A novelist with compassion

By Taha Kehar
Tue, 09, 22

In an exclusive interview with You! magazine, renowned novelist Nadya AR outlines her creative influences and addresses the challenges of writing commercial fiction in Pakistan…

A novelist with compassion

Nadya Abbas Rahimtoola, known as Nadya AR, published her first collection of stories Broken Souls in 1995. In 2006, she published her first novel, Kolachi Dreams. In 2017, Nadya wrote her second novel Invisible Ties. Apart from being a certified psychotherapist, Nadya A.R. is a lifelong learner, educationist, humanitarian, and author. Her second novel, Invisible Ties, has received both critical and popular acclaim for its unconventional and original storyline. It is also one of the few titles added to the Indian Parliament library in the literature category and has been nominated for the ‘Valley of Words’ award in the fiction category. Nadya has spoken at eminent educational institutions apart from appearing on various shows on television to talk about gender and pertinent social issues. In an exclusive interview with You! magazine, Nadya outlines her creative influences and addresses the challenges of writing commercial fiction in Pakistan…

You! In an interview, you described Broken Souls, your first book, as ‘a series of short stories about social change, societal justice, feminism, and about the ‘broken souls’ - children who work in the carpet-weaving factories’. What inspired you to pen these stories?

Nadya AR: I was fifteen years old when I started writing the stories that became part of Broken Souls and the collection was published when I was in my early twenties. If you read the collection, most of the pieces appear to be fragments rather than stories. I wasn’t too concerned about structure and was operating within the mode of emotions. I have, of course, included characters, but the emphasis remains on the anguish and anger that they feel about the unequal nature of society. This is primarily because I had an innate sensitivity towards the plight of the underprivileged, which was sharpened by my surroundings. Since we live in Pakistan, we can sense the absence of social justice at close quarters.

There are a few pieces in the collection that can be categorised as ‘short stories’ in the strictest sense. One of them is the title story, which explores the lives of two children who are working under hazardous environments.

A novelist with compassion

You! In the same interview, you were asked why Broken Souls didn't garner critical attention. Were you actively seeking critical attention for the book or were you driven by an earnest desire to express yourself?

NAR: I wasn’t looking for any critical attention for the book and merely wanted to express my deep discontent with the world around me. I was acutely aware that the collection wasn’t structured well and was, in fact, quite raw.

You! What compelled you to shift gears and write a novel like Kolachi Dreams?

NAR: I shifted gears because I wanted to write something that was racy and focused on characters who were out of the box. In retrospect, Kolachi Dreams deals with a presumably ‘hot’ topic: the underworld. We’ve seen similar issues and themes explored in literature and TV shows such as Mirzapur. However, Kolachi Dreams is more than just a racy novel and has some substance to it. My characters - BK, Twinkle and the landlord - are all part of our social fabric. I didn’t need to do too much in-depth research while fleshing out these characters. Kolachi Dreams also wasn’t written in a literary vein and was instead meant to be a fast-paced book.

You! Was it difficult writing commercial fiction in a country like Pakistan?

NAR: Yes, I think so. When Kolachi Dreams was released, Pakistani fiction was dominated by purely literary novels and there was no room for writing that was of a commercial nature. Now, Pakistani writing in English is far more diverse and many different voices have emerged in the realm of fiction that experiment with genre. Kolachi Dreams was driven by a desire to produce something different that was rooted in reality. While the book did get noticed, it also got a great deal of criticism and many dismissed it as being inspired by the work of Shobhaa De.

You! Was Kolachi Dreams influenced by the work of popular Indian novelist Shobhaa De?

NAR: No, it wasn’t. Having said that, Shobhaa De has carved her own niche in Indian fiction and her work shouldn’t be dismissed as it attracts a wide readership. When I read her first novel Socialite Evenings, I felt as if I was reading a book that was ahead of its time. She opened doors that were closed for so many writers, which is admirable.

You! Was the novel informed by the same themes that steered your collections of stories?

NAR: Yes, at a subconscious level. As I mentioned, I’m sensitive towards the plight of marginalised communities who struggle to obtain social justice. This is a common thread that runs through all my books. For instance, my latest novel Invisible Ties examines the adversities faced by a woman.

You! In Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English, Muneeza Shamsie writes that your first novel “makes some telling comments about Pakistan's social and political structures without belabouring the point.” Is this something you did consciously?

NAR: I didn’t do this consciously. I just focused on the trajectories of the characters in the novel and the other strands followed soon after. As I mentioned, I didn’t put in too much in-depth research into the subjects discussed in the novel. Since Kolachi Dreams was meant to be a quick, racy and fast-paced book, I couldn’t dwell too much on offering social commentary. Social issues did emerge throughout the novel, but my focus was on the story and characters.

You! In what ways is BK’s struggle in Kolachi Dreams symbolic of Karachi's state of chaos?

NAR: BK, who is from a rural area, is seeking justice for his sister’s death. This may seem like a hackneyed story, but it is a reality that prevails in our society – especially for people who don’t have easy access to justice. BK eventually becomes a pawn in a game that is larger than his own being. As a result, his life becomes challenging. He is always living in fear that someone will kill him. BK’s frayed nerve and chaotic state of being represents the soul of Karachi in the period that the story was set.

