Mohammed Hanif, on writing in three languages

Mohammed Hanif in Tehelka

Sometimes fellow writers and journalists ask me how I choose whether to write in Urdu or English or Punjabi. I usually start my answer with a self-deprecating remark: I can write badly in three-and-a-half languages. Like most self-deprecating remarks this one barely conceals a boast: I read and write Urdu; I can also borrow my ideas from ancient Punjabi, unlike you posh prats who rely entirely on English. But why would someone boast about their ability to read and write in their mother tongue (Punjabi, in my case) or express themselves in their national language?

I guess you show off because most people who write in English cannot pick up a newspaper in their local language to find out what yesterday’s riot was about. It’s not their fault. They went to good schools, sometimes schools so good that the main purpose of their education was to ensure their talents remained unpolluted by local languages and cultures.

When I was growing up in Pakistan, the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility. Pakistan’s founding father — the self-made aristocrat Mohammed Ali Jinnah — could barely string a sentence together in Urdu, a language that he imposed on Pakistan as its national language with tragic consequences. The most influential Pakistani politician of our times, the late Benazir Bhutto, spoke no Urdu when she started her career but later delighted her followers by endlessly and recklessly improvising in that language. For a long time, to rule Pakistan it was almost necessary not to be able to speak any of its languages. Or to speak them like a well-meaning foreigner.

In my rural version of the state education system, the first thing they did was to try and save me from my mother tongue. Everyone spoke Punjabi in my household and like every five-year-old I had a vocabulary. I could name a goat, a donkey, a chicken. But since the medium of instruction in my school was Urdu, I had to learn alien names for familiar things. I must have spent the next 10 years learning in a language that I would be considered pretentious for speaking in my own street.

By the time I finished high school, I realised that there was no college physics in Urdu, forget mathematics, and if you were destined to study aviation, you might have had to wait for centuries while someone drew up navigation maps in Urdu. So I began to learn English and by the time I drifted into writing I had no idea what my own language was. I was more like, “How much are you paying?”

How one comes not to read and write in one’s mother tongue is as problematic as someone who can write in their own language but elects to write in another. But, as the kids say these days, why trap yourself in these binaries when you can write in both or even a third?

The same people who ask why you write in this or that language also insinuate that if you are writing in three languages, surely you are lying in three languages. You are peddling three different versions of the same story to three different sets of people. Sometimes I worry that they might be right but then I take solace in the fact that in their quest for a single truth, they are not likely to find out.

To answer the original question: when I write a novel, I think and plot and scribble in English for the simple reason that all the great novels I have read, even if they were originally written in Arabic, I read in English. And also because Graham Greene wrote his novels in English. When I write a political rant or a comment piece, I lean towards Urdu because there are all these ready-made historical references, street slang and wordplay bursting to be put to use. Recently, some friends asked me to write a song and it ended up a mixture of Urdu and Punjabi, no doubt the result of all the romantic songs that kept me awake through teenage nights. And when someone pisses me off, I am most likely to mutter something that I am not supposed to say in front of my mother. In her language.

(This piece originally appeared in Tehelka in the issue dated 23 June 2012.)

A question for Hanif

Q: In your observation where is Pakistan headed? Do you see the glass as being half-full or half-empty?

A: Show me the glass first.

-Mohammed Hanif, a journalist, novelist and playwright who worked as reporter for Newsline before joining the BBC. He is the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

source: here.

A 72-year-old man, along with a handful of women and children marched for 2,000 kilometres and arrived in Islamabad in February last year. Mama Qadeer and his comrades had set off from Quetta and after a few days stopover in Karachi, started walking towards Islamabad. They carried portraits of martyred and missing Baloch. They were protesting against Pakistan’s intelligence agencies’ undeclared war in Balochistan.

Thousands of political activists have been kidnapped, many have turned up tortured and dead on roadsides, hundreds remain missing. Despite the Pakistan Supreme Court’s seasonal cajoling, intelligence agencies refuse to come clean. Mama Qadeer’s long march was the longest in the history of long marches in the subcontinent, beating Gandhi’s 80-year-old Salt March. When Qadeer arrived in Islamabad, the city’s citizens didn’t come out to join him. A few young political activists greeted him; he was invited to appear on one television show and was able to address a press conference at Islamabad Press Club,  where one patriotic journalist asked him: Why are you bringing your filth to the country’s capital? The longest and probably the most dignified protest in Pakistan’s history failed to find a few inches of column space in the national dailies.

