It’s been months since I got in touch with Zeenat Mahal or yours truly Faiqa Mansab as her Facebook page says. As Zeenat Mahal, she has lit fires of love with her romantic novels Haveli and The Contract. She lives in Lahore, Pakistan, and her writing is a sizzler served on a platter in a restaurant, heads turning as the sizzler reaches you, smoke billowing and all. With words like The Broad, Alpha Male, lots of emotions, drama and dialogues, her romances are short, sweet and hilarious. She doesn’t claim to be social revolutionary or cupid, even though you find a lot of family drama in her books; she just likes romance because it is ‘equivalent of chocolate’.
Very Zeenat-like, she will be launching her new romance novel She Loves Me-He Loves Me Not, on this Valentine—February 14, 2015. The book is a South Asian twist on Beauty and the Beast, and it’s darker than ‘my other romances in a way but so far my early readers think it’s better than the first two. I hope it is’. An email conversation with Zeenat reveals what makes her tick, write, the literary scene in Pakistan and more. Excerpts:
How did your journey to being an author begin?
I’m not sure how to answer that Ambica. I remember wanting to write with a burning passion since the age of 11 or 12. It was what made me feel that God was in His Heaven and all was right with my world. Is that when it began? Perhaps. Maybe it began in earnest, when I got published in 2013, and technically became an ‘author’. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to use the tag of ‘writer’ for myself. During this time, I did a Masters in Creative Writing from London, and realized that I had been right to not consider myself a writer, because I had so much to learn. Hopefully I did and my journey continues.
Why do you pen as Zeenat Mahal and not Faiqa which I presume is your legal name?
South Asians have a very unfortunate habit of labelling each other. Any woman who writes or reads romance is a ‘bad’ woman. It’s not just South Asian men who do this, but women too. There is that sniggering, behind-the-hand whispers, and those judgmental looks. I despise all this about our culture. I was a bit self-conscious initially, but I soon got over it, and didn’t hide behind the pseudonym for long. I take responsibility for what I do, say and write. This is who I am. Also, I write mainstream fiction, and I use my real name for that.
Would you share some interesting anecdote which became an incident in the books and also what are the places that have been inspirations for locations in the book?
The Contract, my second novel, is set in Lahore. I have a complicated relationship with my city. I love to hate it, and hate to love it. Different parts and eras of Lahore, like the Sufi, Mughal, Colonial, are magnificent. I love its shrines, its old-world charm and its chameleon-like changes.
Haveli took shape and form in Bahawalpur, an erstwhile princely state in South Punjab. It’s an old city too, very much like the Lahore that I love, without all the ugly bits. There is the gorgeous architecture–mosques, palaces, shrines–amazingly beautiful. The palaces are filled with huge paintings, crafted ceilings, long marbled verandas, and peacocks in the lawns. Is it a wonder I fell in love with it?
What is your USP in the genre you have chosen to write?
I’d like to think it’s my perspective. I write romance knowing its limitations and its entertaining value as a genre. I’m not trying to create art here, just some light entertainment. Yes, it is escapism, but I’d rather have this, than –to take an extreme example, drugs, you know? So, my South Asian taste and sensibilities are very much in play when I write romance, and that is what I enjoy because reading material in genre fiction written by South Asians for South Asians is still lacking. Romance has thankfully picked up, especially in India, and so will other genres, I’m sure.
I watch a lot of Zindagi channel which is about programmes from Pakistan, mostly family dramas. But your characters are unlike the ones on the channel, they sizzle and tingle, how do people react
I think that’s a compliment. I’m going to take it as such, so thank you. Most of my readers have given me very positive feedback. Mostly, the negative reviews have been from people who picked up my books expecting to read literary fiction because for so long people from South Asia, writing in English have only produced ‘literary’ fiction. In fact I have just written something for Kitaab on this very topic.
I wasn’t aiming for litfic when I picked up my pen to write romance. I was aiming for something different entirely, and I’m very happy with the feedback I receive regarding that. Some of the emails and messages from people who have read my work is really very heartening and very humbling. And I’d like to thank all those readers who have supported me by reviewing my books on Goodreads, and Amazon, and by following me on Twitter, to show their love. It really means a lot. You review, therefore I am.
You have a very humourous way of telling your stories, is that how you are as a person too?
