Author Fatima Farheen Mirza opens up about her ties with Hyderabad and working with Sarah Jessica Parker
Author Fatima Farheen Mirza, whose debut literary work A Place For US, was published by actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint for Hogarth Press has become the talk of the town in literary circles. Although people the world over might relate to her ways of describing familial ties or her attention to detail, for Fatima, the book was a way to honour her community and her ties with Hyderabad. The author has certainly put the city on the global literary map by referring to it in her narrative. “The impact of seeing your life reflected in fiction or film can’t be measured, but it definitely allows the reader an ability to imagine the possibilities of their life or understand the particular nuances of their experiences,” says the 27-year-old. In this tête-a-tête for Indulge’s third anniversary, the first-time novelist talks to us about what she misses about the city, her trips back home and her visits to Moula Ali Hills that remain etched in her memory. Excerpts:
Kharra dupatta and Tala Huwa Gosht — there are so many references to Hyderabadi ways of life in your book. How much of the narrative is shaped by your own memories?
The context this family is placed in is deeply familiar to me, so many of the details were pulled from my own life or lives I observed growing up. It’s funny that you mention Tala Huwa Gosht, because that was one of my favourite dishes, especially when paired with khatti dhal, and my chachi was an expert at making it. It was easy to visualise Hadia’s (protagonist of the book) wedding because I’ve attended my cousin’s weddings in recent years, and the red kharra dupatta is iconic to Hyderabadi nikah. These details were not just a way to make the setting of the novel come alive, but was also a way to pay tribute to my culture, faith, and family.
Tell us about your visits to Hyderabad and the memories of the place you hold dear.
I will never forget the first time I visited the city in my early twenties. I was surprised by how at peace I felt while there, and I remember not wanting to leave. My father took me to his old house and showed me the square where he rode bikes in the summer and the hallways of his old school, All Saints’ High School. I spent a day in an orphanage and taught creative writing classes there, and it was my first time teaching in Urdu. That might have been my favourite part about being in Hyderabad — being surrounded by a language (Urdu) that I had only ever heard spoken in private spaces. I loved the tour of Golconda Fort, hearing the way the echo travels. I remember climbing the steps of the Moula Ali Hill, as well as the stairs in the Charminar, and looking out at the view, and feeling that sense of awe.
In A Place For Us, your characters dwell quite a bit on faith, in their own way. Hadia, Amar, Layala, Rafiq, all of them have their own ideas about it, sometimes quite different from another. In the light of that, do tell us what is your relationship like with your faith?
One thing I discovered through writing the novel is how personal your relationship is to your faith, and how mysterious even to yourself, and that it is not fixed. Growing up in an observant Muslim family I often found myself feeling isolated because I struggled to practice and believe in the way my extended family did, or the way that I was taught to at mosque. For years, this difference made me wonder if I even was Muslim. Looking back now, I realize how damaging it was to be presented a rigid conception of what it means to be Muslim. I wish I’d had more models of what a Muslim woman could look like growing up, because it was painful to feel estranged from an essential part of my identity. One of the reasons I’m most grateful to the novel is that it allowed me to realize that my way of engaging with where I am from is through writing. That itself is a kind of prayer. And now I no longer wonder if I am not Muslim just because I do not fall under someone else’s specific definition. How I practice, and how I relate to it—it is as private to me as my relationship to my own self.
How was it working with Sex and The City star Sarah Jessica Parker? How curious was she to know about the place that has shaped you as a writer?
Working with Sarah Jessica Parker has been one of the most meaningful parts of publishing this book. In our very first conversation, she told me that one of the details that stood out to her was the qawwalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and how she looked him up and loved watching videos of him. It had been important to me to include that detail because when I was a young girl, his was one of the few cassettes my parents would play endlessly on drives. On the day of the book launch, I was driving to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. I was so nervous because it was my first time speaking publicly about the book, and by complete coincidence, the driver was playing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I could not believe it—partly because it recalled the first conversation with Sarah Jessica, and partly because it was the sound I could trace back to my earliest memories.
How much of your identity is shaped by Indian pop culture or Bollywood? Any fond memories of watching films with your family?
I loved watching Sholay with my grandparents, loved shout-singing Yeh Dosti with my cousins. I was, and still am, a huge Shah Rukh Khan fan. He’s been such a familiar face growing up that he feels like family. I might have watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Om Shanti Om a hundred times, and my family likes memorising filmy dialogues and reciting them—“itni shidat seh meine tumhe pane ki koshish ki hai keh har zare mei tumse milani ki sazish ki hai…”
What are you working on next and how soon will we be able to read it?
I’m always writing, but it will be a long time until I write another novel. I’m working on personal essays at the moment—one will be out early next year, as part of an essay collection called The Good Immigrant, which is edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman.
When are you doing a reading of A Place for US in Hyderabad?
I’m absolutely thrilled to be coming back to India this December for a literary festival. I’m really hoping to extend my trip to visit Hyderbad again, too.
— Paulami Sen