‘Humans are always fascinated by what they don’t have’

October 30, 2022

Haroon Khalid Akhtar is a Karachi-based novelist who won the UBL Best Debut Fiction Award 2020 for his debut novel, Melody of a Tear. He has also authored an anthology called Threadbare. In this exclusive interview with The News on Sunday, Akhtar discusses the inspiration behind the Melody of A Tear. He also laments that Pakistani literature in English has somewhat limited scope for magic realism, something that he tries to address in his latest novel, The Liar’s Truth.

‘Humans are always fascinated by what they don’t have’


he News on Sunday (TNS): Melody of a Tear is the product of a deep internal process through which you “turned inward to hear the diverse voices that have long been part of [you]”. What were these diverse influences?

Haroon Khalid Akhtar (HKA): These diverse influences included people, acquaintances, strangers, places – especially buildings and parks – and, above all, personal experiences. In short, anything that moved me emotionally or appeared engaging. For example, Lawrence Gardens in Lahore has a special place in my heart as its vastness defined freedom for me during my childhood. Likewise, Pakistan Refinery’s ‘tall flame’ gets mentioned a great deal in the novel because it became a symbol of enchantment for me – a star made by man.

Similarly, my mother’s love was a major influence as it taught me that selfless existence is possible in this callous world. It became the key characteristic of Zaid in the novel. Take the example of Khwaja Sahib in Melody. He’s an ordinary shopkeeper who wants to exhibit pride in his work and wears starched shirts every day for this purpose. Khwaja Sahib is based on a real person – a stranger I never really met but only saw while shopping with my mother at Shadman Market, Lahore. His hard work and sense of pride moved me immensely.

Melody is an intense tale, and at its heart are the feelings of compassion and sensitivity. Human suffering is the basis for the compassion readers find in the novel. There was this funny-looking man in my father’s office with a squint in his eyes. But seeing him made me sad, and once I secretly wept for him. This episode has been captured in the novel. Another influence is the fragrance of books. Stepping into bookshops for me is an experience akin to entering a sacred place. The same goes for libraries. The emotion evoked in us by people and places go on to shape our personalities. In my case, they went one step ahead and converted themselves into inner voices that talk to me and seek expression out of me.

TNS: Your novel has been described as a “complex story of a conflicted person”. In what ways is Zara, your protagonist, conflicted?

HKA: Zara has been raised as a headstrong tomboy by her father. During her upbringing, she was strictly stopped from shedding any tears. And when she discovers who she is in essence – a woman who can actually love a man and relish flowery clothes – her conflict comes out in the open. In embracing womanhood, she realises that she has been living a fake life. This realisation, in fact, gives birth to another conflict: whether to love or hate her father for ‘messing up’ her gender.

Other inner moral conflicts continue within her as she struggles to discard her selfishness. She grapples with these challenges throughout the novel.

TNS: What were some themes you wished to explore through this novel?

HKA: The one that stands out is friendship. The novel does some standard-setting in this respect, and the bar it sets is very high. Waris is the one who defines this standard. Another theme is sacrifice. Again, the bar is high. When you become willing to sacrifice something precious to you for the sake of fulfilling the lives of others, it is a very noble feeling that the society must acknowledge.

However, the theme at the heart of the tale is compassion, feeling pain, not of near and dear ones but of strangers. It is the noblest of feelings, the greatest form of worship.

‘Humans are always fascinated by what they don’t have’

Magic realism provides recognition of all those inanimate things and also serves as a tribute to the contributions involved in shaping us.

TNS: Melody of a Tear is a moving tale about Zara’s search to comprehend the “facility of easy tears”. Is her quest informed by a desire to embrace her repressed womanhood or escape the suppression of basic human emotions?

HKA: Both. The drivers of our lives are not the things that we possess. We are always fascinated by what we don’t have. The same philosophy is at work with Zara. Not having tears is only the tip of the iceberg. The deprivation holds her back from the whole process that could help her bloom. She does vaguely recognise this.

Besides, Zara also locates an element of reverence in Zaid’s tears that seems to contain no bias or agenda.

‘Humans are always fascinated by what they don’t have’

TNS: A reviewer has described Zara as a character who is mired in the “enforced limbo of androgyny”. Was it difficult to create such a character?

HKA: Let me confess something: Zara came into existence because of Zaid. Initially, the novel was not a first-person narrative in a woman’s voice.

While writing the novel, I felt that Zaid’s compassion needed to be viewed from another person’s perspective – a woman who was a complex individual. Yes, she was difficult to handle. I had to keep up with her selfishness, urges, and inner goodness that often got lost.

TNS: What is the significance of Sufaid Kothi to Zara’s emotional and spiritual journey throughout the novel?

HKA: Sufaid Kothi represents a realm and a living being, much like Zara. Like her, it is conflicted: crumbling yet willing to rejuvenate through the discovery of life within. Sufaid Kothi is where she discovers her freedom, friendships and the riches of poverty. This shows that our idea of belonging is created through the heart, not by brick and mortar.

TNS: Magic realism is an essential motif in your novel. What drew you towards this concept?

HKA: Magic realism involves taking along all the creative influences that mould a writer and giving voices to everyone and everything close to him.

In the novel, Cantt Railway Station is a character that is forlorn at heart, full of whispers that only Zara can hear. It can cry too. When the body of Zara’s aunt arrives at the station, Cantt sheds tears in the shape of rainwater that falls off its corrugated roofs. This is a function of the sensitivity we feel towards our surroundings and dictates how much we want to belong to places and nature. A human being is incomplete without the soil of their birth and their surroundings. Hence, magic realism provides recognition of all those inanimate things and also serves as a tribute to the contributions involved in shaping us.

TNS: Do you believe magic realism is a neglected genre in Pakistani fiction?

HKA: Yes, terribly underwritten. My new novel, The Liar’s Truth, tries to address that.

TNS: Do you see Karachi as a character rather than a locale in your book?

HKA: Karachi, like Lahore, is a character in the novel. My attachment to Lahore is more profound, though. Karachi is not too bothered with how badly it gets treated. Behind its insensitivity, however, is a beating heart that privately seeks peace. Lahore is regal in comparison and is, in many ways, the chosen one. Karachi is not gifted but reflects the beauty of a different, wild kind.

The interviewer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

‘Humans are always fascinated by what they don’t have’