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A New Generation of Storytellers From India and Pakistan

New America Media, Q&A Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Aug 15, 2009

This weekend marks the independence anniversaries of Pakistan and India. Two young first time novelists, one from Pakistan, one from India, both born well after independence, discuss what their countries look like to them now in the following separate interviews.

Ali SethiAli Sethi is the author of The Wish Maker. The son of well-known Pakistani journalists, his novel narrates the story of Pakistan through the eyes of young Zaki, growing up against a backdrop of coups and martial law, where young people are more worried about how to get bootleg alcohol for a party.

Here are some excerpts of an interview with him on New America Now radio.

What was it like setting this book against Pakistans cycle of coups and the promise of democracy that keeps getting betrayed?

My mothers generation was much more affected by what was the promise of democracy after 10 years of military rule. In 1988, an election was held and Benazir Bhutto won. She was young and beautiful and educated. And she was also a symbol of peoples resistance. But all of that didnt work out. The 90s were a decade of hope and also disappointment. I had a child eyes view of that. My own father, a journalist, was arrested in 1999 by a democratically elected government. He was arrested for making an allegedly anti-Pakistan speech in India. He said Pakistan could be a failing state.

My father was first arrested in 1984 under the height of martial law when I was a month old. He was a bookseller and he had published a Supreme Court judges account of his dealings with the military. The book was critical of the military but my father thought no one reads English books. But they did, and the ISI came and picked him up.

My mother was also fired in the 80s. She was a reporter for Pakistan Times. She was fired for letting a sensitive report go uncensored. They decided the day martial law came to an end they would have their own pamphlet or paper. But the irony is that democratically elected governments were often more autocratic, more repressive, more control freaky. Gen. Musharraf actually liberalized the media and then fell prey to it.

What is the state of democracy and human rights?

We are still trying to define what it means to have rights in Pakistan, just human rights. The conversation has not really branched out into womens rights, vs. mens rights vs. the rights of minorities. We are still trying to assert the idea that citizenship comes with the idea of rights. People can drink alcohol in their homes and make out in their cars, but there is no public legitimacy to any of these things. So at the end of the day you will still have to do what your parents want you to do.

We are still living with the hudood laws that General Zia introduced in the 1980s. Hud means limit. Hudood are the laws that literally limit peoples sphere of existence. Adultery became punishable by death. It was no longer just a sin to use your body the way you wanted to. It became a crime against the state. And we have still not been able to overcome that.

It seems in South Asia, its still the same last names that have political power Bhutto, Gandhi, Sharif. Does that not seem feudal to young people today?

I think in Pakistan we are now moving past that point. There is a whole new generation of politically active youth coming up in Pakistan. Because they have grown up in a time with more TV channels, more newspapers, they are accustomed to these freedoms. And when these freedoms are threatened they rebel. When that video of the girl being flogged in Swat was aired on Pakistani TV you found young women, especially professional, taking to the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad in the way they never had in the 70s and 80s. Even if it is confined to the yuppie areas, Internet, television, mobile phones, SMSing - these things make a difference. I think the future is brighter.

Listen to the full interview with Ali Sethi as he discusses
The Wish Maker, a story of life and love in modern Pakistan.


Karan MahajanKaran Mahajan is the author of Family Planning, a comedy about an Indian government minister with 13 children in a country that preaches family planning but is very squeamish about sex. Here are some excerpts of an interview with him on New America Now radio.

How did you learn about sex? Did you have sex education?

I had none with my family. I had none in school. I think I was absent from school because I was sick for the two days we had sex education. I grew up in a society where everything was learned by accident.
I learned about sex from the advent of cable television. Those awful shows Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful. And later the Internet. Sex is not mentioned very much in India except in the context of family planning and maybe AIDS now.

What did you want to explore about politics?

We talk about the large scale political movements Quit India movement, riots happening around Independence. I was interested in the very quotidian day-to-day functioning of politics. Like a family, politics operates on the basis of very petty human relationships - people backstabbing each other not for any end but because it is a habit. The way the power struggles play out on a daily basis you sit in a committee meeting with someone and you say something because you want to put someone down.

You have said you felt you needed to be doubly truthful as a writer? What do you mean?

The one thing that has happened in recent years is there is this obsession among Indian writers about getting details exactly right. You want complete authenticity. You want to go back to India. You want to research what ministers actually wear. I think what has happened in that process of research is that has taken precedence over telling stories that are surprising to both Indian audiences and Western audiences. So I can tell the most authentic story about arranged marriage in the U.S. but it could be the most clichd story in India. I think I wanted to find a new way of talking about India that would be truthful for both Indians and the West.

Listen to the full interview with Karan Mahajan as he discusses
Family Planning (and the allure of Bryan Adams).


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