I don’t think so. I wish I were. When I am writing, I am a very different person. It’s myself and my page. There are no censors, and no pressures of any kind. I feel free when I write. In real life, one is never free.
Characters are normally people we have known, from where do your characters come?
Actually, my characters are hardly ever people I have known. Except for Bi Amma in Haveli, who is modelled after my lovely maternal grandmother, all my characters are seedlings that grow and change as I write. Sometimes, they are very different from what I thought they’d be, when I had started writing. One has to allow the natural consequences of the plot and actions to shape the characters who are living them.
What is normally the central theme of your books? For instance, I recently spoke with Ravinder Singh and his romance stories are inspired by social issues.
I write romances to entertain myself and my readers. Sure, there are underlying themes which I care about, and which I can sum up in a single word: feminism. I would hate to write a romance which undermines women, their intelligence and abilities. A woman does not need a man to ‘complete’ her. If there are shades of social issues in my novels, it’s because I cannot help it. There are some things which are too close to one’s heart, and they spill on the page unconsciously. Mostly gender politics, in my case. Some would say an interesting genre to pick for such a cause
Who or what have been your inspirations?
Every author I have ever read. I love classics. I love Greek tragedy the most, followed by early American tragedy, playwrights like Eugene O’ Neil and Tennesse Williams made a huge impression on me. Out of the four great Shakespearean tragedies, I love Hamlet and Macbeth the most. The universal favourite Jane Austen, is another. The Brontes, Evelyn Waugh, Elif Shafak, and many Urdu writers like Parveen Shakir, Hijab Imtiaz, Fatima Mubeen, and Haseena Moin are all my touchstones.
Which romance authors have inspired you?
I’ll talk of romance writers only. There was a time when I was reading a lot of Barbara Cartland, and hence my love-affair with ellipses. I liked that world of dukes and earls very much. My favourite was Hazard of Hearts. But I soon outgrew her, and read Victoria Holt. I loved and read all of her early books. Then I went on to Jude Devereaux, Judith McNaught, Nora Roberts and my absolute favourite, Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
Do you have writers clubs, festivals, meets in Pakistan too?
Oh, yes. The Lahore Literary Festival is quite well-established now. Desi Writer’s Lounge, The Lost Word and Liberty Books are all making waves in the literary scenes in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Lahore, however, has always been the cultural centre of the country. Long before Pakistan became Pakistan, Lahore has been there, nurturing the arts.
What are the hot sellers among the intellectuals there? Urdu is the language of some of the world’s most famous poets. Does poetry and the language appeal to you? Would you write in it too anytime in the future?
Reading for leisure is unfortunately not as widespread a habit as one would hope, in Pakistan. However, there is still a very large readership of Urdu literature. English writing by South Asians has also been growing for the past two decades and hence its readership too.
Urdu is not my first love, but it is a mature love. There is nothing that soothes me more than Urdu poetry when my soul is troubled. I grew up on it, and Punjabi Sufi poetry too, even though I didn’t understand most of it at the time. Everyday conversation in our home was peppered with misraas from famous couplets. My father is a published prose and poetry writer. My mother was an avid reader and spewed poetry at the slightest excuse. Mostly Iqbal and Ghalib.
People like Intizar Hussain, Ishfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Fatima Surayyia Bajjia, Ibn-e Insha, Patras Bukhari, Ahmad Naseem Qasmi, are the giants of prose writing. Literature in Urdu is so diverse and rich, and it developed so quickly (it’s only 400 years old) in so many genres, it never ceases to amaze me. The poets, from Ghalib, to Iqbal, Faiz, Parveen Shakir, Kishwar Naheed, Mir Taqi Mir, Ibne Insha, I love them all and I can’t seem to stop….
And yes, I wrote an Urdu romance novel when I was a teenager. It was called Qaus-e-Qaza, which means rainbow. It was a romance. It was too, too, horrible for words. So, never again!
Do you think people will want to skip physical books and turn to online reading?
It’s not an either/or situation here. I don’t think ebooks can replace print. Why should they? E-publishing is just an addition to the publishing world. It’s a choice. It’s easier to take your kindle along on a holiday than 10 books. So there’s no comparison, just an additional convenience.
Get in touch with Zeenat Mahal on http://www.zeenatmahal.com and https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7153244.Zeenat_Mahal