When in the fall of 2002 Thalassa Ali was introduced to the crowd gathered for her debut reading at the Brookline Booksmith, a taste-making independent bookseller in Brookline, Ma., her agent, Jill Kneerim, admitted taking many months even to open the manuscript of A Singular Hostage, Book I in Ali’s Paradise Trilogy. “Thalassa had by far the worst background I’d ever heard of for a novelist,” Kneerim explained. “She was a Boston Brahmin and a stockbroker.” That got a laugh, but no one walked out. And at the conclusion of the reading — I was there — when all suspicions as to what kind of novel it was had been banished, sales of A Singular Hostage were brisk.
Thus began an unlikely literary career that would unfold over the next five years in the U.S., in Europe and ultimately in Pakistan, where as a bride and then a young widow, Thalassa Ali lived for many years and raised her children, and where, not coincidentally, The Paradise Trilogy is largely set.
The novels that make up the trilogy — A Singular Hostage, A Beggar at the Gate, and Companions of Paradise — tell the story of a young Englishwoman in the 1830s, Mariana Givens, a clergyman’s daughter haunted by the loss of her baby brother some years before. Not without wondering what else fate may hold in store for her, Mariana is on the lookout for a husband in India, where a marriageable girl without a dowry can expect to nab a British officer and embark on a life of the utmost conventionality and Englishness. Knowing only this much, you might feel set up for a ladylike novel of a Punjab that never was — the covers of the books seem to promise just that. However, the opening scene of A Singular Hostage, wherein an elephant struggles under the absurd and horrible burden of British picnicking equipment, including a vast folded tent, leaves little doubt how the Empire is perceived in these pages. Impressively researched historical novels of the Raj are easy enough to find, and readers looking mainly for that will hardly be let down by The Paradise Trilogy. But there is more intimacy with life on the sub-continent and more relevance to issues in our own day than they may have bargained for here. For Thalassa Ali did not merely research and observe the life that, decades later, she would write about, but entered it and lived it fully. The improbable result is an outwardly English novel that owes its essence to Sufism — and you simply surrender to the story.
A few weeks ago, after her return to Boston from Karachi, I conducted a wide-ranging conversation with Thalassa Ali. The author is a student of military history, and we spoke of the First Afghan War that figures so prominently in her fiction. Though The Paradise Trilogy was in the planning stages many years before 9/11, after that, how to write about Islam would be a freighted subject for historical novelists and for others. Ali, a convert to Islam, spoke of her experience of the Sufi Path. The question of Orientalism arose — can an Anglo-American writer setting a story of adventure and passionate quest in the time of the Raj evade this charge? Should she? Highlights of our conversation are posted below.
EH: Were you surprised to see your books finding such a large readership in Pakistan?
TA: Yes and no — the books are set mostly in Pakistan, and they’re suspenseful. I wouldn’t necessarily expect an historical novel to appeal to younger readers when there’s so much good contemporary Pakistani fiction around, but then people like to read a well-researched book about their own history. In the beginning, when I told people in Pakistan I was writing a novel set in 19th Century Lahore, the first question I got was, “Where are you doing your research?” Readers also seem to be drawn to the books because they’re not only historical adventure stories, they’re Sufi allegories. I have noticed that a new popular interest in Sufism has surfaced in Pakistan. When I moved to Karachi in the 1960s no one spoke about it, but now things are different. Someone came up to me after a reading in Karachi and said solemnly, “I have much to learn from you.” Very flattering, but not necessarily the case!
EH: Something to do with Pakistan being modern enough by now that looking modern doesn’t count for as much?
TA: I’d like to know what other people think about that idea. I would say that the Pakistanis I know are more conscious of their culture and history than they were 30 years ago, but I can’t say that the popularity of Sufism is because of that. Perhaps there’s a general need all over the world for something more — something that satisfies the heart. I read a little while ago that Jalaluddin Rumi is the most popular poet in the United States.
EH: In all three novels, you write about a family of mystics in Lahore — they play a larger role in the trilogy than anyone other than your protagonist, and they live on very accepting terms with the supernatural. It took me back to reading Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads — the ease with which these characters slip into and out of that mode. I’m wondering — what on earth can have prepared you to write about this?
