Fear is a line in your head,” my dear friend Sabeen Mahmud used to say. “You have to decide which side you want to be on.” Mahmud paid the maximum price for her fearlessness. In 2015, she organized a public discussion in Karachi about the disappearances of political activists—she was an activist herself—knowing it was a subject the Pakistani media was afraid to touch. After leaving the event, she was shot dead.
The assassin was sentenced to death after a summary trial, but the shot that killed Mahmud still reverberates: her murder marked the beginning of an unprecedented assault on freedom of speech in Pakistan. The Pakistani media is now enduring its darkest phase yet. Major General Asif Ghafoor, the head of the Pakistan Army’s public relations department, has been circulating the online profiles of journalists he judges to be involved in antistate activities. In a press conference last December, he issued a heartfelt plea: if journalists filed positive stories for just six months, Pakistan would become a great nation. Mostly, Pakistani journalists obliged. Writers who were once bold and boisterous, taking on military dictators and civilian rulers and extremist organizations, have now become patriotic—or have found themselves out of work. Without jobs, some of the country’s top columnists and prime-time TV journalists are learning to start their own YouTube channels. Others receive threats from anonymous entities claiming to represent the state intelligence services.
Against this backdrop, I was relieved when an inspector from an intelligence agency called me, introduced himself, and said that he wanted to debrief me about my recent visit to Bangladesh. (Relieved because the caller had a name, a number, and a purpose.) The occasion for the call was my participation in a literary festival in Dhaka for the launch of my new novel, Red Birds. Usually Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and their civilian cousins in radical organizations are more obsessed with managing the news cycle than monitoring the activities of fiction writers, but the inspector had received an inquiry from his higher-ups and wanted to meet me. After consulting some journalist colleagues, I agreed to meet him in a public place.
The inspector arrived with one of his senior colleagues. The encounter was part journalistic interview, part interrogation. How did I know the Dhaka festival director? Was she married? Could I find out? Was my own marriage arranged? Did I own my house? How many children and how old? To my surprise, they also wanted to talk about the book. They asked for a copy; I politely suggested that they buy it and put it on their expense account. Okay, they said, but can you please tell us what happens? Like many novelists, I find it difficult to sum up the plot of my story in a few sentences. I started haltingly, and they seemed to like the premise: an American pilot lands in a desert and is rescued by a refugee child. The refugee must be Afghan? they asked, and I nodded enthusiastically. For the next half hour my interrogators and I were writing this novel together. I realized that I was telling an entirely different story for their consumption: omitting certain things, embellishing other parts. I was determined not to reveal that at the heart of the novel is a boy who has gone missing, a case of enforced disappearance. (Six years ago I had reported on missing activists in Pakistan and was warned by friends not to go there. And then there was Sabeen Mahmud.) I made the story sound patriotic; I made it about the positive image of Pakistan. I don’t know if they believed any of it, but I was sure that they would never bother to read it. I was relieved, for once, not to receive any interest in my journalism. A lot of what I write would fail the patriotism test.
I learned this trick of weaving fiction around fact a decade ago. My first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, grew out of my frustrated attempts to investigate the plane crash that killed General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator, and half a dozen top generals, along with the US ambassador to Pakistan. Thirty-one people died in total. There had been two official inquiries into the crash, and it was said that sabotage was involved, but no culprits were ever found. When I tried, years after the event, to talk to some of the players who were around at the time of the crash and to research the very little that had been written about it, I soon realized that I was not going to find out the truth. There were cover-ups to cover the cover-ups. It became obvious that nobody (including the Americans, who had lost a rising star in the State Department) was interested in finding out whodunit. They all seemed to be saying, Good riddance—now let’s get on with our lives. Failing to find any facts, I decided to solve the assassination through fiction; in the absence of an identified killer in real life, I came up with a character who raises his hand and says: I did it. As with many novels that start on a whim, this little conceit took on a life of its own. My novel borrowed the many bizarre conspiracy theories about the plane crash, embellished them, and added counterparts of my own invention. It included some political jokes and some real-life characters who were still in power. I threw in a mango-eating crow and a poison-tipped sword for good measure. I had assumed that if you said on the cover that the book was a work of fiction, people would read it as a work of fiction. But many readers in Pakistan have come to me and asked how I uncovered it all. It’s almost frightening to think that people read a work of fiction full of fantastical happenings as a piece of history. A retired spy chief once cornered me at a party and said, “Son, you have written a brilliant book, but who were your sources?”
For me, there has always been a clear distinction between journalism and fiction. With journalism, you have a certain degree of clarity about what you are doing and why, and who is going to hate it or who becomes your best ally. A novel, however, is a journey into the unknown. A good day of writing—which happens about twice a year—is a day when you surprise yourself.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes had to be printed in India; the publishers in Pakistan found it a bit over the top and disrespectful to the establishment. To the surprise of everyone, nothing bad happened to me when it came out: no lawsuits, no ban. In fact, the book received wall-to-wall positive reviews, and it has become a part of the curriculum at many schools and universities. People who might be offended by this kind of thing, I told myself, are exactly the people who don’t read novels. I spent seven years writing Red Birds, and not once did I pause to consider whether the Pakistani establishment or its intelligence agencies would like it, whether I was being blasphemous, whether I was compromising the country’s national security. My only concern was getting to the next page. Will this wretched thing ever end?
So for a time I was comforted by the illusion that I could write pretty much anything I wanted in the guise of fiction—but then I found myself reciting my novel to two intelligence officers. I was reminded of Pakistan’s largest publisher of books in Urdu, whom I had met a couple of years prior, when A Case of Exploding Mangoes was translated. He signed the book up for publication, but later changed his mind. I tried to reassure him that the novel had been around for a decade and nobody had objected. His rejection note was simple, and sensible: You don’t know these people, he said. Sometimes it can take them 10 years to get the joke.