Rakhshanda Jalil, 48, has edited short stories, co-authored books on history, published translations, and written a collection of essays on Delhi’s monuments. She is a columnist for The Friday Times, Pakistan’s biggest weekly paper. In a previous book titled Neither Night nor Day, Jalil put together 13 short stories by Pakistani women writers that sought to challenge the stereotypes of Pakistanis as religious fundamentalists.
Her own collection of short stories, Release and Other Stories, her first experiment with fiction writing, has a similar aim. These stories claim to “explore the lives of Indian Muslims, not the marginalized or ghettoized Muslims of popular stereotype but ordinary, mainstream ones”. Jalil spoke to Lounge about the new book and using stereotypes to make a larger point. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Thanks to activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, there is a new interest in the middle class, and thanks to 9/11, there has been a decade-long curiosity to know about Islam’s inner world. Your stories are on the big-city middle-class people, and they are all Muslims. This book is a clever marketing strategy.
It’s sad to see such cynicism. When you reach my age you know that cleverness and strategizing don’t make a good book. These stories were written over a long period of time and not with the desire to be published in any great haste or to coincide with some breaking news. I did these stories on the sly, while doing other kinds of writing. I wanted to write about a milieu familiar to me. That’s why you find a lot of Muslim characters in my book, though the stories aren’t about Islam. I’m no theologian but can talk about Indian Muslims, being one myself.
Word’s worth: Rakhshanda Jalil recently launched her new book. Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
The first story, ‘A Mighty Heart’, is about a Muslim man with two wives. How is that breaking the stereotype of a Muslim man?
While the idea of a Muslim man with two wives is something of a hackneyed image, I don’t think my treatment of it is banal. I wanted to use a stock image to make a larger point about the large-heartedness a human being can display in the midst of a tragedy. Moreover, the deliberate, even ironic, use of stock characters is a perfectly bona-fide literary device.
In ‘The Perfect Couple’, the husband is a market analyst who has ‘Outlook’ magazine for bedside reading. The wife is a software engineer. When they are ill, they go to Max Hospital. Does such an aspirational Muslim middle class exist outside fiction?
Partition decimated the Muslim middle class. It took many decades to produce a new middle class among the Muslims in India. We are a sizeable presence now. Why is the rest of mainstream India blind to us? Is it because we are like one of them? Or is it because we are a largely silent group? Are you attentive only to the squabbling, vociferous set of our community? Does it suit some purpose to believe that ordinary, middle-class Muslims such as the ones I have portrayed don’t exist outside a writer’s imagination?
They didn’t write in English but Urdu authors such as Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto too have written stories on Indian Muslims. How different was the world of their stories?
The writers you mention wrote about Indian Muslims; as did scores of others from Premchand and Upendranath Ashk to Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Rashid Jahan, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, and Qurratulain Hyder. That they wrote in Urdu immediately meant that they were writing for a readership that was familiar with that world. Among those who wrote about the Indian Muslims in English I can only think of Attia Hosain, who wrote Sunlight on a Broken Column, and the translations of her own work into English done by Qurratulain Hyder. We haven’t got much to show in English on the Indian Muslims. So, yes, for you to detect a clever marketing strategy in the subject choice of my book could be excusable.
You have written a lot of non-fiction. What’s more fun, fiction or non-fiction?
While writing non-fiction, I sit surrounded by piles of books, notes, and reference material. Every next sentence is followed by relentless footnoting and copious cross-referencing. When I write fiction, thoughts run freely from the mind, race down the fingers and go straight into the laptop. It’s liberating.