Bollywood is a defining cultural influence in Pak: Ali Sethi

Bollywood is a defining cultural influence in Pak: Ali Sethi Dressed in black, Ali Sethi, the 24-year-old Pakistani author about whom the literary world is raving about, appeared matured and far-sighted for his years. Mixing with the Indian literary enthusiasts, who had assembled recently at Sevilla, The Claridges, for the launch of Penguin’s prestigious 78-year-old literary imprint, ‘Hamish Hamilton’, Ali seemed to be perfectly at home.

The writer is youngest from the sub-continent to debut on the imprint, thus, being in league with giants like Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, John Updike, JD Salinger and Zadie Smith.

The debut novelist sat down for an exclusive interview with Shivangi Singh of, and discussed Pakistani writing in English, Bollywood and his aspirations for a career in music.
Shivangi: What led to the creation of your debut novel ‘The Wish Maker’?

Ali: I was at college in Harvard from where I was doing my major in South Asian Studies. In March 2006, I was working on my thesis on ‘Anarkali’ and was reading about South Asian historical women. I read a lot about South Asian history and writings and the novel started taking shape in my mind.

Shivangi: Did you complete ‘Anarkali’ thesis or left it half way?

Ali: I just wrote three papers on it and ended up writing ‘The Wish Maker’.

Shivangi: What do you think is the difference between Pakistani Writing and Indian Writing in English?

Ali: Yes, there is a difference. Indians have a good literary tradition to fall back on. We have none. Every work in Pakistan is ‘potentially political’ and everything exists to be broken. Indians can rely on the literature of the past; works of Tagore, Rushdie or Arundhati Roy have been there already. There is a certainty in Indian English Writings, based on the literary tradition. Pakistani writers have to think frantically for a topic. There has been no vision for modern Pakistan. The English speaking elite forms a small circle. Everything needs to be conceptualised, every detail and context has to be shown, and a background needs to be given, before telling a story.

Shivangi: What matters the most in a literary work: The theme, style or the characters?

Ali: A vision…a moral vision matters the most. You need to show something otherwise why would you like to express yourself. Be faithful and honest to what you see. Show life as it really exists.

Shivangi: What is your take on Delhi High Court’s verdict on decriminalizing homosexuality in India?

Ali: I believe it is wonderful! India should take a lead in such issues and then Pakistan, Afghanistan in the sub-continent will follow. In Pakistan, the sex law is very strict. Sex outside marriage is punishable. Why would it bother to anyone what two people do to each other? You should have the right over your body.
Shivangi: Do you plan to write another novel?

Ali: Well, no idea for now. I want to be a singer now. I want to combine literary instinct with music.

Shivangi: If you are asked to name that one book, which had a great impact on your life, which would it be?

Ali: Frankly speaking, I can’t name one. I like the works of John Burger, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Virginia Woolf, Arundhati Roy…

Shivangi: One of the characters in your novel, Samar Api, is Amitabh’s fan. How big is Bollywood in Pakistan?

Ali: It is huge. It is a defining cultural influence in rural and urban areas alike.

Shivangi: What are your hobbies? Which is the last movie that you saw?

Ali: Apart from music and books, where is the time? I don’t watch a lot of movies. My last movie was ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’..I like Bollywood films. But my attention span is limited when it comes to films, so, I watch on and off.

Shivangi: Would you like your book to be made into a film?

Ali: Well, I can consider if a good screenplay comes along but it’s a slow, long novel and a film on it would not be very interesting.