Never write to please, and never start off writing with the hope of winning prizes, or large amounts of money. Write what you want to write, and write what comes out of you, don’t mimic
Tariq Ali has worn many hats in a long and illustrious career: novelist, film maker, journalist and political activist. He was born in 1943 and raised in Lahore in “a very old, crusty, feudal family “. His maternal grandfather, Sardar Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan led the Unionist Muslim League and was later Prime Minister of the Punjab from 1937–1942. His father, Mazhar Ali Khan was a dedicated journalist and writer who was also a communist, an active part of Pakistan’s progressive/left movement and a close friend of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His mother, Begum Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan has been a veteran activist for women’s and workers rights.
While studying at the Punjab University, he organized demonstrations against General Ayub’s military dictatorship and his parents packed him off to Oxford to keep him out of trouble.
Active in the New Left of the 1960s, he has long been associated with the New Left Review. Drawn into revolutionary socialist politics through his involvement with The Black Dwarf newspaper, he joined a Trotskyist party, the International Marxist Group (IMG) in 1968. He also befriended influential figures such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono and became close friends in his time at Oxford with a young woman whose father was then a rising politician in Pakistan. He wrote an impassioned, furious piece upon her assassination in 1997. The woman was Benazir Bhutto. He has been described as "the alleged inspiration" for the Rolling Stones' song "Street Fighting Man", recorded in 1968.John Lennon's "Power to the People" was inspired by an interview Lennon gave to Ali.
He has written dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction beginning with “Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power” (1970). His most recent historical novel “Night of the Golden Butterfly” was published in 2010 by Verso.
Tariq Ali was recently in Delhi for the Faiz Memorial Lecture under the auspices of the newly established Faiz Center in Delhi.
Do you like being a writer?
I wrote my first book, Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power in 1969. Non-fiction I can write anywhere. On planes, on trains, in between phone calls but fiction is different business. To write fiction I disappear. I try and find a place, usually near the sea.
Why is fiction harder to write?
First, especially in writing historical fiction, you have to research it. Then you have to work out how you are going to structure the particular novel, and that’s not easy. Usually for me the structure works out as I start writing. Once I have the idea in my head then I let it cook for 5 or 6 months. I think about it a lot of times. I take notes. And I always visit the place that my book is about. In writing fiction, a lot of things deep inside you come up, new characters, new thoughts, new memories emerge. A fiction writer without knowing it is disappearing into his own subconscious.
How did you do it when you were younger, when you couldn’t take 5 or 6 months or a year off?
I didn’t do fiction when I was young. I started writing fiction in 1990. By then, I was already well-established as a writer, so I could afford to take the time off. In that time off, you think, you visit the place and then when I actually write a novel, maximum it’s two months. I sit in a room, and I work 8-9 hours, and by the end of the first week, I am on 3000-4000 words a day. It’s not great, nothing magical or mysterious about it, except what’s happening in your own mind. That’s why I don’t like to do anything else when I have got to write a novel. I just want to be far away, so that even when I am not writing, I am thinking about the novel.
When you were younger, did you set out to be a writer?
No. I used to write for newspapers and magazines, and my first job was as a theatre critic for an English magazine called ‘Town’, modeling itself on Esquire, and they offered me a job the minute I left Oxford. They asked me what I would like to do. I said I am very keen about theatre. And they said ‘It’s funny you say that, because our theatre correspondent just left. You want his place?’ and I said why not. 3, 4 days a week I was doing rounds of the London theatre. Most of it was rubbish.
What did you study at Oxford?
Politics, Philosophy and Economics. My father was very keen that I do my Bar. I went to Gray’s Inn, but it put me off, meeting all those guys. I looked at the course list, all that I would have to read, and decided that it was not for me. I have never regretted it but my father was very angry.
Tell us about your grandparents, they were both influential politicians. We all know about your ‘Nana’, Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan. What about your ‘Dada’?
My dada was a critically important figure in the (pre-partition) Unionist party, and the key adviser to my nana, Nawab Muzaffar Khan. Both of my grandfathers were from a feudal background, they never participated in Pakistani politics.
Tell us about your first book.
Well, I had been to Pakistan, and participated in the movement against Ayub. It started in November 1968, and carried on till March 1969. I got there in February. The students had invited me to Rawalpindi to come and speak. And then I travelled the country. First West Pakistan, and then East Pakistan, where the students were even more active. Then Maulana Bashani, the peasant leader, said he is not going to let me stay in the city, so for 6, 7 days I travelled the country side with him, walking. He was an old guy and I was exhausted! I learnt a lot. I was taking notes all the time. So when I went back to London, I just sat down, used those notes and wrote that book, predicting that Pakistan was going to break up. People reacted at that time, ‘No, no, this can never happen’ but it did happen. This was in 1969, before the elections.
Tell us about ‘Can Pakistan Survive? The Death of a State’.
