Sometimes, a book can expose the bitter realities of life by presenting the perspective of a segment of society that is seldom heard from
If you’re a writer based in Pakistan, you know just how difficult it is to get noticed for your writing internationally. This isn’t because of a lack of creative talent, but because a full-fledged publishing industry doesn’t exist in the country. Hundreds of writers in Pakistan every year think about getting published, but when they crane their necks to look for opportunities, they see nothing and most simply retreat into their shells.
My debut novel, In the Company of Strangers (ITCOS), was published in the UK in July 2019, in South Asia in December 2019 and finally in Pakistan in April 2020. Some people in the West have called it an eye-opening account of the lives of the rich in Pakistan; others have called it a strange book that reveals a clandestine side to Pakistan that they had not been aware of. Some have criticised it for focusing on a very small segment of society. ITCOS may not reflect the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, but then, did Crazy Rich Asians reflect the lives of ordinary Singaporeans? No, it did not.
Back when the idea for this book was germinating in my mind, I knew I wanted to portray an aspect of Pakistan seldom seen in the West. We have had our share of terrorism and poverty, but these things didn’t block our lives. Life went on. It would be foolish to say that poverty doesn’t exist in Pakistan, but I wanted to show another side of Pakistan – people who turn a blind eye to the trials and tribulations of the poor. Their lives are defined by decadence, overspending, sprawling mansions and opulent drawing rooms. These are people who exist only to breeze from one party to the next without any embarrassment. It stands to reason, however, that no matter how shallow or insensitive they might be, they cannot be without humanity. I wanted to challenge the notion, entertained by many, that the rich Pakistanis feel nothing.
That is where Mona comes in. She is a very complicated character. She thinks that she carries the burden of the world on her shoulders. She lives in a bubble. Her worries relate mostly to an abusive husband. While writing Mona, I got to depict a blatant disregard for the plight of the poor, but also, the insecurities, fears and flawed relationships of the poor. A lot of people find it hard to believe this, but in many ways, rich people are very similar to the poor.
It would be foolish to say that poverty doesn’t exist in Pakistan, but [with this novel] I wanted to show another side of Pakistan – people who turn a blind eye to the trials and tribulations of the poor.
Many rich women endure unhappy marriages and suffer abuse in silence just like their less financially well off counterparts. They may not enter the kitchen to cook and clean, but they toil equally hard for the approval of their mothers-in-law and families. I like to call Mona a fantastically flawed character, especially due to her great reliance for happiness on approval by others. For her, freedom comes exactly when she is gasping for it, and that sends her head spinning, causing her to become reckless and endanger the very foundations of what holds her world together. Some might say that she resembles certain Bollywood characters. I say, why not? Everything has some grounding in reality - even Bollywood.
In contrast to Mona’s deliciously rich world, Ali’s is austere and unhappy. He struggles to make ends meet, and for a young man at the height of his powers, that is a very frustrating feeling. The inability to provide for their families plagues a lot of young men in Pakistan. They look at the scions of rich families, their expensive clothes, their flashy cars; and they wonder at the sheer injustice of it all. Most of them harbour a sense of ill-will for the rich. Sometimes, the sense of unfairness is so pronounced that they turn to crime; to debauchery - anything that would pay the bills as well as provide a chance for their star to finally shoot in the sky. If those rich boys in their BMWs can have their girls and luxurious vacations, why can’t they?
This is a world Ali has known; unpredictable, callous, abusive and demeaning. He has been in the company of people who would strip his self-esteem down to the bone to make their point. This is a world that Ali vows never to return to, but return to it he does, and that is where he bumps into Mona, and the sparks fly.
Pakistan today is like imperial Russia, where grand balls and parties were all the rage and among the elite the line between conservative and liberal behaviour was blurred. Read Anna Karenina and you’ll notice stark similarities to today’s Lahori society. Some people might have difficulty imagining such places exist in Pakistan, but just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
In writing In the Company of Strangers, my intention was not to copy a Bollywood film plot or to be ultra melodramatic. I just wanted to present the perspective of a segment of our society that is seldom heard from. Even when it is heard from, people assume the most preposterous things about it. Literary agents who visited us at the Faber course I undertook in London told me that my writing was explosive and very vivid and that my book would one day be adapted for the big screen. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but with this book, I wish to whip away the curtains that have shrouded Pakistani society for decades and expose not just the bitter reality, but also the fact that in the end, we are all human.
The writer is the author of In the Company of Strangers, published in the UK by The Book Guild and in South Asia by Simon & Schuster, now available in Pakistan through Liberty Books