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Your novella, “Muscle,” is set in Pakistan in the nineteen-eighties. A young man named Sohel, who was sent away to be educated in the United States, is the sole heir to his parents’ expansive estate and has returned to oversee the farm he has inherited in rural Punjab. You also moved back to Pakistan as a young man and took over your family’s farm, which you described in a Personal History you published in The New Yorker in 2012. How closely did you draw on your own experiences in “Muscle”?
The setting and the setup certainly track my own history. Like Sohel, I returned to Pakistan after having been abroad for many years, at an American prep school and an American college, and then set about regaining control of a neglected property far away from my family’s Lahore base. Like Sohel, I found that the politics and attitudes and manners that I’d learned abroad had made me incapable of managing this rescue operation effectively. And, like him, I was obliged to reëducate myself very quickly in the complexities of the culture and Realpolitik prevailing in that place before I could bring the property into a kind of order.
I never had recourse to goondas, the gangsters whom Sohel calls onto his farm, though I certainly fantasized about a hammer from the skies falling upon some of my adversaries. One of my strongest memories from those early years at the farm is of the frustration I felt knowing that my intentions toward the place and the people were benign, that I wanted to be a model employer and steward of that land, and that yet I was thwarted at every turn. I muddled along, trying to win a compliance that I could not or would not compel. All around me, however, other landowners routinely used force against their tenants and neighbors; violence was routine. “Muscle” is a story about Sohel, in this same predicament, out of frustration and weakness surrendering to the temptation of violence, seeking resolution to a problem through violence, and about the ramifications of his making that choice.
When did you start thinking of this scenario as the basis for a story?
Since a very young age, eight or nine, I’d imagined that someday I would be a writer. My determination flickered or flared up, but that resolution always lay at the back of my mind. When I returned to Pakistan and moved to my farm, I was very conscious that this would be a place to gather the experiences and imagery that could inform stories and books and poems. I would be grounded there. I didn’t know that I would be writing this particular story, about Sohel and the goondas, but I knew that someday I would be writing stories arising from those experiences. It would be an adventure and an education, having those engagements, spending time in those places and with those people, and some of that could later be made into art.
Many years later, just last summer, when I was casting about for a story to write, I settled upon this one, out of many possible stories that have been eddying around in my mind.
Sohel comes from a world of privilege, and he exists in a society that can still seem feudal. But he’s ill at ease in his new role. What kind of power dynamics did you want to explore when Sohel is dealing with the local superintendent of police, for example?
In this setting around Sohel’s farm, as in the wider world, there are two primary types of power, perceived and real. The two are not exactly fungible. Sohel has perceived power, because of his background, his landholdings, his family’s position, and even because of his foreign connection, the worldliness that might be assumed to flow from having travelled and having had an expensive élite education.
As Sohel discovers, however, perceived power is effective only among those who give it credence. The superintendent of police in Cawnapur barely bothers to show deference to Sohel, because he believes that Sohel’s perceived power is illusory, that it has no underlying motive power. He knows that the real power lies with the manager and with others who are embedded at the farm, and he dismisses Sohel as an interloper who will soon be run off the land. Sohel must prove that he can actually pull weight, can require the policeman and the other local players to accept his writ as the owner of Dunyapur village.
You published your first collection of stories, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,” in 2009, with several of those stories first appearing in The New Yorker. Does “Muscle” feel like a continuation of that work to you? Could you have imagined writing it in the early two-thousands?
It does feel like a continuation. I wrote those stories coming on fifteen years ago, and then spent a long time working on another project, one that proved intractable. That project, a novel, was set entirely in the U.S. and had nothing to do with Pakistan. Last summer I picked up the thread of my Pakistani stories again, with some trepidation, and was gratified to find that the thread would hold. All those shy creatures down there in the green pool were still swimming around hoping to be pulled up into the light.
These new stories—this is the first written of three long pieces that I’ve completed to date, in a grateful rush—have been conceived in the space hollowed out by those earlier ones. I’d already thought through some of the fundamental questions, about the ways in which the stories would track my own experience, the types of characters I might select, the hierarchies that I found meaningful and wanted to describe, and much else. In those earlier stories, I settled into the landscape and the houses and villages, built a setting where I felt comfortable, and thought about how I should handle practical matters, such as writing Urdu and Punjabi dialogue in English. It’s the difference between beginning and beginning again.
In “Muscle,” a neighboring clan, the Chandios, are encroaching on Sohel’s land, stealing telephone wire for copper and beating an elderly retainer of his. Sohel has failed to get the police to act, so he decides to turn to outside help, calling on the patriarch of the Malik family, a goonda, or hired thug, whom his grandfather used to rely on as muscle. How common an arrangement was this in Pakistan? Is it something that continues today? Does Sohel understand the full implications of his decision?