I wrote it after Bhutto’s execution. It’s more detached. The first one is very passionate, spelling out what happened, how the dictator (General Ayub) was toppled. The mood in Pakistan was just astonishing. The religious groups were isolated, it was a really exhilarating period: slogans for socialism, landlords running scared. I remember a family friend, a big landlord, saying to me in Punjabi ‘Tussi chandhay ki o (What do you people want?)’. And I said ‘Jairha wahway, ohi khaway (The one who sows, he is the one who eats) [meaning the land belongs to those who till it and work on it]’. He nearly had a heart attack. *laughter*
How did your parents become attracted to Communism?
My father came to it first. My mother came upon communism when she married him. My father was very active in the All India Student Movement. They were a part of Congress. They never joined the Muslim League. He got more radical later and joined the Communist party. Our family had a very close acquaintance with Inspector General of Pakistan, Qurban Ali Khan, regarded as an uncle by my mother. One time Sajjad Zaheer (one of the conspirators accused along with Faiz in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case and a member of the later banned Communist Party of Pakistan) was staying at our house, under a fake name. Everyone was eating dinner – I had slept, I found this out later – Inspector Qurban Ali just dropped in for a visit and my family was worried whether he knew about Sajjad Zaheer hiding at our home. But he didn’t. Bannay Uncle (Sajjad Zaheer) was introduced to him as a Professor of literature who was visiting us. And he didn’t have a clue. The Chief of Police of Pakistan didn’t have a clue. The whole evening was spent, and then Bannay Uncle took his leave. The Inspector General of Police said to my parents ‘I wish all of your friends were like that.’ *laughter* ‘So cultured, where did you find this guy?’ And then, when the conspiracy case came out, the Inspector General saw Sajjad Zaheer’s photo and found out that he was number 3 on the list of those to be executed, and he said to my parents ‘buhat badzaat log ho!(you are bad people!)’ *laughter*.
What is your take on the debate concerning writing for writing’s sake, and writing with the purpose of changing society? How do you keep a balance between the message you want to convey and the form and the aesthetic of the actual writing itself?
There are two sorts of books. One is a book that is written to educate people, the second is a more polemical book. Can Pakistan Survive? is a mixture of the two, for example. That book was banned in Pakistan. Clash of Fundamentalisms is a book written after 9/11, to say to the Americans ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ and to defend the history of Islam, not just to Americans but also to Muslims. Bush in Babylon was a straight forward polemic against the war on Iraq. And my last book on Obama is also a polemical work.
As a writer, how does one get closer to the truth? There are so many points of views, how to decide which one is closest to how things actually are?
Well, it depends on whether you want to find the truth. Most authors don’t, so most of their books tend to be self-serving. For me it’s what I put in and what I don’t put in. It’s never a debate about whether to tell the truth or not tell the truth. Obviously I see the exploitation of the poor. It’s there, it can’t be denied. There is such a thing as objective truth, like the caste system here (in India). Like the fact that malnutrition exists and 60% of children born in Pakistan are moderately or severely stunted. The average height of Pakistanis has been going down for the first time in hundreds of years. It’s never happened before, neither under Moghuls, Hindus or British. These are facts. And then there’s the question of how you interpret them.
What about ideological orientation, does that matter?
Yeah, I have been a Marxist all my life. So I see history and write about history as a struggle between competing views. It’s not a belief system as such, it’s a method. It’s a way of looking at things.
When you write fiction, how much of your own experiences and your own life reflects in that?
Not that much in historical fiction since it’s not my own time. Except in the last novel, Night of the Golden Butterfly, there is a lot of me in it. Its perhaps my only novel which is set in modern times, Pakistan and Europe. Except for one historical call back to the 19th century, which is an account of the Chinese Muslim uprising, which was very successful, and which transformed that region, and the Chinese ruler took an Arab name Suleman. Even the Chinese people have said to me that they have no idea about this. The rebellion was finally defeated, by finding collaborators within its ranks who agreed to work with Beijing. It’s a fascinating story, and I linked it to the Chinese community in India. I started thinking about how the Chinese come to Calcutta or Lahore, and where did they come from, and then I found out that a lot of them were refugees from that uprising.
What do you think about the trend of more English writers from Pakistan? They are getting a lot of international recognition. That’s a more recent phenomenon.
I think it’s a new generation, educated abroad. This region has always had writers that wrote in English, Mulk Raj Anand for instance. But now it’s a different generation. Those novels were written with a sense of commitment, and modern writers do not have that same sense of commitment. It’s their right not to. They come from a different generation. They live in a different context. Why should they be like our generation? Each generation is marked by the conditions that produce it.
Any advice for young writers?
Ye, I am asked this all the time. Never write to please, and never start off writing with the hope of winning prizes, or large amounts of money. Write what you want to write, and write what comes out of you, don’t mimic.
(Abbreviated version first published in The Friday Times, Lahore)