TA: I’ve been a Muslim for 23 years. For seven of those years I was also a rigorous follower of the Sufi Path, getting up before dawn to do zikr. Doing that taught me a lot about the country of the heart: about what is seen and what is unseen. Also, my murshid, Syed Akhlaque Husain, was very interested in umls, practices like curing poisonous snakebite through recitation. He taught me a great deal. Every example of a supernatural event in my books is a genuine Sufi practice. He also taught me not to put too much emphasis on these things. A British reviewer once said that she liked my ‘matter-of-fact’ approach to mysticism. I have Akhlaque to thank for that attitude.
EH: How did you come to follow the Path?
TA: I read a lot of ‘fairy stories’ when I was young — a typical example would be the story of a young prince who is hunting with his brothers when they meet a beggar in the forest. The brothers push him aside, but the young prince takes pity and gives the beggar something. He then proves to be a sage who offers the prince a magic sword and sends him on a long journey towards a fabulous goal. Those stories set fire to my imagination. Later, when I studied Sufi philosophy and poetry at Harvard, I realized that those fairy stories had been Sufi allegories. Madly in love with all of it, I resolved to embrace Islam and become a Sufi practitioner, but when I married my husband Bobby and came to live in Pakistan, I found that Sufism was not discussed. It was close to a taboo subject. It was 21 years before I found my murshid — 12 years after my husband Bobby died of a sudden heart attack.
EH: What year was that? I know the children were very young.
TA: In 1972. My children were seven and four. I stayed on for several years — the children were Pakistanis, and I wanted them to have the life they knew, but ultimately there was a political shift. My friends began to leave for the Gulf, and I knew it was time for me to return to Boston. It was very hard to do. I can understand why the West is so lonely for many Pakistanis and others from South Asia.
EH: How often have you gone back to Pakistan since you left?
TA: I’ve gone back almost every other year since I left it. Since I left the brokerage business, I’ve been able to go back for months at a time. Bobby used to say that the one thing one absolutely had to do was attend weddings and funerals, so I do that as much as I can. It was on one of those trips, in the middle of my stockbroker phase, that I met my murshid, and embraced Islam. My children have kept me emotionally in Pakistan, too. They identify themselves as Pakistanis and Muslims, and always have. My son is a banker in London, and my daughter is producing the first indigenous educational television show for the children of the sub-continent — she travels constantly between Pakistan, India and New York. It is a little different going back with a book or three to sell, though…
EH: How did it feel to go back to Pakistan with the published novels?
TA: It was strange. When I first went there, I was Bobby Hakim Jan’s American fiancee. Then I lived there as his wife and the mother of his children, and later as his young widow. After that I was Thalassa the visitor, who kept up with people. Now I’m someone who comes with an offering, a gift for Pakistan: a trilogy of books about this part of the world, and about the softer side of Islam. Of course it’s up to the people whether they want the gift or not…
EH: I like these photos! You’re the only writer I know who had a book party in Dubai. But what were some of the high spots of the book tour in Pakistan?
TA: I did four readings, a book signing and a lot of print and TV interviews — some 10 TV interviews in all — and a radio interview. One highlight was being on a very popular television show that non-Pakistanis can’t believe exists — The Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali. The hostess is a cross-dresser, and quite funny. We got along very well. I was also interviewed by Dawn, The Friday Times, The Herald, Newsline, SHE Magazine, and other periodicals. This photo shows the most fun of all the events –a dramatic reading from Companions of Paradise in Rehana Saigol’s garden in Karachi. Rehana is a well-known TV personality, President of the Pakistan Bridge Association and one of the most generous people alive. Imran Aslam, the other reader, is a journalist, and is now president of GEO TV, an influential news network. Afterwards there was a reception for several hundred people. Rehana put on a huge tea with pani pooris, fresh dahi burras, and other desi dishes, not to mention latte as well as tea. It was all very thrilling, and would have been fun even if people hadn’t been buying my books — which they were doing.
EH: You mentioned earlier that a well-researched historical fiction meant something in and of itself to Pakistanis. Could you tell me a little about the research? I’m especially curious about how you conducted research for the final volume, Companions of Paradise, which was set mainly in Afghanistan.