Concentrations of wealth always need protection, whether in New York or London or Pakistan. In the West, the job can be done by lawyers and bankers and accountants, because the system works fairly well. In Punjab, even under the British, families like Sohel’s kept up connections in the underworld, just to make sure that covetous eyes were not unduly drawn to their property and treasure. Men like Mian Abdullah Abdalah, Sohel’s grandfather, could generally safeguard their interests through the civil administration and the judiciary and the police. In the rare cases when they were obliged to use force, they had relationships with men like the goonda Malik Sarkar, who would act for them, lean on someone who was encroaching on a property, for example, in a case where the title was not clear.
By the late nineteen-eighties, however, when this story takes place, the courts have become ineffective and corrupt, the police more corrupt than ever, and the civil administration no longer follows its own rules but increasingly responds only to political pressure. Sohel finds that, in this new, more fluid arrangement, he is not able to get satisfaction of his legitimate claims from the government. At the same time, the goondas who would previously have helped him protect his property, in cases where the government would not, have gone rogue. Men like Malik Sharif, the patriarch’s grandnephew, have realized that they need not be satisfied with eating merely the scraps that fall from their patrons’ tables. Rules have changed, manners have changed. They themselves can aspire to preside over the banquet.
It’s a cyclical matter, of course. There will be a consolidation. With luck and pluck, Malik Sharif will become rich, and his son will become respectable, and his grandson will go off to Ohio State or to Oberlin, maybe to Stanford. On his return to Pakistan to take up the reins of his property, the grandson may find that he is confronted by someone hungrier and less finicky than he is. Someone in fact like his grandfather.
Malik Sharif and his men deal with the problem of the Chandios in a more brutal manner than Sohel had anticipated. Should we believe that Sohel is shocked by their actions?
Yes, Sohel is shocked, and quite rightly so, for that violence is designed to shock him. The extreme violence that Malik Sharif unleashes is theatre, aimed at Sohel, and not at the poor Chandios, who could have been put in their place with much less drama, with a few slaps and a threatening lecture and a couple of days sitting in the superintendent of police’s chiller room. We don’t ever learn exactly what happened to the Chandio boy, but it seems to have been pretty bad. Malik Sharif, by engaging in excessive violence, further undermines and destabilizes Sohel’s position. Sohel expected that he would be served by the goondas as they had served his grandfather, the matter handled discreetly and offstage. Driving a tractor over a man’s legs in broad daylight was not part of that expected scenario.
Sohel has a girlfriend in New York, an American who he always imagined would come and live with him. But the wife of his cousin suggests he needs to marry a Pakistani woman who shares his background. How attracted is Sohel to the idea of a spouse who can run his life for him? Is he drawn to Nisa, the young woman he meets, or repelled by what she represents?
When Sohel approaches his cousin Hisham for help with his predicament, Hisham gives him a piece of valuable advice. “This is the thing you must understand. In Pakistan, every problem is a lock, and to that lock there is a single key. Your job is to find that key—that’s what farming is all about. Or business, whatever you like. Politics.”
Hisham’s wife, Shahnaz, who is a shrewder creature than her husband, proposes Nisa to Sohel as a sort of master key, pointing out how well-connected she is, with ten first cousins, half of whom are in the army. Whatever Nisa’s personal attractions may be—that’s for another story, perhaps—Sohel can’t help, in his moment of need, being drawn to the idea of marrying someone who can offer him the protections that his own connections manifestly do not provide. Sohel’s father, boozing it up and selling his property hand over fist, and then dying rather ignominiously in a drunken New Year’s Eve crash, has squandered not just property but connections also. As the only son of an only son, Sohel does not have the array of cousins and second cousins and uncles and aunties who usually provide a shield for young men like him. Nisa comes replete with all of that network.
The central conflict in this story is between the attitudes and mores that Sohel has acquired in the West, and the realities of operating in Pakistan, where a very different dispensation rules. The American girlfriend represents the kind of life that he thinks he would like to have—the feminist politics and Christine de Pizan and academic tempests in academic teapots—living in that atmosphere while still maintaining his attachments in Pakistan. Nisa represents the kind of life that he perhaps must have, that very different domesticity, Sohel wilting under the regard of her many collaterals. Let’s hope he can find some middle path!
“It’s time to turn up the heat a little bit more. My boys are getting bored, and that’s not good for their appetite or their temper.”
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