Photo courtesy: Shandana Minhas
On a lazy winter morning, I waited outside a white wooden gate in of the posh suburbs of Karachi looking at a shadow of a woman approaching to open the gate. With a cheerful smile on her face, Shandana Minhas, an eminent author of Asian literature welcomed me to her home. Walking towards the main door, Shandana apologizes for being a little tired as she explains she had slept late in the night.
In the crisp sunny morning, Shandana offers a seat overlooking the lush garden which bloomed with flowers. While I set up the interview equipment, she queries if coffee is needed, which in this case was strongly needed. With a cup of hot, steaming coffee in her hand and the sun shining on her spectacles, she seemed to fit the persona of an ‘enlightened’ figure looking into the light, of course Shandana’s urban casual look complete with a brown scarf over her contrasting blue shirt and brown trousers kept her persona grounded.
Sitting down for the interview, she quickly lights up a cigarette, which seemed to work as a relaxation mechanism for her. With the initial questions revolving around childhood, Shandana’s answers to such questions are quite intriguing.
“I grew up in a family of individuals, tied together by blood and very different from each other not just in personality but also in life choices, world view and religion.” Shandana explains. She goes on to further explain her relationship with such diverse individuals, which include her sister and her brother, who both currently reside in the United States.
Being from a diverse family not just in terms of personalities but also religion played an important part throughout Shandana’s life as she believes her tolerance towards other religions and lifestyles had been embedded due to being a part of a family where both Islam and Christianity existed. Interestingly she also believes her intolerance towards misogyny is also embedded due to her family, who according to her, have always been staunch believers of a tolerant society.
With talks of being tolerant yet standing up for the truth, Shandana explains that such beliefs also led her to writing for newspapers. Yet while describing this, she strongly mentions “I became a columnist, I wouldn’t describe myself as a journalist. I am a writer.” This is probably why she explains, that her columns wrote more like stories, experiences and tales of women who stood against misogyny and sexism rather than just normal columns.
The work Shandana Minhas is more famous for includes fiction, yet she believes that writing in general be it fiction or just column writing, is a way she can express herself freely. “There are all kinds of theories to why people write. We write because we must. We write because we are meant to. I have a new age approach to writing. I feel compelled and I feel chosen to tell certain stories.” She further explains that she feels that be it columns, features or fiction, it’s a way for her to bring the story she deems necessary to come out to the world.
Today being renowned as one of the top authors from Pakistan, Shandana’s college experience is one of a kind, especially in the work field she is famous in. “My college experience was quite short, abrupt might be a better word. I went to college with absolutely no interest in academics. I didn’t learn anything about writing, I went to the wrong college and I dropped out within a year.” When asked if she had any further experience with education after this, her tongue-in-cheek comment gives her educational status a hilarious closure. “I have actively flirted with education now and then, but I have never consummated it, really.”
It does evoke a sense of intrigue in a person, making one question the importance of a formal education versus the quest of a human to learn on their own. In the case of Shandana Minhas, it seems as the writer is bestowed a natural gift which can only glisten further by education rather than build the person. Thus, asking ‘If a writer is born or made?’ is crucially important for Shandana.
“I have this conversation all the time with my husband. I don’t know if a writer is made or if a writer is born. I think that writers are.” Seemingly not much impressed by the answer, I push the question further and ask whether ‘ Shandana, the writer is born or is made?’ And lo and behold once again her answer flabbergasts. “Wow that makes me feel like a transformer! I don’t really think that’s a question that I would particularly dwell on because I don’t know how it would inform my craft hence, I am not drawn to explore it. It seems to me as a narcissistic thought. But I must say you can learn how to re-write, I don’t think you can learn to write”
Mid-way through the interview, I hear a voice calling out for Baaji. I’m informed by Shandana, that this is the gardener who adulates his work and needs her to move the car so he can clean the garage. She quickly asks for a break and goes on to start the engine of her car and then slowly reverses it while the gardener cleans the front and then accelerates the car to the front of the garage whilst the gardener does the same process again. To the onlooker it seemed as a coin operated ride that goes ahead and back.
Back in the sun-illuminated living room, Shandana quickly goes to the kitchen to make a second batch of coffee, while I’m still on the first one, I politely refuse. With Shandana back on her seat, I ask her of the seat the most important to her in the whole house, her work space. Interestingly, she seemed to be the jack of all trades, explaining that a private workspace isn’t necessary for her and she can work almost anywhere, but of course needs silence to write her stories.
Though the exposure to the work of Shandana Minhas’s in Pakistan is relatively low, it isn’t a shocker to find out that her screenplay has now been transformed into one of Pakistan’s most anticipated film’s called ‘Rafina’ starring Aamna Ilyas, of Zinda Bhaag fame and which has been directed by none other than Pakistan’s top women director’s, Sabiha Sumar of ‘Khamosh Paani’ fame. Even though the film has been released internationally, it still waits for its fate in the Pakistan cinemas. “I still haven’t seen any screening of Rafina yet. Just like any other person, I am waiting to see how my story has been transformed.” Shandana says.
The story of ‘Rafina’ revolves around a young woman who is in midst of fitting into fashion and glamour industry of Karachi and balancing the act of being a low class citizen of the city working in the up class section of the metropolis. It works as a kaleidoscope of imagery full of the high and low class and the thin as thread relationships between them.
It is quite surprising how the audience of the country where the writer, director and the story are all rooted, is unaware of the talent and work being produced here. In the same manner, not many people are aware either that Shandana Minhas is one of the few people hailing from Pakistan who are TED fellow’s ,as well as a writer who has been shortlisted, long listed and the winner of literature awards from all over the world.
In her professional life, her biggest achievements seem to include her first novel ‘Tunnel Vision’-which revolves around the life of ‘Ayesha Siddiqui’ who is a mid-aged single woman lying in a comatose state after a terrible accident- as well as the screenplay turned feature film ‘Rafina’. Her personal life on the other hand, has two major ‘achievements’ of its own, her two son, Hamza and Kamil.
Whist talking about the relationships of her life, IY walks down the stairs, quickly saying hello and introducing himself and then running into the kitchen for some coffee. Now for the third time, I get offered a cup of coffee, and interestingly still on the first one! I politely refuse once again. As soon as Shandana’s cigarette break is over and IY returns to the living room with a cup of coffee, I ask him the difference between Shandana, the friend and Shandana, the wife.
“Shandana is not what some men would ideally want in a wife. She isn’t docile, she isn’t ultra-submissive and she knows her role isn’t to please all desires of her man.” While listening to IY talk about her, it seems as Shandana in a very subtle manner is blushing, which is an interesting side to Shandana that the world rarely sees.
Over four hours of conversation over coffee and cigarettes, it feels as Shandana Minhas is neither an open book nor a book that many people would like to open, yet her personality, her demeanor and her witty/quirky sense of humor attract even the worst of her critics to comment on her. Her life doesn’t read any less than that of an award winning novel, yet her way of moving forward transcends any soap-opera style novel that may describe her personal and professional life.