Tehelka, January 30, 2001

"Karachi is the only city I want to write about"

Salil Tripathi speaks to and profiles writer Kamila Shamsie     

"What can I say about the food? That nothing had ever tasted better. That words reveal their inadequacy every time I try to describe it. That sometimes it seemed we were all eating faster than was possible and other times so slowly it defied all te laws of motion. That the grains of rice in the biryani were swollen but separate; that the saffron had been sprinkled with a hand that knew the thin line between stinting and showing-off; that the chicken was so succulent you had to cry out loud. I could tell you about the aloo panjabi with its potatoes that reminded us why a nation could live on potatoes and die without them; I could mention its spices, so perfectly balanced you could almost see the mustard seed leaning on the fenugreek, the cumin poised on the dried chilies. If that's not enough let me try to evoke the Bihari kebabs, the meat so tender it defied all attempts to make it linger in our mouths, and yet it lingered on our tastebuds before graciously making way for all the other tastes worthy of attention. And while I can still think of it without falling to my knees in thanks, allow me to mention the timatar cut, which takes the familiar tomato and transports it into a world inhabited by ginger, garlic, chilies, green and red, karri pattas, and the sourness of tamarind. To eat that meal was to eat centuries of artistry, refined in kitchens across the subcontinent. The flavours we tasted were not just the flavours in the food, but also the flavours the food reminded us of and the flavours the good remembered. But saying all of this is not enough. When I tasted that food, I saw Mariam in a kitchen, a vast glorious kitchen, brushing saffron off her husband's neck and dusting it on to her own lips. I saw Mariam listing names of vegetables -- mooli, Loki, bhindi, shaljam, gajjar, mattar, phool gobi as though the list were a ghazal, while Masood kneaded mangoes to pulp in a bowl which suddenly had four hands, not two, intertwining and pressing."

If the first rule of warfare is that an army should not march on an empty stomach, the first rule of writing about food must be that a writer must write on an empty stomach.

For that is how it happened: Kamila Shamsie, back home in Karachi on holiday from her teaching assignment at Hamilton College in upstate New York, is sitting in front of her computer screen, mesmerized, typing furiously, the last pages of her novel, “Salt and Saffron”. Her father calls her from the dining room, beti, come for dinner, but Kamila ignores the call, keeps typing, and produces a flawless ending to a memorable novel about Karachi and the Partition.

After reading a passage like that, any food would taste insipid, particularly Indian food made by Bangladeshis, which is why, when I met her at the West Hampstead station on a freezing morning on the day before the last millennium ended, we quickly settled on going to an Italian restaurant.

On our way she told me how she entered the house of a mutual friend of ours the previous evening and commented with what could easily pass for British reserve: "It is a bit cold, isn't it?" To which this friend, himself a writer, wrapped in two layers of sweaters, replied: "It is freezing! For you New Yorkers it may be warm, but not for us Londoners."

The snow on the streets is still fresh, as is the morning, as we settle down to choose mundane and non-threatening Italian sandwiches, my mind imagining the desi meal we could have had. But there will be another time.


Kamila Shamsie is midnight's grandchild. Born in Karachi in 1973, she divides her time between Hamilton College, where she studied and where she now teaches creative writing, London, which she considers her second home, and Karachi, Bombay’s lost twin. In the city by the sea (which also happens to be the title of her first novel) she brings Karachi to life with such deftness that it makes the city, known for its mohajirs and crime and Bhuttos instantly human. Reading her first novel, a Pakistani fan who went to the elite Karachi Grammar School exulted on the Internet: “"We were designed to experience optimism, and when we were on the verge of adulthood it was the late 70's, when all hell broke loose (Bhutto's sharaab peena and khoon peena, General Zia's smile and the Afghan Jihad). Shamsie's novel concerns the extra-judicial killing of my generation's optimism. My friends may call the optimism of “In The City By The Sea” balmy. Karachi is too violently class-divided for the air-brushing of class in a novel about Karachi.”

