STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif is living proof that you can sometimes tell the truth more easily with fiction than you can by just telling the truth. Hanif is a journalist in one of the world's more dangerous places to be a journalist: Pakistan.
MOHAMMED HANIF: The good thing about Pakistan is that you can say whatever you want to, but at your own risk. That's why we have a very noisy media, and journalists keep getting killed all the time.
INSKEEP: Mohammed Hanif remains a journalist and has managed to live a good long while, but he's also become one of Pakistan's most prominent novelists. His latest novel, "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti," is the tale of a poor hospital nurse in the city of Karachi. It follows an earlier work called "A Case of Exploding Mangos." That was the tale of a real life Pakistani dictator, Zia-ul-Haq. The dictator died in a plane crash in 1988.
And as Mohammed Hanif knows, few people in Pakistan believed it was an accident. There were countless conspiracy theories about who may have actually killed this man, and the conceit of your novel is that all the conspiracy theories are simultaneously true.
HANIF: I think it started out - as a serious journalist once I tried to investigate the whole thing. And like all young reporters, I was like, you know, this is going to be my big story, and I started working on it. And after a few months, I realized that there was no way I was going to get to the bottom of it, because there were layers and layers and layers of deceptions and cover-ups to cover the other cover-ups.
Then it occurred to me that, you know, I'll just make up my own facts. If nobody's willing to tell me who did it, then as a fictional character I'll raise my hand and I'll say, well, I did it, and I'll write a book about it. So that's - it was basically a failed journalist's revenge, I would say.
INSKEEP: But if I may, I'm tempted to say it's the truest thing I've ever read about Zia-ul-Haq, this dictator for more than a decade in Pakistan.
HANIF: You know, the funny thing is that after the book came out in Pakistan, a lot of people - and some of them former heads of intelligence agencies - kind of I've run into them at a party or at a social gathering, and they take me into a corner and they say, son, you've written a brilliant novel. Now tell me, who's your source who's told you all of this?
I used to find it a bit scary at the beginning, that my God, these people are running my country and they actually believe all the lies that I've written.
INSKEEP: This Zia-ul-Haq, you totally satirize him. You totally skewer him. And yet as a reader I ended up almost feeling a tiny bit sympathetic for the guy. I felt like I understood where he was coming from in a way that I certainly hadn't from whatever nonfiction I'd read about him.
HANIF: Yeah, some of my friends - political activists who had suffered during his regime - they also kind of said that you've turned him into some kind of Homer Simpson type of character.
But the problem is that when you're writing a novel, you spend years and years and years with these characters. And at some point I think you start to humanize them. You start internalizing their fears and ambitions and to a certain extent their cruel streak as well. So I think that probably it is not such a bad thing, that if you're going to write a character, then you might as well try and get inside his head.
INSKEEP: Now, for your newest novel, you have tried to get inside the head of someone who is as far from the centers of power as you could imagine. The book is "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti." Who is Alice?
HANIF: Well, Alice is a beautiful young nurse who has had a troubled past, but she's very feisty, and then she falls in love with somebody that she shouldn't have fallen in love with. So basically I was trying to write it as a love story, but since the love story happens in a particular setting, so like many love stories, it goes wrong somewhere.
INSKEEP: OK. You say a particular setting. Let's talk about the setting. You put the novel in Karachi, Pakistan, mega-city, many, many millions of people living there, and in a hospital, but not just any hospital. It is the Sacred Heart Hospital For All Ailments. It is a Catholic hospital, a traditionally Christian hospital in an overwhelmingly Muslim city. What were you thinking when you set it there?
HANIF: When I was a teenager and my mother had cancer, she spent her last couple of months in a hospital, which was a bit like this. And I spent those months with her, and as you probably know, public hospitals are strange places - kind of somebody is doing something around the clock, somebody is dying, somebody is in pain, somebody is being born, somebody is being relieved of their pain.
So those impressions were very strong in my head, and I think a psychological explanation, now that I think of it, is that maybe I didn't want to focus on my own personal tragedy, which was that my mother was dying.
And when I was growing up, a lot of nurses in Pakistan, for example - female nurses - happened to be Catholics. It was quite, quite normal. It's only during the last 15, 20 years that it's become the kind of profession where all men, and Muslim and Christian and everybody else, goes into that profession.
INSKEEP: But by writing it about a Christian who works in a nominally Christian hospital with a Christian past, you underline something, which is that this overwhelmingly Muslim country is maybe a little more diverse than it seems at first glance from the outside.
HANIF: Well, yes, it is a lot more diverse. And my issue over this whole thing is that when I write a novel, when I want to write something about the state of Christians in Pakistan or the state of other religious minorities in Pakistan, I have the option to sit down and write a rant for a newspaper or broadcast a little program, the BBC, or go on one of the local TV channels and scream, which sometimes I do.
But when I'm writing a novel - before anything else, I'm interested in Alice the person, Alice the woman - that's what I want to investigate. And by doing that, if I kind of see a glimpse of the kind of surrounding that she lives in, if I sort of see a glimpse of some of the prejudices that she has to face - and mind you, these prejudices are not just because she is Christian; these prejudices are basically because she's a woman, and even more important, these prejudices exist because she is poor.
INSKEEP: What do you learn about a society when you examine it from the perspective of someone who is on the very bottom?
HANIF: Well, I think the first thing that I learned is that there's a full life playing out there. It's not that if you're at the bottom and it's not that if you are poor, it's not if your struggles are a lot harder than, for example, my struggles would be, then it doesn't mean that you're not capable of enjoying the sea breeze. And it doesn't mean that you're not capable of falling in love. And it doesn't mean that you're not capable of demanding a bit of dignity from your everyday life.
And it doesn't matter what their religion or what their class is.
INSKEEP: Mohammed Hanif is the author of "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti." Thanks very much.
HANIF: Thank you, Steve, thank you.
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INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from Mohammed Hanif's new novel in the NPR books section of our website, npr.org.
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