For a long time I had a wish to interview you but I did not
have the opportunity. Last year I
Germany but unfortunately could not visit Sweden. Now that I
am visiting you
people this year, I
want to take
this golden opportunity to interview you. Can you tell me
of your creative
writing and how it
has progressed over the years?
started writing in 1955 when I was in Lahore Pakistan. I belonged to a group,
Hulqa Ahbab-e-Adab Mozang, that discussed creative writings on a regular basis.
At one stage I was the secretary of that group. But after I came to Sweden I did
not write for a long time. And then I realized that I could not only write
stories but also write in different languages and forms. So after a long hiatus,
I started to write again. But my earlier writings were in 1955 – 60.
How old were you at that time?
What were some of the circumstances that affected your interest in creative
As you know there are not very many good public libraries in Pakistan. So many
people used to visit the anna library, locally run commercial libraries,
spending an anna to borrow a book for a day. I was also a member of those
libraries and used to read a lot. Even the librarians used to ask my opinion
which books they should buy and keep in stock. I think my reading helped my
And when you started writing,
in what language did you choose to write your stories?
Urdu, sometimes mixed with Punjabi. I would very often start an Urdu story but
then the characters would start speaking Punjabi and I would include those
dialogues in the story. At that time I was heavily criticized for that kind of
writing. People did not like the mixture.
What were the circumstances when you left Pakistan?
I had just passed my B.Sc. Things at home were not pleasant. I did not get along
with my father as he was an autocrat and I used to ask a lot of questions, which
he did not like. I was trying to make some sense with my readings in religion,
science and the arts. That was the time when there was a huge exodus from
Pakistan. My biological mother, who lived in Karachi, told me that if I wanted
to leave Pakistan, she would buy me a ticket and she did. My parents had been
divorced. So I left Pakistan and came to Europe. I had only five pounds in my
pocket when I landed in England.
Did you know any people in England when you arrived there?
No, nobody. I looked through the telephone directory and called a Pakistani. I
told him I would pay for lodgings and he let me stay there for a while. That is
how I started my life in England.
So what were the first few
months like for you in England?
Very exhausting. I got my first job near London Airport. I used to change
batteries in different trucks and tanks. At that time I lived eighteen miles
away from the airport so I had to run eighteen miles each way to work, as I did
not have money for the bus or the train.
You ran eighteen miles! That
Eighteen miles every morning and about the same in the evening. I was a sprinter
in Pakistan, so I knew how to run. At one time I wanted to be a marathon runner.
For the first two weeks of working I did not have money for food. So I used to
be hungry – only bread dipped in water sufficed. I think the only time I have
been hungry in my life was those two weeks. After I got my first pay cheque,
things started to get better.
Then what happened that you
came to Sweden from London?
In London we had a club called as The Esher International Club where people from
ninety different countries got together. The boys came from Asia, Africa and
England and the girls came mainly from Scandinavia, Germany and other European
countries. My first girlfriend was Danish. She told me a lot about Scandinavia.
She had Swedish girlfriends. So I got to know Swedish people. I liked their
openness. Before moving to Sweden I was in a panic for a while trying to decide
who to marry and where to settle. I became afraid and said to myself, “If I get
married now and have children, and all I have is this dead-end job, I’ll be
stuck with it”. So I left everything, gave all my books and all my things away
to my friends, just picked up a suitcase and a tape recorder and I came to
You were mentioning
that you had originally come to Stockholm for only three days.
Yes. I was then working in Volvo, Gothenburg, but I was planning to go to
Canada. I had applied for a job in Canada and was offered a job in Vancouver as
a research chemist. But I had to come to Stockholm to get a Visa. So I came here
for three days and looking at Stockholm I fell in love with it. It was what you
call love at first sight.
What year was that?
So you have been
here twenty-five years.
Yes, nearly twenty-five years in Stockholm.
So three days’ stay
extended to twenty-five years.
The longest three days of my life!
Now let’s come back
to your first book, “The Roots of Misery”. I presume that it was published when
you were staying in Sweden?
So what were the
circumstances that you finally decided to assemble your thoughts in book form?
When did you make that decision?