Foreign journalists visiting Karachi use the word “resilient” about this city and often tell their audiences: There was a killing spree yesterday, but people have shown resilience and are out on the streets. As a citizen, I know that after a traumatic event, people don’t decide that they must go out and show the world how resilient they are. They go out and pretend everything is normal because they need to make a living. But then visiting journalists also need to make a living.
Because Love Is a Runaway Charya By Bilal Tanweer

Link to the original piece, here 

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
by Mohammed Hanif
Random House India, 230 pp., Rs. 595


You know what they say about the best kind of stories: that they are busy plotting their next moves while you are still ensnared by their more immediate charms. Mohammed Hanif’s new novel is that sort of a book—the busy sort. But this novel doesn’t ensnare as much as it detains: you find yourself cooped up inside its terribly messy, horribly disjunct and even farcical reality: it’s bloody, it’s violent, and it’s very, very entertaining.

A few snippets—just to give you an idea.

“Should we let an attacker go just because he hasn’t attacked us yet?” asks Teddy Butt early on in the novel. Teddy is the loony hero of this book, a body builder (Junior Mr. Faisalabad), who works as a tout for the police and, more broadly, as their “crime-scene cleaner, cheer leader, gun-cleaner, doorstopper, replacement court witness, proxy prisoner, fourth card player” and well, much more. He has fallen in love with Sister Alice Bhatti of the Sacred Heart hospital. They meet in unlikely circumstances in the Charya Ward—shorthand for The Center of Mental and Psychological Diseases—where he finds her surrounded by the dozen mental patients she was supposed to inject with lithium sulphate. Teddy rescues her and carries her out of the ward in his arms, loudly whistling iss parcham ke saaye talay, hum aik hain hum aik hain (We are one under this flag. We are one. We are one.)—and convinced that he has found the love of his life.Teddy’s other notions of romantic love involve a story about the moon, his Mauser pistol and wildlife documentaries (he loves NatGeo)—and when he goes to declare his love to Alice Bhatti, he’s thinking of how Komodo dragons hypnotize before attacking their prey.

The situation with the heroine, Alice Bhatti, a Christian nurse, is not a whole lot better either. The novel opens with her waiting in an office in the Sacred Heart hospital. It’s her interview day for the position of Replacement Junior Nurse, Grade 4 and she is being asked to explain all sorts of wrong things—such as her name: Why has she not mentioned her father’s first name—Joseph—as her middle name on the application? Is she ashamed of her family background? (Turns out that there was no slot for the Middle Name on the application form.) The leading interviewer on the panel is a Muslim Orthopedic surgeon, who prefers to be addressed as Ortho-Sir, and cares about flagging his piety and worldly success. He also has a migration to Toronto sorted out.

This is the kind of mess we have on our hands. And I haven’t even told you about the Karachi of this book—the paradoxical police state that runs high on entropy, violence and dysfunction, and governs the lives and loves of Teddy and Alice and others. It’s a lot of fun, as I said.

Reading the initial third of the novel is like watching a scamp running wild, and it unleashes all sorts of unexpected digressions. Such deviations might be disorienting—they break off from the storyline, introduce potentially promising pathways that are not developed (at one point, for instance, Alice Bhatti claims that when she looks at people, she foresees their faces at their moments of death; but this is never brought up again in the book), situations that don’t further the drama or characters—but these apparently random and sometimes downright unhinged sequences also result in some of the most inspired writing in the novel. In one particularly exhilarating tangent, Teddy Butt runs out into the street and with a swimming head and anxious hand, unknowingly presses the trigger of his Mauser. The novel hits the brakes, makes a crazy swerve and dashes off after the rogue bullet to pursue it to its riotous consequences as they pan out in the city over the next two pages or so—beginning with a truck driver’s bloodied arm to a gruesome accident involving school children to ethnic violence to a three day strike in the city. This sequence is strongly reminiscent of many Marquez moments, like the trickle of blood in One Hundred Years of Solitude that journeys across town from Jose Arcadio’s dead body to alert his mother, who at the time is in the kitchen getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.