But Shamsie lets the city, with its contradictions and charms, breathe. She makes it recognisable to the Bombaywallahs among us. Karachi is less than an hour away by flight, yet it seems as far as if it is in another universe, given the tragic fact of the Partition. Yet Shamsie, like Aamer Husain before her, humanizes the city and brings it closer to Indians.

"Karachi is the only place that I want to write about. I may change but it is my home, much as I love London. I like cities by the sea. I can't imagine not spending part of my life, every year, in Karachi," she says.

But like Bombay, Karachi's recent past has been violent. Early 1990s was the period when cell phones were banned, and for a brief period, it was Asia's murder and violence capital, as armed brigands, with kalashnikovs and Molotov cocktails, settled scores against one another for imagined and remembered slights. That violence hasn't featured in her writing yet; she writes about an earlier time, after Bangladesh happened but before the Generals took over the country yet again, during that lull of flawed democracy.
"When you love a city," Shamsie says, "it is with its warts and problems. And its more than fair share of problems adds to the desire to love it more and learn more about it. The summer of 1995 was hell, and the violence you refer to was indeed an accurate depiction of that period. But now you can use cell phones in Karachi."

But it has changed in other ways. Her friends go to colleges overseas and never return, and her circle of friends, of people she knew, gets circumscribed. "The numbers are dwindling," she says with a longing for another era.

Young Pakistanis have responded warmly to her writing; for once, someone was speaking to the generation in its own voice, capturing the Zeitgeist when the idealism of independence ended, and the reality of fallen dreams sank in. How does one keep the liberal flame alive, if you are urban and urbane, professional, with a distaste for feudalism and corruption, but straitjacketed into an Islamic vision never intended by Mohammed Ali Jinnah?

It is not surprising that even if unconsciously, Shamsie is articulating such concerns. She comes from an illustrious literary family straddling across the Radcliffe Line: her great-aunt was Attiya Hussain, the first lady of South Asian writing, who chose to remain in Lucknow after partition, even though part of her family left for Pakistan, and then herself moved to London where she published "Sunlight on the Broken Column"; her mother, Muneeza Shamsie edited "A Dragonfly in the Sun", Pakistan's response to the Rushdie-edited "Mirrorwork", an anthology of post-Partition Pakistani writing; and her grandmother, Jahanara Habibullah wrote a memoir of life in Rampur.

"I wanted to be a writer since I was nine," Shamsie says. She regrets that Attiya Hussain died a month before her first novel was published. That was the result of her friend Alexandra Pringle, who became her agent, selling it to Granta while she was still a student. Her thesis adviser Shona Ramaya at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, encouraged her to continue writing, and there she also met the poet Agha Shahid Ali, who became an important influence in her life. (While she loves his poetry, she can't see herself writing it. "I love story-telling and characters; I don't like to interrupt the narrative," she says.”

Shamsie's second novel, “Salt and Saffron,” published late last year, is more ambitious. Filled with mysteries, allusions and half-told stories, it is the saga of the Dard-e-Dil family, divided by the Partition but remaining united by eccentricities. The writer Amina Meer has correctly observed that “Salt and Saffron” is the only book she has read which has a genuine love for Pakistan, and has a compelling narrative with vivid imagery. While ultimately loyal to the idea of Pakistan, the novel is remarkably honest in giving voice to alternative views not only of relatives who choose to remain in India, but relatives who remain in Pakistan and wondering what life could have been. Shamsie argues: "I am not saying Pakistan was a mistake; but there was a lot of genuine pain associated with the partition which you cannot deny."

With Zulfiqar Ghose, Bapsi Sidhva, Sara Suleri, Aamer Husain, Zeeba Sadiq and Adam Zameenzad before her, it is perhaps time to start talking of a Pakistani canon of writing in English, distinct from Indian writing in English. Looks similar, smells about the same, but tastes different--slightly. It is a matter of how you use salt and saffron.