OB: ‘A Mason’s Hand’ is your first piece to be translated into English, but you’ve been publishing in Urdu for some time. When did you start writing?
AAN: My family, during the creation of the state of Pakistan, had migrated from eastern Punjab (now part of India) and settled in the suburbs of Okara – a city in the central Punjab (Pakistan). We were facing poverty, and I had to work as a labourer at an early age to help my father. Nevertheless, I continued my studies privately. I started reading fiction, poetry, history, religion and sometimes philosophy. Having spent about thirty springs of my life with farmers and labourers, I started visiting big cities. One day I happened to meet a renowned poet, then head of a literary organization based in Islamabad. He turned out to be a kind man; he heard some of my poems and appointed me junior clerk in his organization. It was there that I had the opportunity to observe the elites from close up, and found that the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged was huge. During my stay with that organization I wrote five stories and sent them to Aaj, an Urdu literary magazine. The editor liked my work and published all five stories.
‘A Mason’s Hand’ is heavy with destitution, and there’s no redemption in the ending. Is it a pessimistic story?
Superficially, the readers will find appalling characters in my stories but I understand that they illustrate faithfully a society and culture in which abhorrent practices and actions are disguised under the quilt of religion, and used as a weapon by the oppressors. No character in my stories is an ideal person; they are mere human beings who can either be oppressors or oppressed, or sometimes both at the same time.
The divisions between nationalities and the various professional strata are made very clear throughout this story. Are social hierarchies a special concern in your fiction?
I have spent most of my life among people from the deprived sectors of society, both experiencing and observing the plight of people living in small villages and towns. I felt a deep pain, as if their deprivations were my own. These deprivations turn malignant. People who are unaware of their basic rights and their aspirations can behave in strange ways. I saw them become happy over little favours but then turn furious and even take human lives over petty things.
What else are you working on?
Along with short stories, I am working on a novel, which will attempt to explore the complexities of life that are the outcome of our current social trends.