In these early pages, characters exist as little more than hardboiled entertainers whom you watch from a distance for their amusing antics. They do not admit sympathy despite being marooned in pitiable circumstances. This lack of an emotional center of gravity would be a weakness in almost any other novel, but Hanif’s book is an exception because his characters are among the funniest and most cynical bunch to have emerged out of South Asian fiction ever. And irrespective the fact that the novel does not admit emotion in these early parts, it also does not allow a single boring page. And that’s the other special thing about this book: it is consistently funny, often hilariously so.

What sets Hanif’s wit apart from his South Asian peers is its utter lack of sentimentality—often to a degree that is downright ruthless. On the night of the Garden East attacks, which leave many victims dead in their wake, including eight gunny sacks filled with body parts that cannot be identified with any of the deceased, the medico-legal officer of the Sacred Heart hospital has his gloved hands drenched in blood but his coat pockets are overflowing with 500 rupee notes. That’s the money he has received from the families of the dead for not performing post-mortems on the bodies. “Look, we live in a city where you can get someone cut up for a thousand rupees. What is wrong with charging them half that money for not cutting them up? Do they want a post-mortem? No. Are they interesting in the cause of death? No. Does it really matter to them if their lungs gave up first or their heart went pachuk? For them the cause of death is death. For them they died because death arrived in Garden East and they happened to be buying vegetables there. So buying vegetables is as valid a cause of death as any.” This is brilliant and heartrending, as well as hilariously illuminating of so many aspects of life in Karachi: the warped relationship to violence, to death, and more importantly, to justice itself. In such a setting as Karachi’s, legal justice is not an entitlement. It is something you pursue only if you can afford it—and post-mortems can lead to unaffordable situations.


Before sending Sister Alice Bhatti off to the Charya Ward for the first time, Sister Hina Alvi, briefs her about what afflicts men there: “These boys in Charya Ward are suffering from what everyone suffers from: life. They just take it a bit more seriously, sensitive types who think too much, care too much, who refuse to laugh at bad jokes.”

It takes about a good eighty pages or so for this book’s characters to get afflicted with life too; for them to develop a soft underside and get their blood circulations going. Things change. Teddy and Alice fall in love. Get married. At sea. On a boat. (Well, not exactly, but sort of.) But since marriages made at sea lack a firm ground, theirs too runs into early troubles. And that is good news for the novel, because from here onward, the book develops a strong emotional current, a narrative gravity, and yes, a strong forward thrust.

As Alice and Teddy break out of their hardened shells to runaway with the charya called love, they begin to feel exposed to the hazards of the perilous world that they have been navigating relatively effortlessly so far. But more than that: they become creatures of desires and feelings they did not know existed in them before. When Teddy Butt announces to Alice that he has a surprise for her, “she wants a surprise so big and so heavy it could flatten her in the middle of the road. She wants tied-to-a-rocket-and-launched-into-space­ kind of surprise. She wonders why she isn’t thinking of flowers and candy and why she yearns for large, heavy, speedy objects. It’s futile to predict what love will make of you, but sometimes it brings you things you never knew you wanted.”

Noor, the ward boy, who has been observing the evolution of love between Alice and Teddy, concludes: “This whole business of love is a protection racket, like paying your weekly bhatta to your local hoodlum so that you are not mugged on your own street.”

Noor is right: characters here desire a bit of both from love—madness and security.


Hanif’s characters are all sovereign states of one. They blend history, politics and personal experiences into the narratives of their lives, and they improvise strategies to sustain and safeguard themselves. In other words, they are survivors, and like all survivors, creatures of necessity. They are not moved to action by guilt or morality and they do not evaluate the world in right or wrong, or ought or ought not, but in terms of what needs to be done to survive, and survive best.

Sister Hina Alvi has married thrice (twice to the same man, with the same result); she now carries a gun in her handbag and imagines love to be like your first heart attack: you do survive it, but you don’t outlive it; it catches up with you eventually. Noor, the ward boy, after his stint at the Borstal has trained himself to be a paramedic without attending any medical school; he has made himself an indispensible hand in the Sacred Heart hospital; he also has made important friends in important places to get through rougher situations. Alice Bhatti usually takes care of herself with a ferocious kind of courage that often spills into physical violence, but more importantly, she attends to her image through subtle calibrations to her mannerisms: “She avoids eye contact, she looks slightly over people’s heads as if looking out for somebody who might come into view any moment. She doesn’t want to think that she is alone and nobody is coming for her. She sidesteps even when she sees a boy half her age walking toward her, she walks around little puddles when she can easily leap over them, she thinks any act that involves stretching her legs might send the wrong signal. After all, this is not the kind of thing where you can leave your actions to subjective interpretations. She never eats in public. Putting something in your mouth is surely an invitation for someone to shove something horrible down your throat. If you show your hunger, you are obviously asking for something.”  

