discover similar street protests across Pakistan at the end of Gen Ayub Khan’s ‘Decade of Development’. In the story, when we first meet Faraz, he is sent to police a protest, which he does very violently. I hadn’t known much about these protests and discovering more about them underlined the importance of learning about lesser known or forgotten histories.

Similarly, Faraz’s father’s history as a PoW represents a story that has been somewhat erased —many people don’t know of the critical role Indian soldiers played in the Second World War. Even I didn’t know the full scope of their involvement until I began writing.

Later, Faraz is banished from Lahore to Dacca [Dhaka] in what was then East Pakistan. I decided to write about the war of 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. During that war, the people of future-Bangladesh endured harrowing violence unleashed by Pakistani forces, but that history is not discussed widely in Pakistan. This kind of erasure strikes me as perilous for all of us. But at each point I was thinking about how the characters’ personal journeys related to these historical moments. It seemed to me that these moments in time were connected and so were the stories of each character.

A novel offers you the space to follow whatever your curiosities are. As a medium, there really are no limits.

Can you comment on your portrayal of bonds between parent and child and the power of memory?

I was really interested in looking at the stories of parents and children — relationships that touch on the issues of love, duty and sacrifice. Firdous, who is Faraz’s mother, surrenders him to his father’s family in order to give him a better future and to use the financial benefits offered to provide his half-sister, the courtesan Rozina, more security and agency. Rozina becomes an actress and Firdous’s efforts appear at first to have paid off, but Rozina’s situation grows more precarious. Ultimately, the social system in which they’re all trapped doesn’t allow them to guarantee a better future for their children, though all characters try their best.

Also, it does seem to me that our origin stories, our earliest memories of where our lives began and what we have inherited from our parents, are probably quite crucial in how we understand ourselves. When you experience a loss like Faraz does, removed as he was from his home and family as a small child, I imagine that must be a traumatic experience and it’s his pain around that lost past that drives his actions in the present.

You were born and brought up in Britain and now you live in Los Angeles. What is your relationship with Pakistan, which your novel recreates so vividly?

I was very lucky that, as a child, I visited Pakistan annually and had a large and loving extended family there. It also felt like a refuge whenever I felt hostility in England directed toward me as a British-Pakistani. In many ways, the book is a testament to that long relationship with a place. Of course, all long relationships are complicated too and, even when I was drawing comfort from my time in Pakistan, there was a lot I didn’t understand. I was still an outsider. In some ways, writing this story was a part of my effort to understand Pakistan and what it means to me to be part of a diaspora community.

I was very interested in your portrayal of power and powerlessness.

I think the issue of power comes into the story in the challenges and limits imposed on people by caste, class and gender and, in many ways, all the characters are impacted by it.

For example, I was interested in the power that institutions have over our lives, be they the state or family, and the pressures that places on characters. In the book, Faraz Ali is asked by senior officials, including his own father, to cover up a girl’s murder. Given the power these figures have over him, professionally and personally, he feels unable to refuse them. He has to wrestle with the question of what it means to do the right thing and what the fallout might be.

Your mother is the well-known writer Rukhsana Ahmad. Did this encourage you to write?

It was a very powerful influence to grow up in the same household as a writer! Also because of my mother, the world of writing felt within reach. It also meant that, when I was growing up, I got to live and talk to another writer about writing all the time and learn about the craft (and I still do!). In all, I and my siblings had incredible support from both our parents and were encouraged to follow our passions.

Your play The Dishonoured received the 2019 Screencraft Stage Play Award. What determines your choice of genre?

I did write a play and because my mother was a playwright and we grew up seeing her write and produce plays and met people in production, drama felt like a natural path, and so I came to fiction quite late. For me, the biggest difference between writing drama and fiction is that, as a novelist, you are not constrained by budget and the logistics of production. As a novelist, your imagination can roam as wildly as it wants to. I do miss the collaborative nature of production, the energy of live performance, and the immediacy of an audience response. But I love that the novel offers you the space to follow whatever your curiosities are and that, as a medium, there really are no limits.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 23rd, 2023

Opinion

Rule by law

Rule by law

‘The rule of law’ is being weaponised, taking on whatever meaning that fits the political objectives of those invoking it.

Editorial

Isfahan strikes
Updated 20 Apr, 2024

Isfahan strikes

True de-escalation means Israel must start behaving like a normal state, not a rogue nation that threatens the entire region.
President’s speech
20 Apr, 2024

President’s speech

PRESIDENT Asif Ali Zardari seems to have managed to hit all the right notes in his address to the joint sitting of...
Karachi terror
20 Apr, 2024

Karachi terror

IS urban terrorism returning to Karachi? Yesterday’s deplorable suicide bombing attack on a van carrying five...
X post facto
Updated 19 Apr, 2024

X post facto

Our decision-makers should realise the harm they are causing.
Insufficient inquiry
19 Apr, 2024

Insufficient inquiry

UNLESS the state is honest about the mistakes its functionaries have made, we will be doomed to repeat our follies....
Melting glaciers
19 Apr, 2024

Melting glaciers

AFTER several rain-related deaths in KP in recent days, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority has sprung into...