Why Pakistan? A novel tries to find an answer

Why Pakistan? A novel tries to find an answer
Kiran Doshi, author of Jinnah Often Came to Our House. Photos courtesy of the author
New Delhi-based retired diplomat, educationist and author Kiran Doshi is the winner of the 2016 Hindu Prize for his novel, Jinnah Often Came to Our House (Tranquebar, 2015), which was announced in January this year.

Doshi studied history, politics and law in Bombay before joining the Indian Foreign Service in 1962 for a 35-year-long career. He is the author of Birds of Passage, a novel set in the world of India-Pakistan-USA diplomacy, and Diplomatic Tales, short stories written in comic verse. 

Jinnah Often Came to Our House, set amidst the long struggle for freedom and the call for Partition, is a heart-wrenching saga of love and betrayal, pain and redemption. Doshi, who is now working on a sequel to the novel, says the world would have been a far, far better place if Hindu-Muslim unity in India had not been torn apart, and India partitioned. “The novel, in large part, is an account of all that I learnt while trying to find an answer to the question: why Pakistan?” he says.

Excerpts from an interview:

THE PUNCH: Jinnah Often Came to Our House is an ambitious novel with a sweeping canvas. Tell us about its genesis. While it tells Jinnah’s story, it’s also a deeply felt lament against Partition and what it did to the two nations. What did you want this novel to be about when you were working on it? How important was it to tell this story in the tone you have chosen for the novel?

KIRAN DOSHI: Pakistan. A brief reply to the question on the genesis of the novel is the tragedy called Pakistan, tragedy for not just that country, nor even for just the entire subcontinent — and specially the Muslims of the subcontinent — but for the whole world. Yes, the world would have been a far, far better place if Hindu-Muslim unity in India had not been torn apart, and India partitioned. The novel, in large part, is an account of all that I learnt while trying to find an answer to the question: why Pakistan?

As for the tone of the language of the novel, right at the start I chose, sensing that the novel was likely to become epical in scope, to adopt the tone of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that is to say, to keep it natural, letting the terrain determine its rhythms and variations, never forcing it, no matter what the temptation.

THE PUNCH: You dedicate the book to your mother-in-law, Umrao Baig, whose father was a contemporary of Jinnah. Many of her stories have made their way into the novel. Tell us something about the stories of Jinnah that she, and many others in your family, shared with you.

KIRAN DOSHI: My mother-in-law’s father (my wife’s grandfather) was a contemporary and a friend of Jinnah — and of many other public men of his time, although he was completely apolitical himself. In fact, the title of the book comes from what my mother-in-law once said: Jinnah often came to our house. Some of the words she used to describe Jinnah were ‘striking-looking’, ‘elegantly dressed’, ‘soft-spoken’, ‘fastidious’ and ‘arrogant’. She also said (obviously quoting her father, who too was a barrister) that Jinnah was a ‘brilliant’ advocate. Apparently, the admiration was mutual. When Jinnah left for London, seemingly forever, he placed his black coat on her father’s shoulders (according to family lore) and said: ‘Nobody deserves the coat better than you.’ Incidentally, my mother-in-law’s sympathies, when Jinnah’s marriage with Ruttie collapsed, were entirely with Ruttie. ‘Jinnah’, she said when we talked about it once, was ‘a cold fish.’

Happily, her mother (my wife’s grandmother) was still around when I met my wife. She had in her proud possession several yellowed newspaper clippings of her husband’s court cases, which she happily showed to anybody willing to look at them. Several of the cases in the novel are (slightly altered versions of) the ones in those clippings.

There are also stories in the novel told to me by other relatives, stories from the Khilafat movement, from the sad migration of Muslims to Afghanistan in search of Dar-ul-Islam, from the Quit India movement and its bloody suppression, from the Gandhi-Bose split and the INA, from the naval mutiny and from the Karachi of 1947. 

THE PUNCH: In the acknowledgements, you mention Francis Bacon: “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” How different would this story be if you had written a non-fiction? Did fiction give you space to mould the narrative into the shape you wanted this story to take?

KIRAN DOSHI: There is an ocean of non-fictional books on the freedom struggle and its twin, the struggle for Partition. If I had written the book as non-fiction, it would probably have got lost in that ocean. In any case, once I realised that Pakistan was created by Jinnah (falling for the British trap as early as in 1909), I had to write on the young Jinnah, and, considering the great paucity of dependable information on the subject, I had to imagine what he must have been like. I may add that even non-fictional books on him use so many qualifiers (‘perhaps’, ‘undoubtedly’, ‘quite possibly, ‘would most likely have’, ’would have surely’...) that they can quite truthfully be called part-fictional. I chose straightforward fiction.

Yes, fiction also gave me the scope to add flesh — and much more than flesh — to the story. But, I hasten to add, as far as the historical part of the novel is concerned, it is faithful to what I believe happened. 

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