Mehr Tarar on Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar: Exclusive interview to Tehelka

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Mehr Tarar | 47 | Pakistani writer and journalist
Mehr Tarar | 47 | Pakistani writer and journalist

You are writing a book on Pakistan. It is a selection of the profiles of ordinary Pakistanis who are trying to make a difference. How did this idea come about?

The idea came from my publisher, as there was a great deal of interest in Pakistan and its “ordinary” people after Malala Yousafzai became the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize along with child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi from India. In the backdrop of the constant negative perceptions that are carried across the globe vis-à-vis Pakistan, it is imperative to present the other side of Pakistan that remains invisible to a larger audience: an aam Pakistani who is diametrically opposite to the stereotypical Pakistani that is presented by the West/others to push forward a narrative of a regressive, extremist, bigoted, turban-wearing, gun-toting, liberalism-hating mullah, or a persecuted, burqa-clad, victimised female.

Moreover, most of the books that emerge from the region end up presenting caricatures of the dynamic, 190 million-plus Pakistanis, whose quotidian existence has been replaced by the picture of a few thousand militants who are hell-bent on promoting a narrative of hate, division and devastation of all those who oppose their rigid ideologies. In my limited capacity, if I am able to show the softer, positive side of Pakistan to those who turn to books to become familiar with what’s unknown to them, I would consider it my humble and much-needed gift to my homeland, which has become a punching bag for those who only see it through the prism of one-sided or warped vested interests.

You had planned to write a book on Kashmir and travelled all the way from Lahore to interview the then chief minister Omar Abdullah. What makes you so interested in the state? Besides, early last year you sparked a row on Twitter by urging Pakistanis to think more of Pakistan’s own troubles than to obsess with Kashmir.

A book on Kashmir is a dream that I hope to turn into reality someday. My intention is simple, notwithstanding the complicated backdrop of the Pakistan-India dynamic when it comes to the “K” word. With the issue of Kashmir remaining unresolved, I don’t visualise any alteration in the real or imagined or magnified “enmity” between the two sovereign countries, which have more things in common than most other countries. For Pakistan and India to break the impasse that has literally bloodied the relations between the two countries in the past 68 years, peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute is indispensable, notwithstanding how much it is pushed to the background by the Indian government. Ever since I remember, Kashmir has remained an open wound.

I wished to meet the Kashmiris and listen to their stories. I would meet them not as a Pakistani, but as a woman who feels their pain. My idea was to talk to all of them — Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others — and put together the stories of Kashmiris who suffered because of the ongoing conflict. It could be stories of Muslims who went through hell or the story of Kashmiri Pandits who were targeted, persecuted, killed or forced out of their homes. It could also be a story of those who wish to have freedom. It could be the stories of men and women who suffered because of terrorism or the excesses of the Indian Army.

This book would be about all Kashmiris, not a Muslim writer’s account of the pain her fellow Muslims went through, or highlighting the Pandits’ exodus from the point of view of a Hindu. I wished to humanise the pain felt by all who call themselves Kashmiris.

I interviewed Omar Abdullah because I wished to present to my Pakistani readers the views of a Kashmiri politician whose family’s political history is intricately intertwined with that of Kashmir. His starkly honest answers to all my questions gave me an insight into his willingness to have a new outlook on the Kashmir narrative and gave me hope that some kind of formula can emerge that would be acceptable to all concerned.

All I tweeted on 5 February 2014 on Pakistan’s “Kashmir Day” was in the context of some of the religious organisations in the country holding huge processions and rallies, proclaiming their “undying” allegiance to the “Kashmir cause” and the “sufferings” of Kashmiris while remaining mum on the atrocities the Taliban and their ilk were unleashing on their compatriots. My tweet was in no way a negation of the sufferings of common Kashmiris who are the biggest victim of the ongoing conflict between Pakistan and India over the piece of land known, tragically, as “Pakistan-occupied” and “India-occupied” Kashmir.

Your name was widely discussed in the Indian media after the death of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s wife Sunanda Pushkar, who had accused you of having a relationship with her husband. Your take on the Kashmir issue is bound to give you a new image among Indians.

