His first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award
Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara. At the age of 16 entered the Pakistani Air Force Academy. After realising he had a terrible sense of direction and that he preferred spending time in the Academy library to the airfields, Hanif left the Pakistan Air Force to pursue a career in journalism. He has written for Newsline, India Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Counter Punch. His play, The Dictator’s Wife, was recently staged at Hampstead Theatre. Hanif is a graduate of UEA creative writing programme. He lives in London and is the head of the BBC’s Urdu Service.
Wellcome Book Prize Achievement
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
By Mohammed Hanif
Other works by this author
- A Case of Exploding Mangoes,,Author Book
- Book Title,Book Author
After living and working in London for more than a decade, I moved back to Pakistan just over a year ago – and soon realised that the Pakistan I knew had migrated elsewhere. Mainly to the front covers of the sombre current affairs magazines you find in posh dentists' waiting rooms. The world's media had reached a consensus that I had boarded a sinking ship. Time, Newsweek and the Economist have all written an obituary of Pakistan, some twice over.
The more caring ones are still holding a wake. A couple of years ago when we decided to return, Pakistan wasn't exactly the world's safest destination. It was fighting its demons of poverty, the Taliban and a military dictatorship that fostered them. But it very much belonged in this world: a new bank was going up on every street corner and a new generation of media, telecom and property professionals was working overtime to sell bits of the country to each other. It seems that between us negotiating with the removal men and stocking up on jars of Marmite, the various editorial boards across the western world decided that the end of the world was nigh and it would all begin in Pakistan.
Channan, my 11-year-old born-and-bred-in- London son, was so miffed by this that when he saw some white people at Karachi airport, he whispered furiously: "What are they doing here? Don't they know it's not a tourist country. They are always saying it's a terrorist country." Yet I want to suggest an old-fashioned British clarification: all the news about Pakistan's imminent demise is premature. It has its civil wars. It has doomsday visionaries who like to send poor kids to blow themselves up and kill other poor people. But if its peasants and workers shared the doomsday vision, they wouldn't be marching up and down the country demanding better wages and working conditions. We have had five-star hotels and mosques full of worshippers blown up. And we have had something even more sacred – a visiting cricket team – attacked. But over the past two years hundreds of thousands of citizens have also participated in the largest peaceful political movement in South Asia in recent history and brought down the most well-entrenched military dictator in the world. (The deposed General Musharraf, by the way, has just bought himself a house on Edgware Road in London. All dictators turn out to be property speculators. If you spot a man puffing on a sheesha pipe and lecturing some unsuspecting Arabs about enlightened moderation, avoid eye contact.) On choosing to fictionalize Zia-ul-Haq's death "Like all young reporters, I was like, this is going to be my big story, and I started working on it.
After a few months, I realized that there was no way I was going to get to the bottom of it. There were layers and layers and layers of deception and cover-ups to cover the other cover-ups. Then it occurred to me that I would just make up my own facts. If no one was willing to tell me who did it, then as a fictional character, I'll raise my hand and say, 'Well, I did it,' and I'll write a book about it. And so, basically, it was a failed journalist's revenge." On people accepting his version of events "The funny thing is, after the book came out, a lot of people — and some of them were heads of intelligence agencies — I've run into them at a party or at a social gathering, and they take me into a corner and say, 'Son, you've written a brilliant novel. Now tell me, who's your source?' I used to find it a bit scary at the beginning that, my God, these people are running my country and they actually believe all the lies that I've written."
On the heroine of his new novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti "Alice is a beautiful young nurse who has had a troubled past, but she's very feisty, and she falls in love with somebody that she shouldn't have fallen in love with. Basically, I was trying to write it as a love story, but since the love story happens in a particular setting, like many love stories, it goes wrong somewhere." On depicting women and minorities in Pakistan When I'm writing a novel — before anything else, I'm interested in Alice the person, Alice the woman — that's what I want to investigate. And by doing that, if I kind of see the glimpse of the kind of surrounding she lives in, if I sort of see a glimpse of the prejudices that she has to face — and mind you, these prejudices are not just because she is Christian, these prejudices are basically because she's a woman, and ever more important, these prejudices exist because she is poor.