TA: I’d collected books on the 19th century in northwest India for over 20 years, not really knowing what I intended to do with them. When these weren’t enough, I went to London, and spent a lot of time in the Oriental Collection of the British Library. Lucky for me that my son lives in London! At one point I knew I would need an Afghan advisor, but Fatana Gailani, the only Afghan I knew well, was up to her ears in refugee work in Peshawar, and not likely to have time for my questions. Fortunately I was invited to a dinner to benefit Fatana’s organization. Determined to find my advisor, I spotted a well-dressed lady in the crowd and followed her, balancing my dinner plate, dodging other guests, hoping she was the right person. I sat down, introduced myself and asked casually what she did. She was a researcher, she said. On what subject? I asked. History, she replied. That’s how Kamar Habibi, who is also a linguist, became my friend and guide. Throughout the writing of Companions of Paradise, she saved me from mistakes, offered nuances of language and thinking, and gave me an understanding of Afghanistan and Afghans that I would never have found otherwise.
EH: In the wake of the U.S. bombing campaign in October of 2001, you and several other Boston women, including me, formed an Internet-based fundraising group to send money for Afghan refugees to Fatana Gailani. Was Companions of Paradise in the works then? What might we learn about the present from the period of the Afghan Wars that you were writing about?
TA: Actually, at that time I was writing Book II of the trilogy, A Beggar at the Gate, set mainly in Lahore. It wasn’t until the U.S. had invaded Iraq that I began work on Companions of Paradise, and the parallels jumped out at me. And they are indeed striking. The most obvious are the politically driven British invasion of Afghanistan — carefully explained by a series of lies — and their consistent misunderstanding and underestimation of the population of the country they now occupied, which led to military disaster. We’ll have to see what happens this time around.
EH: I’ve been reading through the press about The Paradise Trilogy — in the States, in the U.K., where it was simultaneously published, and in Pakistan, where the U.K. edition was distributed. While the work has been well received and has obviously sold very well, some Pakistani writers who sincerely like the books want to talk about Orientalism — with you or without you. Is it ever a fruitful discussion?
TA: Edward Said’s book has been with us for nearly 30 years, and he makes many excellent and accurate points for everyone to think about. It’s certainly an important issue. Orientalism is at least in part about standing at a distance and regarding people as quaint and picturesque and not wanting them to change. It’s about superiority. I think sensitivity to slights is very refined at this stage in history, and some of what I wrote clearly set off alarm bells. It could be partly due to the somewhat old-fashioned style of my writing, which is appropriate both to Sufi allegory and to the early Victorian era, but might appear to be exoticism. It could also be that I used the word ‘native.’ I chose to do that because it was a usage belonging to the time and to the main character’s point of view when she first came to the Punjab, but it may have been an inflammatory choice. Other mistakes popped out of some wrinkle in my past, too. But I was a little amazed at that reaction, given my personal history, and that I had made a point of telling my story from both sides. That said — you write, you send what you write out into the world, and people have a perfect right to interpret it any way they like.
EH: You mentioned that you were pleased that young people in Pakistan were reading and enjoying your novels. What else do you notice them reading there?
TA: There’s a real literary scene in Pakistan now — so much great stuff to read, compared to when I was young and living there. I can’t talk about fiction in Urdu, but Mohsin Hamid is certainly the most brilliant and successful of the new crop of writers in English. There are plenty of other young writers too. Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography was short-listed for the Llewelyn Rhys Award. Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Nadeem Aslam’s novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, won the Kuriyama Prize. I’m pleased and proud that amidst all this, there’s room for me too.
EH: Is it too soon to talk about another book from you?
TA: Definitely. My mind is a complete blank that way. But I hear that’s normal. The Pakistan earthquake of October, 2005 has been occupying me lately. After I finished Companions of Paradise, I joined a group of concerned Pakistanis in Boston who were raising money for the Bugna Goat Project, a livestock replacement program in six villages in Muzaffarabad, one of the areas hardest hit by the quake. I went to Bugna last summer, and will probably go again before long. We’re working with the Human Development Foundation, founded by a group of Pakistani-American physicians. They have adopted a total of 400 villages in all provinces of Pakistan. The HDF will be celebrating their 10th anniversary with a conference on human development in Chicago later this month. This work is where my focus is right now.
EH: I’ve been hearing a lot about the HDF lately. One of the things I noticed about your site, www.thalassaali.com, was the links page of Web resources about the First Afghan War, Sufism, and the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. I’m pretty convinced this is still your material, even after a trilogy. I’ll check back in with you about what’s next another time — thanks!