You! How different would the novel be if it was set in contemporary Karachi?

NAR: I would be able to do so much more with the novel if I’d written it today. Kolachi Dreams shocked so many people when it first came out, but it pales in comparison with the kind of fiction that is coming out about Karachi now. There is far more freedom of expression and a sense of fearlessness in the approach towards writing about the city’s social realities. When I was writing the novel in 2006, I felt restricted and had to filter my thoughts and ideas. If I were to write the novel now, I would be able to write the truth.

A novelist with compassion

You! What inspired you to shift gears once again and write Invisible Ties, a novel that falls neatly into the realm of literary fiction?

NAR: With every new book, writers go through an evolution. I firmly believe writers must speak their own truth through their work. Interestingly, their truth also shifts with time. Incidents and experiences that make a difference to a writer's reality at a particular point in time must be written. When I wrote Invisible Ties, I was doing my thesis and researching the influence of childhood attachments on our lives. At the same time, I was homesick because I had moved to Singapore. I could, therefore, relate so many adjustment issues that surface when people move from one country to another. While working as a psychotherapist, I came across many people who had many challenges to grapple with. All these factors inspired me to write Invisible Ties.

On a strictly personal level, I wanted to write a novel that was far better than Kolachi Dreams. I decided to hone my skills as a writer and took a series of writing courses. I also enrolled myself in a mentorship programme and learnt a great deal from that experience. For a year, I worked with Kate Pullinger, who mentored me on a novel that I didn’t complete.

You! In Invisible Ties, Noor’s sheltered existence in Karachi is shattered when she is drawn into the violence that plagued the city in the 1990s. The novel offers a glimpse at how she overcomes the psychological trauma associated with this incident. In what ways did your experience as a psychotherapist help you write this book?

NAR: Noor was created in a conscious manner. My master’s course was oriented towards psychodynamic psychotherapy and I delved into the ramifications of the psychological trauma that emerges in early childhood. I also looked into John Bowlby’s attachment theory to determine what happens at an unconscious level in a child’s mind. Noor suffers from the wounds of her childhood that continue to influence her at an unconscious level. She carries the burden of childhood fears and insecurities that stem from being shuttled from one maid to the other. These fears are rehashed when she gets married and settles in Singapore with a husband who is a stranger to her. In the absence of a secure base, she struggles to make the transition with some measure of comfort.

A novelist with compassion

You! Are there any similarities between Noor and Twinkle from Kolachi Dreams?

NAR: Both Twinkle and Noor are steered by feminist ideals and represent the struggle of women in our society. Even so, Noor and Twinkle come from different worlds. Noor belongs to a privileged setup while Twinkle hails from a middle-class background. Both Twinkle and Noor also feel a sense of shame when they do something that isn’t in sync with social norms. Their moral core is similar, but they make different choices. Twinkle is far more adventurous and ambitious than Noor.

You! What is Noor’s equation with the different cities that she inhabits throughout the narrative? What is the symbolic significance of the Kohinoor diamond to Noor’s journey throughout the novel?

NAR: All the cities in the novel have their own significance and have been selected deliberately. In Malacca, Noor finds herself on Harmony Street and senses Uncle Joseph’s spirit in the midst of the mosque as well as the Buddhist and Hindu temples. I was curious about the unknown and wanted to explore what becomes of Uncle Joseph’s spirit after his death. Would his spirit be free from the limitations that are imposed by the world? What’s more, I was curious about whether or not Noor had actually seen Uncle Joseph.

Karachi is where she grows up and is the root of her insecurity. It shapes her sense of self. In many ways, the city’s chaos is part of her. By transporting Noor to Singapore, I wanted to expose her to a safe, clean and structured city – an environment where Noor would find the opportunity to heal. Singapore is also a beautiful city that embraces cultural and religious tolerance, which is absent in Noor’s Karachi.

Earlier in the novel, she meets her future husband in Lahore’s Shish Mahal, where the Kohinoor Diamond was handed over to the British by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Noor’s trajectory mirrors that of the Kohinoor. Like the Kohinoor, Noor embarks on a journey and eventually loses a part of herself along the way. When she visits London, Noor is disappointed when she sees the diamond as it has lost its magic and is a pale shadow of its former self.

You! Given that you’ve been published in both India and Pakistan, how different are the publishing industries in both countries?

NAR: There is no comparison between publishers in India and Pakistan. India has an edge in terms of distribution as it has a huge market. While more publishers are coming forward in Pakistan, they still need to look into distribution and build on widening their market.

You! What can you tell readers about the adventure novel you’re working on?

NAR: I’m working on a book titled The Sanctuary, which is a spiritual novel. It is a far cry from my other work as it explores the journey of a man. I feel somewhat rudderless as the story keeps evolving and I don’t know which direction it is going in. For now, the novel will take its own time to gestate.

A law graduate from SOAS, London, Taha Kehar is a novelist, journalist and literary critic. He has authored novels ‘Typically Tanya’ and ‘Of Rift and Rivalry’.