‘Why should a writer not be happy?’

The Hindu,17 April 2010


‘Why should a writer not be happy?’

He’s an award-wininng writer and a farmer in Pakistan. During a visit to Delhi, author Daniyal Mueenuddin talks about how he balances farmwork with writing and being a writer in Pakistan.

Pardon my ignorance, but I have not come across a more eloquent farmer; or a man who grows mangoes and wheat but has better skills with the pen; somebody who speaks Urdu with a Punjabi accent one moment and switches to impeccable English the next.

A writer in the morning, a farmer by day, a reader by evening; welcome to the world of Daniyal Mueenuddin, the Los Angeles-born, Ivy League-educated man who divides his time between Pakistan, the U.S. and the U.K. Feted the world over — he was recently among the finalists for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the Best Book, where he lost to Rana Dasgupta — Daniyal is an outsider everywhere: in the U.S. where he can never be a typical American; in Pakistan, despite his impeccable Urdu and colourful Punjabi, he is never “one of us”.

Outsider everywhere

“Yes, that is true. I am half-American so it is more complicated for me. I feel like an outsider everywhere. But I regard Pakistan to be my country. I belong to it. For a certain period I can stay in the U.S. but after a while I hunger for the vibrancy of colours of Lahore,” he says.

Daniyal, with none of the airs of a seasoned writer, is a cheerful man and generates an energetic air. Happy to pose for the camera, he even shares a few candid moments. “You cannot talk with aap-janab on the farm. I learnt it the hard way,” he says, breaking into an expletive to show how to get the work done in the fields.

So somebody who once described him as a “sometime-lawyer, sometime-farmer, sometime-writer” was not wrong? He promptly corrects you, “I am not a lawyer anymore. I gave it up”. Well, he is still a farmer; and a writer. “I had to take up farming because of my dad. We had this farm and I took to managing it two years before my father expired in 1990. When I first came in, people thought me another vilayati (Englishman). I knew nothing of farming and my Punjabi was rudimentary at best. My accountant was corrupt. I worked things around. I started paying my employees more than they got elsewhere. This way I controlled corruption. Now everybody wants to work for me.”

He grows wheat, mangoes, cotton, and now vegetables on his farm. So how does he balance the sensitivity of a writer with his business acumen? “It is simple. I write early in the morning. Some people write late at night, some early in the morning. I find morning very calm. That is the time my mind is uncluttered with other things. During the day I do my chores on the field, sorting out various issues. I read a lot of poetry and other stuff in the evening. I love Rohington Mistry. I like Rushdie. I don’t care much for Naipaul’s writing though.”

Picking characters

When on the farm, his writer’s brains are still ticking. “Very much. I take characteristics of people. I mix them with my imagination. My farm experience has heavily influenced my writing. Every writer draws from the experiences of life. Writing is a hard task. Human emotions are limited. I don’t like the usual image of a writer torn between anxiety and pain. Why should a writer not be happy? You don’t have to experience pain to write. A happy man can be a good writer too. I take writing as a profession, as the work of a craftsman. As a craftsman, I need calm and quietude, some equilibrium. I don’t look at greats as sad people. I think writers like Tolstoy or Chekhov were happy men. Writers are sensitive people. Sometimes they are hurt too.”

He then talks of his strategy. “I keep it simple. I write, work on the farm and read. That is all. I live in a small village with no social life. I have no friends. There is no cinema near my place, no socialite gatherings. I keep a low profile. A consistency of routine is very important as a writer.”

Why a low profile when he is hailed as one of the best talents? “It matters not a whit in Pakistan. People don’t read. They don’t care who you are. I keep my neck down because in Pakistan if you raise it, it is chopped off. The situation there is deteriorating rapidly. The structures of the state are imploding. In Pakistan, corruption is a way of life. There are few areas that are not rotten. It is frightening, saddening to do business. You are at the whims of bureaucrats and politicians.”

Why are writers of Pakistan origin like Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid coming back? “Perhaps they feel that the country is going through troubled times and as Pakistanis we should be there. You should help whichever way you can.”

Isn’t it true that the writers come back to the mother country only for intellectual stimulation? “It could be nostalgia or a feeling of wistfulness. Many do come back to work on their books. But it could also be because of a feeling of displacement. We see a boom time for Pakistani writers these days because Pakistan makes news.”

Unfortunately, it is sunshine for Pak writers when it is sundown for the country. Daniyal nods, then adds, “Some people do read me as a Pakistani writer but I would rather be read as just a writer.” For evidence, just pick up a copy of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Wonders never cease across the border.