In a country where assertive self-expression can be frowned upon, how to be yourself? Maybe through sneaky networks of solidarity, by improvising identities as one navigates life…
While many of the characters in author Mira Sethi’s debut story collection ‘Are you Enjoying?’ (Bloomsbury India) are professional performers, even those who are not, can be skilled chameleons. “To live in a society with strong views about what constitutes ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’, means, as a citizen, having to alter and contort one’s authentic self in order to survive. Roshan, the queer chai-boy on the set of ‘Breezy Blessings’ says to Mehak, the actress: ‘About drama, you know nothing.’ She may be the actress, but as a queer person navigating middle-class Pakistani society, he understands everything about drama, and how to communicate effectively via code, innuendo, signal,” Mira Sethi tells IANS.
As the characters in the stories strive for personal freedom, the author asserts that they are in fact trying to throw off the straitjacket imposed by society — how does one negotiate personal freedom in a traditional society? “I wanted to show both the resilience of my characters, but also the vulnerability of people caught between the pull of the past, and the lure of modernity. Family – the imperatives of fathers and mothers – is a major theme in the book; there was a desire to portray how the burdensome pressures of family (the past) interact with (modern) aspirations of young, urban people,” she says.
Taking around six years to write the book, ‘Breezy Blessings’ was the first story she wrote. “I would email myself snippets, thoughts and observations. It was only after I wrote the first draft of ‘Breezy Blessings’ (in my gmail inbox!) that I opened a Word document, and began taking myself seriously as a writer,” the writer-actor says with a smile.
Stressing that she draws from the sights and sounds encountered in life – the power dynamics on the set of a show, the ways in which Urdu and English are mixed and her lived experience as an observer and participant in Pakistani life, Sethi works best in the mornings, before she has interacted with anyone, the space when her mind is blank slate. “I sometimes won’t shower until 5 or 6 pm until I’ve had four good hours of writing. Flow-state writing is hard to achieve, but I find I’m able to do it if I start first thing in the morning. Of course, then getting up to make breakfast is an interruption.”
Talk to her about the brilliant fiction in English from Pakistani origin writers in the past two decades, and she feels that fiction flourishes in contradiction. Adding that Pakistan is a society in transition, and there is a lot of tension to be harnessed in the space between the laws of the state, not to mention the ways in which they interact with individual desire and autonomy, the author adds, “Young people get their news – and their aspirations – from social media and television. Their desires are secular, but the frameworks into which these people are born are traditionalist.”
Ask her about the experience of growing up in a progressive family in a religious country, and Sethi, daughter of well-known journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, who has also been seen in Pakistani serials including ‘Silvatein’ and ‘Mohabat Subh Ka Sitara Hai’, says, “Identity politics play out in unusual ways in a country like Pakistan, where labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ can mean different things depending on their context. I’m happy my book has been able to navigate the dignity of people who often don’t fit in.”
But has she felt the ‘burden’ of being born to famous parents? “Not when it comes to writing fiction,” she smiles.
For someone who feels that she would be a poorer writer if it weren’t for acting, there is another book brewing, “I believe so, but I’ll find out when there are words, stumbles and fumbles on the page.”