Our treatment of women is a clash between modernity and tradition: Sabyn Javeri
Nobody Killed Her, the title of Pakistani author Sabyn Javeri's debut novel, can either be read as a statement or a question in the context of its subject matter – the assassination of a female politician.
Though a work of fiction, the book has been described as a “thinly veiled account of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.” The plot, which follows two shrewd and ambitious women as they traverse Pakistan's corridors of power, has unmissable parallels with Bhutto and her aide Naheed Khan.
However, the story doesn't rest on its supposed source material, building upon it ably to create a good thriller replete with political intrigue. A story which pulls you in and holds your attention right to the end, it has drawn widespread praise from critics.
Speaking to Catch, Javeri talks about her novel, women in power, looking for trouble, and what she plans next. These are the edited excerpts:
Jhinuk Sen (JS): Tell us about yourself. When and how did you start writing? How easy or difficult was it for you to write in a country 'steeped in fanaticism and patriarchy'?
Sabyn Jhaveri (SJ): 'It was the best of times and the worse of times', as Dickens would say. I grew up in General Zia’s suffocating Pakistan and books provided an armchair relief. Through books I could visit places, ride bicycles or run free through the woods – all things a young girl my age and class could not do.
Unlike a lot of the other anglophone Pakistani writers, I did not grow up privileged. I could not afford a lot of books and I would read whatever I could get my hands on. This meant that, at an early age, I was reading books which were totally inappropriate for my age. I read Ayn Rand at eight, read Kafka and Chekov at 11, Woody Allen, even Nancy Friday.
Perhaps if I hadn’t grown up in a country as closeted as Pakistan was in Zia’s times, not that the legacy has depleted much, perhaps I would not have been driven to read and, in turn, write.
When I became a bit older I realised that I could not find my story in the books I was reading. Inclusivity became important and, just like many actors write out their own scripts, I felt compelled to tell my own story or of those around me. I wonder if the urge to write would have been as strong had I grown up free…
JS: Why a thriller? What made you pick this genre and why did you pick a subject that reverberates so strongly with actual events that have taken place in the recent past?
SJ: Benazir Bhutto’s assassination affected each and every Pakistani woman I know. For us, it was like the beginning of the end. It put a violent full stop to women empowerment. Yes, a woman could become a prime minister in an Islamic republic, but look how brutally the journey ended. It was like a death stamp on hope and freedom. I had to make sense of it somehow. When I chose to write, I knew it had to be about her death.
However, as I began writing, the story grew and the book became not about the life of a politician but about women in power. It became about reversing gender stereotypes, about class struggle, about love, power, and betrayal.
I realised that South Asia has a rich history of female political leadership. From Indira Gandhi’s iron hold to Jayalalithaa's rise as an underdog, to the rivalry between Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina, Aung San Suu Kyi’s exile, Parveen Rehman’s drive-by shooting and Leila Khalid’s guerrilla politics, I began to explore what it was that all these women had in common. What did it take for a woman to rise to power? And what did it take to hold on to that power? That’s what I was interested in.
As to 'Why a thriller?' Mainly because I was sick of the saccharine sweet poetic prose coming out from our part of the world. In this age of smartphones, I think we need something fast-paced and gripping to keep us glued to the page.
The story I wanted to tell about female empowerment would have died if I had told it in a very literary, sermonising sort of way. I knew it had to be told in a manner that, from a teen to an old man, would have a universal ‘unputdownable’ appeal. My biggest fear was for the book to be labeled ‘women’s fiction’.
JS: How have the reactions to the book been so far? Have you been trolled on Twitter (or elsewhere) yet?
SJ: Surprisingly, the reactions from women have been amazing. In Karachi, young girls in hijab have come up and told me how they can relate to the protagonists’ fiery character. Some have come up to me and said that the book cracks motherhood, others say it exposes the myth that women can ‘have it all’. One girl hugged me and said she loved the book because it made it okay for women to be ‘career-minded’.
I could completely relate to that because, although cherished in men, being career-minded is a quality looked down upon in women in our part of the world. Men in our country come home from work and relax while women come home and don the apron, feed the children, on and on...
The book has really made me feel part of a larger sisterhood, with women from both sides of the divide reaching out to me. It’s made me realise that women in both India and Pakistan face the same kind of patriarchy, although the intensity is different. We are both countries struggling with modernity and tradition and this is reflected in our treatment of our women.
I guess the only trolling has been from those who can’t get used to the idea of a writer humanising women as flesh and blood beings who can be heroes.
JS: What are the other issues from your hometown (and country) that you think you want and plan to eventually write about?
SJ: I want to write about female sexuality, about women empowerment, about the silent matriarchs in our big south Asian families who secretly support patriarchy…there is just so much I want to explore. I admire Ismat Chugtai and Rashid Jehan for writing about these issues, and I suppose in a way I want to continue the tradition.
JS: What do you think is the biggest hurdle you faced when it came to this book? How did you tackle it?
SJ: The biggest hurdle (after it finally got published) was at its launch in Pakistan when some people I respected as literary giants could not get over the subject matter of my novel and pulled their support.
For some, it was the fear of legalities, and for others, it was hard to accept that the book drifts away from the saint or sinner binary and delves into grey areas of women in power.
But six months on, word of mouth has proved that, even if I am not given press or support in my own country, the book continues to be appreciated...I guess the way I tackled it was to have faith in my writing...after all, being read is the biggest revenge a writer can get.
JS: Finally, what's next? Another thriller or something entirely different?
SJ: Next is a collection of short stories, Hijabistan, which talk about the veil. The veil is something that has always fascinated me, having grown up at a time where women were forced to cover their heads in public spaces. The sari was banned and the revolution in next door Iran, and later in Afghanistan, consisted mainly of covering up women like tents. These stories provide a quirky look at life behind the veil.
After this collection, I will return with another political thriller on a very explosive topic. All I can tell you is that, after reading the first few chapters, an editor asked me – “Do you go looking for trouble or does trouble comes looking for you?”