A curious novel set in FRANCE
Talking Location With … author Safinah Danish Elahi – PAKISTAN
29th April 2023
#TalkingLocationWith … Safinah Danish Elahi, author of The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon – PAKISTAN (and PERU)
I recently spoke on a panel on writing the not-self at the University of Iowa’s International Writer’s Program Fall Residency about writing a character that you do not represent in race, gender, income bracket, mental capacity etc. I have never experimented with a non-brown character in my stories, but I have explored gender, age and, in particular, location.
The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon is set in the slums of Karachi, Lahore and Okara (a small town in Punjab, Pakistan) as well as localities London and Peru. While I’ve visited all of these cities, I haven’t lived in any except for Karachi. In writing your character’s location, one must have a keen and intimate relationship with the place. To gather information about slums in Karachi, I researched three areas that could be in easy access to the locality:
Defence Housing Authority, which is an upper-class neighbourhood. The most suitable ones were Qayummabad, Akhtar Colony and Machar Colony. I finalized Qayummabad (where Gulshan lives) and visited a few houses. The people were gracious and offered me tea and biscuits while I surveyed their rooms and talked about my novel. I found out that some were house owners while others rented small rooms.
In Lahore, it was tougher because I usually just go there for work for a day or two, but I found some slums near Shakar Ganj Mosque and some near Bhatta Chowk and MM Alam Road. I didn’t want my character Nadia to have a lower-class lifestyle, so I didn’t choose the establishment behind Bhatta Chowk. I wanted her to move up ranks in life, however, with some of the bad choices she makes, she is stuck in a place that one could say is beneath her income level. The houses there were similar to Qayummabad but somehow newer and slightly cleaner. The lanes that lead to the housing area were peppered with fruit carts stalls selling second-hand clothes and shoes. Both cities are littered with piles of trash, open potholes and broken roads. I mention class recurrently because classism is a theme that runs through the story arc of my novel.
London was an obvious choice to send Nadia’s childhood sweetheart, Zohaib to. Many well-to-do families send their children there for an English education, away from the hustle bustle of Karachi, either for security reasons or just to get a better future. Although this wasn’t the case with Zohaib, it seemed like the kind of choice Nadia’s father-in-law, Masood Hashim, would make. I’ve spent a lot of time as a child in London, and recently went again after a decade and spoke to friends about what route to take, what doctor/specialist to see, where their clinic would be based.
In 2019, I trekked the Inca Trail myself, so I had my notes with me on what flights I had taken, where I landed and what the packages were like for the tour company I had selected. I wanted my character to have an almost out of body experience, which I feel can only happen in high energy places. Machu Picchu is known to be one such place. Apart from being a historical/natural wonder of the world, the Inca’s were known to heal the grieved.
I mention some places to visit in passing, as well as the ones the characters reside in. The Shahi Killa in Lahore, the Badshahi Mosque, Zahid Nihari, Quaid’s Mausoleum are some places Nadia mentions she had visited when in Karachi and Lahore. Karachi sea view has now become a crowded and polluted place, but when I was younger, about the time when Zohaib and Misha are children, it used to be a beautiful beach with huts lined across the road. As a child, I remember walking along the beachside to collect shells in my small plastic bucket; I always associate the sea with calmness and serenity.
The best and most fantastic thing about writing fiction is that, even with the research, we are free to create a world that is unique and not necessarily like the places visited. I tried to stay true to the logical things but fictionalized the homes of my characters. I created settings that contributed to the character’s development rather than generic noise of those cities.
It is important to treat locations as characters, for places hold memories and spaces for us too.
Safinah Danish Elahi
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