May 08, 2022
Nasim Anjum is an award-winning author who has written 15 books in the past 30 years. She approaches her work as an eyewitness, letting experience inform her analysis of the world around her. She is a passionate and dedicated social justice advocate who is actively fighting for a better future for society. In-person, she is peaceful and centered – a gentle rebel with a cause. But in her writing, that tranquility falls away as she tells stories of marginalized people who’ve been silenced and abandoned by their fellow man. She seeks out complex narratives, writing fiction grounded in difficult truth.
In her novel Narak, Anjum tells a coming-of-age story about a boy, Bablu, who was kidnapped as a child, inhumanely castrated by a criminal gang, and raised as a khawaja sara or trans person.
Narak was first published in 2007 and a second volume was published in 2010 because of high demand. I first came to know about the book from a friend, who informed me it was getting a lot of attention in policy circles and the medical world because of the way it explores criminal scenes in Pakistan’s two most populated cities, Lahore, and Karachi.
In her books and short stories, Anjum has an innate ability to paint fictional characters with details from real life. In Narak, Anjum raises important questions about the plight of khwaja saras, while in another work of hers, Sare bazar raqsan, she explores the struggles of a nomad dancer. She is lauded for her artful work in Neelum and Mithe Sain and her creative writing has become a subject of research at the University of Lahore and Sargodha and Hazara University in Manshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
While it might seem like Anjum achieved writing fame quickly, the author has worked to get to this position for years, honing her craft starting in high school by writing in her diary. In addition to her work as a short story writer and novelist, Anjum also contributes to various publications as a critic and opinion writer. Anjum has also worked as a playwright for Radio Pakistan Karachi, which has broadcasted several her plays. Her courageous works about social justice have gained widespread recognition from readers and critics of Urdu fiction. Anjum is a woman of power and talent, whose determination and spirit come through in her work. She uses her remarkable skill of creative writing to create realistic characters that her readers can picture in their mind’s eye.
The Express Tribune speaks to Quaid-e-Azam Writers Guild award-winning author Nasim Anjum, one of the leading writers of contemporary Urdu literature, about her creative process and her focus on issues afflicting Pakistani society.
STF: What was your first writing experience?
NA: I was more of a reader than a writer when I was young. But I used to write [in a] diary. It was my emotion poured [out] on paper. It was exclusively my individual side that I never shared with anyone. I used to note all the happenings in a day of my life. Gradually, those notes turned into short stories and developed into fiction. Initially, I wrote for [the] children’s page in Daily Jang [and] then in different magazines. I examine life closely. I read people around me. I cannot ignore those in trouble or distress [with] no forum to demand justice or protest discrimination. I recorded every moment that I felt as important. [Over] the course of time, my write-ups matured.
STF: Narak is about the lives of trans people, what inspired the idea for this book?
NA: Nothing happened suddenly. Although neglected and mistreated, trans people are part of our society. They are differently dressed. They have a different lifestyle. I have observed them carefully. One cannot just ignore their presence at traffic signals where they beg for a living. They go from door to door begging too. Generally, they are refused and abused. We, as a society, have failed to give them a healthy living or lifestyle that they deserve as a member of this society and a citizen of this country. Trans people are abused, beaten, tortured, and humiliated. It is the irony of the fate that they cannot resist or stand up against injustices. Once I saw a ‘chai walla cursing and beating a trans [person] as he ordered a cup of tea. No one came to his rescue. I felt very bad about it. It was just a single instance. They encounter this type of hostile situation every day in their lives as economic and social vulnerability forces trans people to approach people for support. Hardly anyone comes forward to save them. I wondered why people just keep watching without taking any initiative. I thought if I cannot provide them physical protection, then at least I should raise an alarm that falls on deaf ears of law and society.
STF: Which characters in this book are similar to you or to people you know?
NA: Bablu is a real character and a victim of child kidnapping. It is a gripping story of an undiscovered criminal world. His story unfolds as he grows [up] in a group of victims like him with whom he shares daily doses of cruelty, pain, and humiliation. I picked up the character for the narrative of the novel. I have taken the characters from the factual world. I used to ask questions, every time I came across a trans person, be it at traffic signals when the car stops, at malls, mohall events to celebrate childbirth or wedding[s]. They come happily to earn but most of the time [left] crying — unpaid and hungry. I have done many interviews and researched the characters before drafting the novel. The eunuchs, known as khawaja sara or in a more [shameful] term as ‘hijras’ in Pakistan, are men and women born differently or criminally castrated at an early age for medical or social reasons. They are used by criminals [to] carry out various crimes like drug peddling, women trafficking, and much more. I wanted to draw the attention of the law towards this ghastly crime.
STF: How much research do you do for your books?
NA: All of my books revolve around the events in the society including corruption, injustice, terrorism, and women’s tainted fate. I research the original character[s] I create in my books. They live around me and within this society. I study them in-depth. The same is true for many of my short stories; they require little research beyond my own life. I’ve done a great deal of research and I do read a lot to explore the characters. When I do research for every book, when I’ve chosen an area of life, emotion, or situation that I need to know more about, I find people to talk to whom I do know. I’ve learned that even the people who look familiar are often the most surprising.
STF: What made you write about the lives of nomad dancers?
NA: There are active networks of secret crimes in our society. These crimes go unnoticed and unchallenged. Gypsies are hired for performance. Then they are assaulted and abused. It is a common practice at some shrines too. [Whether or not these are] special instances or isolated events, these dancers are physically harmed. Unfortunately, they don’t dare to complain or seek justice. They are not heard even if they try. We only come to know when a woman is killed and reported. It is the dark side of our law and society. Sare bazar raqsan highlights the sufferings of those gypsy women who largely depend on performances to make the ends meet. These women are subjected to gender-based violence and end up as sex workers or beggars. It is very painful that nomad women have no choice but to give up to the crime. Interestingly we still have nomad people in this era. We should not let them die unattended, uncared for, and hungry. There is a need to rehabilitate them.
STF: Can you tell me a little about your professional career?
NA: After the completion of my studies at The University of Karachi, I went to work at The Government College for Women in Karachi. I also worked for some years as an editor and sub-editor in children’s [What?] “Chand Garhi” and for Sports International. I kept writing everything from essays to short stories and novels depicting our society and culture. But I realised fiction had always been my passion, so I left my editor job to dedicate my time [to being] an author. I think I had the first inklings when I was in high school. Since then, there have been five novels and five short storybooks.
STF: Do you prefer writing fiction over non-fiction? If so, why?
NA: I just love writing and don’t really feel strongly in favour of one or the other. They are both very different. The luxury of fiction is that you can make things up and can escape into your imagination. It feels like using an entirely different part of your brain and it’s fun and playful. With fiction, the writing has to feel true to the characters, not the facts.