Well I left Pakistan in 1960. There was this exodus of young people and I had
just passed my B.Sc. I gradually realized that I had grown up like a simpleton
with very pure thoughts. I had no sexual or political awareness. Before I left
Pakistan, a couple of things happened that shook me up. I came across a number
of prostitutes who sold their bodies to make money as they were poor and
struggling. Then I learnt that many of them were students in various schools and
colleges in Lahore and lived in the student hostels. I used to consider these
young women as sisters and daughters of other men, not as prostitutes. I was
shocked to realize that there were scores of them in that society. Most of them
had moved to the city from small villages and towns to study there. I realized
that I was living in a hypocritical society. People around me were playing deaf
and dumb, and blind. There was no questioning and no debate and no challenging
of the old traditions, although they knew about those societal evils. My book
was an outcry against that oppressive system and culture. While living outside
Pakistan I began to realize that two factors were most important for individual
and social growth – language and religion. They were the basic factors that
shaped our personalities and conditioned our behaviour. I remember visiting a
Sri Lankan family in London where the man would not eat with us because he was
Hindu of a lower caste and although we were Muslims, yet because of our fair
complexion, he took it for granted that we were converts from a higher caste;
and, therefore, he did not qualify to sit with us on the same table. His
religion stopped him from treating us equals. Religion had built a wall between
us. My book challenged those traditions. I discussed my view that there are two
kind of oppressions, oppression from outside and self-imposed oppression from
inside. And we need to understand both oppressions before we can get rid of
them. Such awareness is important before we can evolve and change, and grow
individually and collectively.
I am curious now to know when
your philosophical ideas started taking the form of written words?
It started when I was studying philosophy in Stockholm University. I had a keen
interest in social anthropology too. So when I was involved in that discipline,
I pursued the concepts of sin, good and bad from a cultural point of view and
started writing about my ideas on the subject. Attending the university helped
me articulate my thoughts in a philosophical way.
When I read your book ‘The Roots of
Misery’, I was impressed by a number of your observations and
The one that touched me the most was your analysis of the effect of language on
social structure. You highlighted that although Pakistanis have Punjabi, Sindhi,
Balochi and Pushto as their mother tongues; yet they receive their schooling in
Urdu. You also emphasized that many social matters in Pakistan are decided by
politicians in English and religious leaders in Arabic. Because most of the
Pakistanis do not know English or Arabic, they are cut off from the social
discourse and remain alienated and isolated, which is quite tragic. How did you
come up with such an insightful formulation?
While I was studying social anthropology, I came across the history of Spain and
found out that four different languages were spoken in Spain. General Franco
cunningly deduced that one way to impose social control was to put in place an
army from one language group in authority over the people of another. It was
easy to rule people if they did not know the language of the ruling classes.
That kept the oppressive system in place. I realized that something similar was
happening in Pakistan. The political and religious leaders were not sharing
their power with the common people. It was a mechanism to sustain oppression. I
believe that language plays a significant role in education as well as politics.
Children should learn in their mother tongue, and government business should
take place in the same language so that people can participate in the democratic
process. The same thing is happening in other countries. You will find Pakistani
soldiers in the Saudi Army deployed to control Saudi people. That is unjust.
After coming to Europe I also realized that the same person who speaks more than
one language seems to have varying levels of communicative efficiency from one
language to an other. It is the training and the discipline that makes a
difference. I met many Punjabis who are very eloquent and expressive in Punjabi
but do poorly in Urdu and even worse in English. Those are the things I learnt
as a student of social anthropology and then applied them to third world
How do you relate to the low
literacy rate in Pakistan? Some say that the literacy rate in Pakistan has been
decreasing rather than increasing in the last fifty years, since Independence.
It is ironic that children are
not taught in their mother tongue in schools. That is not the right way to
educate children. Even the business in offices and courts is conducted in
English, which is the official language. In Pakistan someone can be charged,
tried and convicted without him understanding the court proceedings.
Yes, it is tragic because people’s future has been decided by others who know
the languages of influence and power. People tried in the courts do not know
what is said in favour or against them.
