Thursday 12 October 2023

No Funeral for Nazia, interview with Taha Kehar

 No Funeral for Nazia is Pakistani journalist and writer Taha Kehar’s third and latest work of fiction. The story highlights some of the complexity in his hometown Karachi.

He speaks to Devika Misra.

TK: There are two different Pakistans, You have the Pakistan of the elite and then you have the Pakistan that is fairly steeped in middle class values.”

People tend to think of Pakistan as a conservative Muslim country. This narrative however, tells the life story of an unconventional Pakistani woman; upper-class writer and single mother Nazia. Her lovers include her brother-in-law, a female co-worker and the colleague’s husband, these dalliances taken on with seeming nonchalance. Apparently this is all perfectly well accepted within Nazia’s tight circle of friends and family - something of an open secret. There is no evidence that these dealings have soured relationships among  this rather incestuous circle. 

I asked Taha if he meant this to be reflective of a certain section of  society.

TK “It's not reflective, but perhaps indicative of the way people live their lives in a particular segment of elite society, as opposed to be representative of it entirely, I wouldn't want to use the word representative in that sense. There is a very small section - the choices Nazia makes are fairly unconventional.”

One such choice, as the title suggests, is that protagonist Nazia decides  to  forgo traditional death rituals and not have mourners at her funeral - atypical to say the least.

TK: “I don't think anybody would take that risk, to not have a funeral completely as to do without the rights and rituals of death and come up with your own set of traditions altogether. It would be frowned upon in certain segments of society, even the elite would probably say we cannot break away from that, but she's somewhat unconventional and she has her way of getting away with it.”

Upon her death, Nazia leaves instructions for her sister to hold a party for her instead of a funeral - but not just any party, a hypnotherapy party!

TK: “The motif of hypnotherapy was interesting to me because what is hypnotherapy? It's a way of healing. It's a way of recognizing that you have certain challenges that you need to overcome. And in many ways it was indicative of personal conflicts. There was so much that was going on in the first hundred pages. You have a father and a daughter clashing with one another. You have friends who are constantly arguing and bickering but they're on the surface friendly with each other. So there's a lot of a lot that needs to be unpacked, a lot that needs to be questioned, understood - beyond the personal conflicts as well.”

Complementing the lifestyles of the elite is another theme, the vast and deep inequities that plague South Asia. Ever present in Nazia’s story are her maids. I asked Taha if it was a conscious decision to give the household staff a voice.

TK: “Yes. Karachi, Pakistan itself, it’s a landscape of inequality. There's socioeconomic inequality, there are so many gender related issues here, so many confrontations, sectarian issues, that somehow, someway these seep into the domestic sphere of the elite, whether it's in the dynamic between the domestic help and the employer, or maybe in the relationship between partners. I think it was a conscious decision because here they are, in a drawing room having the most unconventional party ever, celebrating death, an anti -funeral of sorts, but even the maids, they have their opinions on what's going on. They would much rather that the traditional rituals are followed. So, I wanted the maids to have an opinion because usually when you think about the employer and servant, to use that horrible word, relationship, you often have this relationship of subservience and dominance, and I wanted to challenge that in a way, while also being aware of the ground realities of it. So it was pretty conscious, yeah.”

Taha’s tale is as much about its characters as it is about the some 17 million strong, sprawling city that he grew up in.

TK: “Karachi and perhaps Pakistan itself is considered to be a very unstable country and it's perhaps a stereotype because I live here and I know that there is some semblance of life here that goes beyond that definition of instability. I was intrigued by the idea of Karachi's past and its present, how the present is informed by its past politically. Perhaps the internal politics as well because we see things happening around us and we don't really question how those will impact us in the long term so if you've lived through a riot in the 90s it's bound to have an impact on you somehow. I grew up in the Karachi of the 90s and 2000s and it was fairly chaotic.  It was a violent city back then as well, there were certain things I started not doing. I made sure that if I was in a crowd I'd check if my phone was still in my pocket or I wouldn't be walking on a dark street at night because there's always that fear of street crime. So there's certain things you unconsciously start doing. So I think it was very conscious because Karachi’s past and present has been very much a part of my body of work so far.”

Details: No Funeral for Nazia will be published by NeemTree Press (UK) on the 19th of October 2023 and will be available in paperback. Priced in local currencies.