History Teacher of Lahore is based on real life events

Published February 25, 2024
Novelist Tahira Naqvi and Farah Zia at the launch of a novel. — White Star
Novelist Tahira Naqvi and Farah Zia at the launch of a novel. — White Star

LAHORE: Fiction writer, translator and Professor at New York University Tahira Naqvi says a novel begins like any story as an imaginative idea in the mind, coupled with actual events that you see or experience that affect you very deeply.

“If you are a writer, you sit down and start thinking about the story,” she said about the process that triggered writing on the launch of her novel, The History Teacher of Lahore, on the second day of the Lahore Literary Festival at Alhamra. The session was moderated by HRCP director Farah Zia.

Talking about her novel, she said it was not a book of history but fiction. She said a writer would take events and string them into a story. “Everything that I have written about actually has happened but none of it is true and the story is also a recollection of real events.”

To the question what turns the real events into a work of fiction, Ms Naqvi said, “primarily it is something that touches you deeply like some kind of personal loss or tragedy or something awful that you have witnessed.”

She told the audience that her novel began one year when she was here in Lahore and was seeing the blasphemy law unfolding and things were happening to the people she knew personally—a familiar group of people. “The more I read about them, the more I began to suffer from a sense of disbelief. I could not imagine that something like this could actually happen. This sense of disbelief led to great sorrow and a turbulent state of mind. As a writer you feel the responsibility of doing something and I could do something only in words as I was not a politician or journalist but a teacher.” She said all she could do was write fiction. The events evolved into this idea of a narrative where the protagonist, a young person in this county wished things to change, she said and added that he did not want to see the terrible things happening to the minorities. That young person became Arif in the novel who represented that person who was everybody, he was not just an individual, Ms Naqvi said.

To the question of subversion of time in the novel as Tahira had included real events like the Joseph Colony incident in it, she said somebody had asked the same question, pointing out that there was probably a mistake in the novel. “I was glad about the question because I was not writing a book of history and there is no chronology in it. The idea is to take the events and weave them into a story without leaving anything out. It’s like tapestry and tapestry has to have all the designs woven into it and you can put many things in it.”

Tahira Naqvi said she had taken as much as she could from history and put it into a story but the context remained the same.

When asked about writing a novel late in her life, Ms Naqvi said she was nervous because she was unable to publish her novel that she had finished writing in 2001 and for a lot of reasons, including personal ones, she put it aside.

About 2015, she picked up the manuscript again and thought it was dated, thinking Pakistan had changed and blasphemy law was no more relevant but then she came to know nothing had changed. When she decided to publish it again, Covid broke out and she added more “stuff” into the manuscript that made the story evolve in a more complicated way.

She took a chance and sent her manuscript to India and her publisher loved it as she could see parallels with Indian society. At the end, the novel was published without major changes.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2024

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