I have come across
two different, even conflicting views about the role of English in the Pakistani
culture. One group believes that people who know English have an advantage in
the international market. They have more likelihood of being successful. On the
other hand, the other group feels that English has undermined the national
confidence. People who speak their mother tongues are not very proud of their
cultural and linguistic heritage because they do not know English. What do you
Well, I think we can see English at two levels. On one hand it was the language
of the rulers. On the other hand it is a medium of communication between people.
I think English should not be used in a political way. It should not be part of
Government policy. It should not be an official language in Pakistan. But if
people want to learn English for their personal reasons, it is wonderful.
English is no longer the mother tongue of English people exclusively. There are
millions of people all over the world who speak English as their first language.
Probably there are more people in India who speak English than in England.
The other language
that you touched upon in your book is Arabic. Again I think there are two
extreme views. On one hand there are people who want the whole nation to learn
and understand Arabic as their holy book Quran is in Arabic. During Zia-ul-Haq’s
government, even the news on television was read in Arabic. On the other hand,
there are people who are dead against Arabic. They believe that people should
read their prayers and scriptures in their mother tongue. What do you think
Arabic has done to Pakistan?
First of all let me make it clear that in my eyes no language is religious. If
we look at Arabic as a language, it’s like English and other languages of the
world. It is good for people to learn as a medium of communication. But it
should not be used for political reasons to give religious orders. In Pakistan,
English as well as Arabic has been used for political reasons., English by
political leaders and Arabic by religious leaders. I never accepted any language
as a holy language.
Do you agree with those who
support people performing their rituals and religious ceremonies in their mother
Without doubt, without doubt.
Now let me focus on
another topic. You talk in your book about the animosity between Pakistanis and
Indians. Rather than loving each other, neighbours hate each other. You believe
there is an India Phobia in Pakistan.
You see Pakistan is like Israel. Both countries are based on religious not
ethnic and historical foundations. Muslims in Pakistan hate Hindus, not
realizing that most Muslims are converted Hindus from just a few generations
ago. In India there was a caste system. Even among Muslims there is caste
system. Many Muslims try to prove that they are superior to others by concocting
descent from Arab families and claiming that their ancestors came from the
Middle East rather than India.
Coming back to your
book, which you call an outcry, is an intense book. It is one of the most
intense books I have read. Its content is very emotionally provocative. What was
the reaction of the general public when it was published? And how was it
accepted in literary circles?
were strong objections and strong emotions, especially to the use of coarse
language. But I told them that it was not a conscious technique. It was an
outcry and I wrote the way I felt. I was honest with my thoughts and feelings,
but many people did not like it. But then there were other writers who liked my
honesty and praised my courage and outspokenness and I have a number of
complimentary letters to show their reactions. So there were mixed reactions.
There was also a strong negative reaction from religious people. They felt
offended by my criticism of traditional religion. Reaction to my book was
similar to what Salman Rushdie got later on a grand scale. But my intention was
not to hurt or offend anyone. I wanted to challenge people and inspire them to
ask open and honest questions and not maintain a blind faith in our traditions.
If you were going
to write the book now, ten years later, would you write it differently?
It is hard to say. I do not decide consciously how I am going to write. I just
express what I want to share. I cannot predetermine how would I write it now. I
don’t have the faintest clue.
In the last few
years you have also been involved in translating creative writings. I was amazed
to find out that you have translated Urdu and Punjabi literature into English
and Swedish, and the other way round. You are quite versatile. Is there any
translation work that you enjoy more than others?
For me they’re all the same. I believe human feelings and thoughts are
universal. So if I read something I like, I have a desire to translate it so
that others can enjoy that too. I am lucky that I know four languages and am
able to transfer literature of one language to another.
When I compare my
translations with yours, I see a difference. I am always trying to capture the
essence, the spirit, and transfer that into another language. But you seem to be
preoccupied with the form as well. You also want to translate each word and
expression. I sometimes sacrifice small things for a bigger gestalt.
When I am translating, I want to translate not only the literary piece but also
the writer. I want to respect not only what they have written but also how they
have written. I want to present the colour of the writer and not impose my
colour on the creation. I want to retain the original metaphors
But when you are translating
from one language to another you cannot retain the original metaphors, as they
are so much reflection of culture. Translating from one language to another is
the journey from one culture to another. The Swedish language may not have the
same metaphors as Punjabi and Urdu. What do you do then?
