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'Poverty is common to terrorism everywhere'

February 17, 2009
Everything about Nadeem Aslam is slow and deliberate. The soft-spoken author, whose third novel The Wasted Vigil has just been released, was in Jaipur and New Delhi to promote it.

In this interview with's Krishnakumar P, he speaks about his love for Urdu, his experience as an immigrant in Britain and the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which form the backdrop of his latest novel.

How did your first novel end up being a work in English? You did not learn the language till you were 14, and your first published works were in Urdu...

I have been living in England for a long time now. So, you become slightly estranged from the language you come from. English is the only available form of expression for me now. To write in a language you have to be immersed in it all times -- be aware of all the possibilities -- the songs you listen to, the plays you watch, the newspapers you read, the colloquialisms you pick up. For me, that language is English.

For me, living in England and writing in Urdu will be like trying to swim in an empty swimming pool.

But are you in touch with the language? Do you still read it?

I read Urdu literature everyday. My prose style is in a way linked to Urdu.

Not long ago, I found a notebook of mine. It was quite big. It was full of words I had written down many years ago, when I had moved to England. I remember writing them down and telling myself, I will never learn the meaning of these words, I don't like the way they sound.

My first book was done on a typewriter but the other two had computer files. Just as an experiment, I searched for the above said words in these two files. None of them appear in my novels.

Then my sister and I sat down to decipher this and realised that these are the words that are most distant from Urdu, which don't sound like Urdu. So event though I write in English, my use of the language is informed by my first language, which is Urdu, a language which is full of rhetoric and which sometimes leans towards the spiritual. I would like to think this aspect is present in all my writing.

When you moved to England, how difficult was it to adjust?

I went to England when I was 14. My relationship with England is different from the relationships my cousins had. England was quite a racist place, they did not like people like us. But it has changed.

I grew up in Pakistan and I knew early on that some of the best literature came out of the Indian subcontinent. I knew Kalidasa and Shahnama before I learnt my Shakespeare. For me, I actually began from a position of strength, even though I went into a racist society and things were quite dodgy in some areas.

I knew about Rabindranath Tagore and Ismat Chughtai, I come from a house where there is a great feeling for the life of the mind. Books were important, music was important. So when I moved, there was no sense of loss. There was a sense of adventure in fact.

Image: Nadeem Aslam

Also see: 'A mullah general can only happen in a Bollywood film'

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