This passage is also a splendid illustration of the kind of oppressiveness that these characters must contend. There is very little room for other ways of seeing and being, especially if you are a woman in public. And there is even less freedom for you to go out and explore the world: the world comes out and finds you. Your task is to be ready at all times.


Nabokov once made a remark on the relationship between writing and places: “It had taken me some 40 years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced with the task of inventing America.” In other words, one job of great fiction is to invent places that render their actual places legible and comprehensible. Karachi is among the world’s greatest insufficiently imagined cities, and in large part it is still waiting to be invented.

The foremost challenge that Karachi presents to most—whether its residents or visitors—is to their understanding. The city has outgrown the comprehension of most. In many ways, it has turned into a set of ghettos connected via road network, with each part of the city largely disconnected from others and each with its own subculture. Therefore at one level, any act of creating a narrative about the city is really an attempt to understand the city. And this novel, among other things, is a bold and brave attempt to leap over the cavernous void of Karachi as an insufficiently imagined place.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved there is a little passage that deals with the mess the world is: ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ In this novel, Mohammed Hanif gathers our pieces. He puts them in order and gives them back to us. It may not be the best or an ideal order—and the book may not be the Great Karachi Novel—but at the end of it you are left holding something that is much greater than the pieces. That is the task of a writer. And I tell you: Mohammed Hanif is a real writer.

Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator.

Published in DAWN’s Books & Authors on September 4, 2011. 

Nobody has ever called Alice Bhatti anything but Alice, Sister Ali or - in private wards - Sister Bhatti. Mostly people call her ‘daughter’ or 'sister’ and then do exactly what they would do with their own sisters and daughters: they treat her like a slave they bought at a clearance sale.
—  Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif
There is poetry in committing a crime after you have served your sentence. I do not have much interest in poetry but punishment before a crime does have a certain sing-song quality to it. The guilty commit the crime, the innocent are punished. That’s the world we live in.
—  Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
He is innocent in a way that lonesome canaries are innocent, flitting from one branch to another, the tender flutter of their wings and a few millimetres of blood keeping them airborne against the gravity of this world that wants to pull everyone down to its rotting surface
—   Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
A Case of Exploding Mangoes - by Mohammed Hanif

“There is an ancient saying that when lovers fall out, a plane goes down.”

This is a much deserved review that I’ve delayed long enough to write. I read this book around mid-July, and it was probably the best novel I’ve read all year. Full of satire, sarcasm, and dark humor, this is a novel about Pakistan’s military, politics, the ISI, and a certain plane crash that was much speculated on but never satisfyingly explained. The novel outlines several plots and reasons, any one of which individually, or all of them combined together, could have caused the plane crash. A fictional work set around real events, it leaves you convinced that things couldn’t possibly have happened any other way. 

This link might give you more of an idea of what this book is about, and maybe even convince you to read it, as it did me: 

If you would like to read a more detailed review of this book, than the following blog does a much better job than I ever could:

What’s written on our walls is important because sometimes our death warrants first appear there. Mohammed Hanif remembers his friend Asim Butt, an artist whose wall art seemed to have found a way of marrying JG Ballard to Habib Jalib. From hubcap lice to the backs of trucks, from Eject signs during Musharraf’s emergency to the mythical perfume chowk, Hanif meanders through Karachi indulging his special fondness for the writing on walls.

On Yahoo! Originals

First love, is like your first heart attack. Chances are that you’ll survive it, but you don’t outlive it. That first gasp of air is the beginning of the end. You have managed to breath some air in, and you think you are all right. You might think it’s a matter of lifestyle, quit this, cut out red meat, walk, run, get a personal trainer, but… it’ll get you in the end.
—  Mohammed Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Be sure to listen to: 


Last year no fewer than thirteen countries across north Africa and the Middle East experienced mass protests. And the narrative of revolution could still spring a few surprises this year in the Arab world and beyond. So who wants to be part of a revolution? Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif is desperate to be part of a revolution. But before he can usurp a despot or hoist a redesigned flag, domestic life somehow gets in the way.