- Who or what is the Citizen of Paradise ? What prompted you to write it ?
Sabith khan : The Citizen of Paradise, is a novel. A work of fiction, which can be considered a “travel book of love”, because it is about movement, of the protagonist, both physically and emotionally. It is a book of struggle, of finding one’s own self, one’s love . It is also a book of hope, loss, struggle, separation, and pain.
The book is a very intimate take on cross-cultural and cross-boundary relationships and how they can blossom or be destroyed by the people involved and also by other externalities, beyond one’s control.
The novel aims to create an ideal “Citizen of Paradise”, a person who is trying to do his best, be his best and give all he has and can to the people he loves: to his woman, to his family, to his community and to the world at large.
2. What are the origins of Citizen of Paradise ?
SK : I actually have had this novel in my mind for 5 years now. When I was in Bangalore, India, I started writing it, but trashed the first draft. It was too raw, unformed and clearly without a direction.
I would say my cumulative experiences in life – being born a Muslim in India, living in a neighbourhood which was so cosmopolitan and tolerant, and having a very eclectic and broad-based exposure to so many different religions, languages and cultures have shaped my thinking, ways of feeling and relating to people. The novel is a product of my having lived 29 years of my life this way.
It is also a result of all the heart-breaks that I have experienced, the pain and near destruction that I have come close to – both literally and metaphorically.
I attempted a second draft during my 2 year long stay in Dubai. But as fate would have it, my laptop crashed and I lost about 100 pages of material. I was heart-broken for a while, but then told myself that perhaps it was for the better.
I moved on.
And this summer, during my stay in Syracuse, it all came back to me. I had about 4 months of low-time, with little work. So, I set myself a target of writing 1000 words a day and to finish the 80,000 word novel. I am happy I did it 4 days before my deadline and it is 86,323 words long. I am very diligent that way. My training as an Engineer comes in handy. And I studied Time and motion studies as an undergrad in Industrial Engineering ( laughs). I can be very hard on myself, if I choose to.
3: Is it completely autobiographical ?
SK : This is a great question. As Salman Rushdie once famously said, this would be completely autobiographical if I were a dead man writing from heaven – as the novel is told from the point of view of Sameer, who is dead and writing from Heaven, hence the title.
No, this is not “completely” autobiographical, though I have used good chunks out of my life. Yes, I have plagiarized from my own life. But who doesn’t ? Look at Hemingway, Tolstoy – all the great masters, they wrote from what they saw and experienced.
In my opinion, that is the only sincere way to write. Science fiction is an altogether different category (laughs).
4: So, is there a citizen of paradise in your world ? Does he/she exist in real life ?
SK : Though Sameer, the protagonist is aiming to be the Citizen of Paradise, and eventually ends up in heaven, he falls short in my view. He is insecure, angry at times and more importantly impetuous. To that limited extent, he is falling short. But he is definitely a good candidate for the “Citizen of paradise”.
In real life, I would say my mother comes very close to my ideal of a “Citizen of paradise”. I can’t think of anyone who is more generous, compassionate, kind, helpful,welcoming and loving. She has her faults, but of all the thousands of people I have met and few hundred I know intimately, no one has her beauty, inner-peace, grace and kindness. If there is a heaven, I know she is going there.
5: Why is this novel important ? Why should anyone read it ?
SK : While the novel at one level is very personal and tells the story of the protagonist and his immediate surroundings, it is also a novel which captures the struggles that go on in a cross-cultural and cross-religious relationship. It is a political novel in that sense.
The way Indian , Emirati and American societies look at such relationships, how the individuals involved in them cope with the challenges and the compromises they make form the crux of the novel.
The novel is also an “almost” realistic take on how individuals come together with love, and not necessarily from a common heritage. I believe that while it is good to have a common culture, language and all that between two people to live with each other – love is sufficient in many cases.
The political landscape and Islamophobia in the US also forms a small part of the novel, though that is not the main issue at stake here. The book also addresses the common humanity of us all and the struggles that are ongoing within the Muslim community, as well as how this rhetoric impacts individuals at an intimate level.
While the cousin Aamir kills the protagonist, we are told later that it was not because of Sameer’s religious beliefs or ways of living, but rather because of property disputes between the two and human greed. So, many times, we confuse issues and blame what we think is obvious, while the truth is far more complicated and multi-layered.
6: How long did you take to write it ?
SK : If you consider the entire period of ideating, brooding and writing it – it is 5 years. But if you just consider the actual writing part, the daily grind of sitting behind my laptop and “bleeding” behind it, like Isabel Allende once said, it is about 4-5 months in all. Those were long and lonely months. But I am glad I had the emotional and mental discipline to subject myself to this. It feels great to have written this.
7: Who are your favorite writers / authors ?
SK : Quite a few actually. I am a huge fan of: Orhan Pamuk, William Dalrymple, Salman Rushdie, Oscar Wilde, Isabel Allende, Leo Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hemingway. Of late, I have discovered some other writers, mainly non-fiction and i enjoy reading them. I used to spend my summers reading Bertrand Russell, Isaac Asimov when i was younger.