You are right. Sometimes we have to be selective about what we translate. I feel
all poems and poets are not translatable. Some poems and stories are more
universal and more translatable than others. In other cases we need to find
alternate metaphors to do justice to the original. But I try my best to stay as
close to the original as possible. You are more adventurous in translations than
I am. Many poems I have loved all my life but I never translated them as I knew
I could not do justice to them.
Alongside reading your
philosophical essays in The Roots of Misery I have also read some of your
short stories. When did you start writing stories?
Some of the stories I wrote between 1955 and 1959 before I left Pakistan. But
then I did not write for years. I feel writing a good short story is more
difficult than writing a good poem or a novel. But when I started writing them
again, I enjoyed the process. It is my favourite form of creative expression.
In the last few
years do you see any change in the content, theme or form of your creative
expression? Is there any change in your writing style?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t plan my writings. Usually something boils inside
me and then finally it spills over in the form of a story or an essay. It is
quite spontaneous. For example my story Good and Evil (later on titled as
Thirsty Lips) was inspired by CNN news. On the tenth day of the
Gulf war I heard the biggest lie of the world. They tried to convince me that
they were bombing a city with two thousand war planes and it was clinically
clean – that civilians were not killed. When I saw that I became angry. I was
so angry that I turned off the TV and went to bed. When I woke up the next day,
I was ready to write. If someone asks me what made me write the story I am not
able to explain it. The creative process is quite mysterious.
Sohail: How do you
feel when you complete a story?
I feel good. I feel euphoric. I feel light. It is very rare for me to make
changes after I finish writing. I do not construct, I let my pen create my
stories. I do not make too many conscious changes.
How do you feel
when you share your stories with other people?
I enjoy sharing my stories. I feel as if my friends had been part of the
creation as I absorb so much from my discussions with my friends. So when I
finish, I share my creations and I take their feedback seriously. It has helped
me to become a better writer. That is why I am a great supporter of literary
groups where people can share their creations and receive meaningful feedback.
How has the
literary scene changed over the years in Scandinavia in general and in Sweden in
Sweden is a small country, only eight million people. There is a general
optimism in the air. Writers generally feel hopeful.
How is the literary
atmosphere different in Sweden different than in England?
When I visited London, I was quite disappointed. At Urdu Merkuz they have a lot
of funds but they are still desperate. It was sad to see those resources go to
I feel lucky to be
in Canada. There are regular literary and artistic activities on a regular
basis, in the mainstream as well in the Asian community. The number of Asian
writers, artists and intellectuals is increasing in Canada every year. Because
of the English language, Asians find it easier to immigrate to Canada than to
Sweden as most Asians don’t speak Swedish.
In Stockholm we have a club of writers and intellectuals and we meet every
month. I have always been active in that group.
What do you foresee
happening in the Asian literary world in Sweden in the next few years?
After we published our anthology Search for Identity in which you were
also actively involved, we have been focusing on Punjabi poetry. I am hoping to
do some translations of classical and modern Punjabi poetry into English and
There seems to be a
number of changes in your personal life in the few years. You got married and
had a child. How have these changes affected your creative life?
My life is happier. Instead of just translating love poems, I share love with my
wife and daughter. My mother died last year. Nature took one woman but gave me
two. But in spite of my personal happiness, I am bothered about what is
happening in Pakistan. I think religious fanaticism is on the increase. When
religion starts allowing people to kill and hang and whip other people, it
bothers me very much. If religion helps people to be better human beings then it
is good; but if it provokes violence, then it is not good.
When you review your
accomplishments in your personal and professional life in the last twenty to
thirty years, what kind of feeling do you have?
I have learnt a lot. I have grown a lot. I believe I have become a more mature
person and writer. I have found my own truth and meaning in life and have also
realized there are no absolute truths. And we should not impose our truths on
others. We should encourage people to discover their own truths.
Is there anything more you would like to share before we conclude our interview
When we talk we talk often about the evils in the society and that might give a
negative impression about life in general. But the truth is that I believe in
the goodness of mankind, but we all have to actualise it ourselves –
individually and collectively.
Thank you for sharing your
I hope they are of some value to others.