The Ink Is Still Fresh – Muhammad Hanif
By Mohsin Jilani
“Any man, who reaches for a book when he thinks about you, is a man you should think about” Muhammad Hanif – Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
Twenty years it has been since Muhammad Hanif last saw his old alma mater, Forman Christian College, Lahore. On March 11th, 2016, Ewing English Society invited Muhammad Hanif on an interactive session, to talk about himself as a successful novelist in Pakistan and in the world. The students and faculty of the English department of Forman Christian College warmly welcomed Muhammad Hanif. Later, Muhammad Hanif was seated on the stage along with the member of FCC’s English Department faculty, Dr. Saeed-ur-Rehman, who started the panel discussion by asking him questions about his literary work.
Muhammad Hanif, born in November 1964 in Okara, Pakistan, is an author and a journalist. He has an impressive résumé of receiving distinct awards in literary work, primarily for his two best novels, “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”, and accomplishments in working at prestigious media news agency such as Newsline, The Washington Post and India Today.
Muhammad Hanif interest in literature developed when he was an officer in Pakistani Air Force. He used to read many novels to escape time during his occupancy as a PAF officer. Many of the novels that he used to read were in English, which resulted in him writing novels in English. Although, he explained that he admired Urdu but mostly writes non-fiction in Urdu and have written poetries in Punjabi language as well. When asked, what is the most crucial moment when writing a novel, Muhammad Hanif replied, “It’s writing a good sentence or writing a good paragraph”. Hanif describes that when writing a novel, the writer becomes the master of the character he creates. Hanif uses his journalistic skills to gather sources for his novels and writing and especially when developing his characters.
Muhammad Hanif was highlighted in international fame by the media through his illustrious novel, published in 2008, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”, which was long-listed for Man Booker Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for Guardian First Book Award but it won Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2008 and Commonwealth Book Prize in the Best First Book category in 2009. The book “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” is a comic novel, which chronicles on the real-life unsolved mystery of a plane crash that killed former President of Pakistan, Zia-Ul-Haq in 1988, which was spurred by controversy. Muhammad Hanif spent most of his adulthood during the regime and his curiosity of Zia’s death ignited the desire to investigate into the cause of the death. As an investigative journalist, Muhammad Hanif investigated on Zia’s death but came to no conclusion but it prompted him to write a semi-fictional book that became a bestseller. The difficult task for Hanif was gathering the personal life of Zia. When asked how he got them, Hanif stated that he had sources such as websites, media and particularly his past, although it cannot sum up the personal life of Zia but when writing a fictional novel, the imagination overpowered the fact.
The second book, “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti”, was another milestone in his literary writing career. The novel revolves around the everyday life of a Christian nurse working in a government hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Hanif’s inspiration for the novel came from his real-life experience when Hanif recounted the day his mother was hospitalized in a government hospital during his youth and had to move in the hospital to stay with his mother. He witnessed a nurse whose duty was to take care of her mother as a patient, which Hanif later gave him an idea to write a novel on nurses employed in government hospitals. Hanif chooses the main protagonist of the novel to be of Christian faith not to represent the minority, the term he often detests, but because as a novelist he was possessive of his character and wanted it to be what he desired. He exclaims that his novel was a love story and did not represent the country or the Christians. Hanif said that to bring the character to the life he had to be the character, jocularly implied that he had to imagine himself as a female nurse whilst observing hospitals when he researched for the character of his book.
Hanif was asked that how can one be a good novelist or writer, to which he replied that a young writer would be doubtful when writing a first sentence of the novel but they would have to face their fears or otherwise give up. Hanif expressed displeasure on the fact that novels and books can never break stereotypes, as it should be, because of electronic media such as films and television have taken over the interest of the people.
Hanif continues to write and it never stops him especially as he has released his third novel “The Baloch: Who is not missing and others who are”, which was published in 2013. The ink is still fresh and only time can tell, what wonderful stories conceived by Muhammad Hanif’s imagination would be penned in his upcoming book.