8: What or who inspires you ?
SK: Life is my biggest inspiration. Cinema, Art ( both visual and performing), travel, food and deep conversations are definitely things I draw inspiration from. Love inspires me too. Genuine heart-felt love from another human being moves me. It could be a genuine smile from a friend, or a hug from a loved one.
I have known a woman’s love and the terrible force that it carries with it –both as a creative force and a destructive impulse. I am single now, and happy with my state of being. But yes a woman’s love can be a very inspiring force. I firmly believe it can transform a man’s life.
9: What are you working on now ?
SK : I am developing ideas for my next book, a work of non-fiction called “Ordinary Muslims, extraordinary Lives”, an oral history of Muslims in India. It occurred to me that I am a product of globalization that occurred in India about 300-400 years ago – with my mothers family ( who came from Yemen, Saudi Arabia) and Fathers’ family ( who came from Kabul, Afghanistan). I think this history needs to be told in a contemporary context and also researched in a very readable manner.
I hope to find funding for this, so I can write this book, travel the length an breadth of India and talk to my people, understand my own great country and the various cultures that are a mosaic of modern India.
10: Where and when do you plan to launch the Citizen of Paradise ?
SK : I am planning on launching this in the US and India, since I am in the US and familiar with the publishing landscape in India. Hopefully I am looking at finding a publisher, who will take on this project. If it doesn’t happen in the next 6 months, I will launch it online and self-publish it.
I will keep everyone informed about the launch. Thank you for your patience, and i am already over-whelmed by the support and encouragement from friends who know i have finished writing this.
Watch out this space as well as ask me for any updates. I am giving myself a year for this to happen. So, realistically September 2012 it is.
11: What are your other activities apart from writing ? What did you learn about yourself while writing the COP ?
S K : I love reading, blogging as well as ideating. I have just started a project called MENASA, to help create dialogue between young leaders in the MENA, South Asia and USA. I enjoy soccer, Golf, and discovered the joys of cooking recently. It can be a very good exercise to learn patience, i discovered. It helps me slow down too, since i move so fast in my life…
12 : What do you see yourself doing five years from now ?
SK : I honestly don’t know . I believe in letting life take you in a certain direction. There is virtue in not fighting life, but having said that, I am definitely a planner.
I would like to continue writing, either part-time or full time. I may end up teaching , since it is in my blood ( my parents were Urdu language teachers) and my paternal grandfather was a high school principal. It is in my blood. I think it will come out in some way or another ( laughs).
Alternately, i may be in a full-time advocacy or PR job, which pays my bills and allows me to do what i really want – writing and connecting people and fighting for people’s rights and also creating better understanding of issues.
13: What is your background as a writer ? And who inspired you to start writing ?
SK : I started writing in high school. We had incredible teachers including Ms Kala Kandaswamy, Ms Brinda , my history and English teacher respectively, who inspired me to start writing, sharing my ideas and also debating.
I owe them a lot, in retrospect. I remember the joy of winning my first essay competition in grade 8, and running upto them to show the letter from the organizers. I have not been very consistent, but have freelanced for Indian newspapers and magazines. Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Week are some publications I have contributed to for many years.
I must admit, I never took myself seriously as a writer until recently. I have seen some terrible writing out there – which is “best-selling”. When I saw this, I told myself, I owe it to the world. I should write and confront this bad writing and terribly divisive ideas.
Q: Tell us a bit about your life and what you think your life-work is?
SK : I have had a rather un-conventional life, because of my upbringing as well as choices I made – from a purely Indian point of view. This is a gift, as I am able to view life and its problems from more than one point of view and be “objective” about many “subjective” issues and not get too carried away by just one perspective.
I believe my job is to dispel myths, showcase the commonality that ties us all, rather than focusing on the differences. Life is hard as it is, we don’t need more people who will cause trouble.
I am a peace maker, but wont stop short of a fight, if there is a bully around the corner. And I see a lot of intellectual bullying around me. Might is not right, and this is true even in the intellectual sphere.
I believe I have some talent and access to a few sources of expression and will use this to advance dialogue between people, civilizations and groups of people to bring about greater understanding and peace.
Q: Do you have an agent ? How do we contact you ?
SK : Since this is my first book, and I am a relatively unknown quantity in the US and India, I don’t have an agent yet. I am working on editing the book and possibly finding a good publisher. If no one accepts it, I may be brave enough to self-publish it. I will give this a year to see how it shapes up.
If I have a published copy in hand before 21 September ( my birthday) in 2012, I will consider myself successful. I want to be patient with this book and get it right. Impulsiveness is my biggest weakness, and I am trying to consciously slow down with this project, since this is a project borne out of love – it feels like my baby ( laughs). Really. I was pregnant with it for 5 years and no w it has come out ( laughs).
If you know an agent, or a publisher who may want to talk to me, pls send them my way. Or pass on their details to me. I would be interested in talking with them.
I will leave it upto the people who read it to decide how good or bad it is. You can email me at email@example.com
Thank you .