My interest in India has always been very transparent: through my articles and tweets, I have tried to put forth the views and opinions of an ordinary Pakistani who wishes to see her country move beyond its so-called “India-centric” policy. There is insufficient or warped information vis-à-vis Pakistan available to the common Indians, who harbour outright dislike for their neighbouring country. This is almost the same with many in Pakistan. If through a mere 140-character tweet, I get three or four Pakistanis and Indians to interact with one another without wishing for each other’s annihilation, I am optimistic enough to perceive it as a step in the right direction. If I appear on a TV show for ten minutes, that also allows me to present the side of Pakistan that has moved away from misplaced nationalism perpetuating a narrative of hate and enmity with India.

The last year has been like an incredible roller-coaster, say, on Twitter, the platform on which people interact with me. There has been relentless trolling by the so-called bigots, but I think it comes up as a mere two percent of my online interactions with Indians. The kind of warmth I receive from strangers on Twitter is overwhelming and humbling. It is, of course, simply for one reason: they see in me a Pakistani who loves her country but wishes India all the best. Some or many may have come to know my name through the case I was unfortunately dragged into, without even being physically present where it all took place. But the graciousness and genuine niceness I experience through my online interactions with Indians is sufficient to reiterate my faith in the innate goodness of people. And though my name is being splashed in the media constantly, it is not a barometer of how people judge me, nor does it prevent them from getting to know a bit of the real me through my words, be it in an article, a tweet or a TV appearance.

Has your life changed following this controversy? How did this affect you personally and professionally, considering the fact that this suddenly made you a household name in India and Pakistan?

Suffice it to say, it’s not possible for me to put in words the toll this “controversy” and case has taken on me personally. It’s been quite hard. And it takes a great deal of self-restraint not to cave in to the urge to react to the constant assumptions I find about myself in the media of a country I have merely visited twice in my life. To find Google alerts in my email inbox has been the one constant reminder of how those I have never met have made me their bimonthly breaking news. It’s the kind of hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone. To be an ordinary person, and to live with the knowledge that you are a household name — in a manner that’s against the very grain of what you are made of — is my constant ordeal.

The last one year has been incredible. The support I got from my family, friends and even complete strangers on the social media has been overwhelming. People reached out to me, you know, like you sit with someone quietly. Or to just hold someone’s hand when there’s not much to say. Just to say that you care.

Professionally, I don’t work so I have no idea how to answer this question. To put it on record one more time: I was the op-ed editor of Daily Times from March 2012 to November 2013, and that is the only job I have ever had, or my only connection with journalism. Yes, I have been writing since 2010, and that is still going on, because writing is my first love, and something that is the closest expression of who I am. As long as my fingers are able to punch the keys of a laptop, I would go on writing in one form or the other. The last year has simply added more dimensions to my writing. My outlook on certain things has undergone tremendous changes, and lately I have felt there is a nuanced reticence to all I give words to. It is an eerily uncomfortable feeling to know that all that I write now is being read with interest that is not always positive.

Your name comes up every time the investigation into Pushkar’s case is discussed. How do you cope with this?

As I said earlier, it’s the hell I face. Every day. Constantly. In one way or the other. A woman I had never met, a man I had met twice, and here I am… a part of their story, a story that is very unfortunate but not the sinister saga many are hell-bent to convolute it into. Some day, the police investigation would reach some conclusion, and maybe then I would stop being talked about. At least in the media. It’s surreal. Knowing that strangers discuss you, analyse your words, read meanings into what you say or write. With time, I hope to see it all end. But I am realistic enough to know it wouldn’t be very soon.

Is there anything you wish you had not done or said through the course of this still unfolding controversy?

Yes. I have said it before, and I say it here again. If I could do it all over again, I would not have tweeted on that fateful day in response to the tweets that I was tagged in. I should have remained quiet, and although I didn’t react the way most people would have on being a target of some outright lies, even the few things that I stated on Twitter were against the very fibre of who I am. I should have taken it all off-Twitter. It was, I guess, a sort of knee-jerk reaction, and in hindsight, very unwise.

Would you ever like to write a book on what actually transpired, considering the fact that the renowned writer Patrick French is reportedly also interested in telling the story?

No. I would never write on something that was so personal to me that I wouldn’t even want to talk about it to anyone other than the very few people who are close to me. Like my son, my niece and a couple of friends. What is, or was, remains a very private part of my life, and to see it sensationalised, shredded to bits (without knowing the facts) and convoluted into a sordid tabloid drama has been very painful. And there is nothing about it that I would wish to talk about to anyone.

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