Saturday, September 4, 2010

Interview with Mr. M.Salahuddin Khan

I got an opportunity to conduct an e-interview with Mr. M. Salahuddin Khan - the author of a wonderful book SIKANDER (reviewed here).

Having worked in many varied fields ranging from Aerospace designing, Computer Aided Designing to marketing and business strategy areas, he later moved on to designing a new line of high-end loudspeakers. But this was not it.
The disturbing situation in Western Asia intrigued him and he weaved an interesting story in the form of 'Sikander' for us to treasure.

Q. What motivated you to write this story?

I wanted to shed light on misunderstanding and its potential for eroding our basic humanity.
I've spent my life figuring out I'm a citizen of the human race much more than of any country. While this might seem heretical when measured by modern conceptions of patriotism, I feel a real connection with the underlying essence of humanity and how fragile it can sometimes become. For me SIKANDER is a story about such humanity and it is expressed through the life and experiences of one young man who passes through some of history's most turbulent currents in the last quarter of the 20th century. It's about coming from a culture but belonging to the species and it's about transformations both outward and inward.

Q. Does Sikander resemble any real character or is he close to anybody you have encountered in real life?

In character, while flawed, he has some qualities I recognize in myself but mostly qualities I must say I aspire to.
I can't honestly say he's patterned after someone I know but more than one person has told me they would really have liked to have known him or be his friend.

Q. What I like the most about the story was the positive tone that was maintained throughout the book. Generally all books which have been written on this issue become very depressing and sad. How did you manage to do that?

I'm inherently an optimist and want to see the positive aspect of all things. I operate with a personal motto: "All change is opportunity," even though I have been challenged to see it at times!
It's easy to fall victim to injecting an author's judgmental thinking into a story. I was wary of that and corrected myself a number of times when I saw it happen (either in narrative or dialogue) to too great a degree. I guess my model was also one of combining a protagonist's point-of-view with a journalist's detachment. Sikander as "hero" only flirts with vindictiveness or ill-will but doesn't really destroy himself with these sentiments while others do or almost do. Even for them there's a certain level of hope for finding a way out of spiritual self-destruction which I think speaks to us all when we might despair of our own possibility for redemption.

Q. I appreciate the deep research you have done in bringing the historical events
into the narrative. How long did it take from the conception of the story to finally bringing out the end product?

I surprised myself by cranking out the whole book in about 6 weeks from just after Christmas to mid-February although it took until June to get the editing done and July to get printed copies out. Research was an INTENSE activity and no hour of the day or night was off limits.
The core denouement of the story was very strong in my mind. It was inspired by watching (around Christmas) a movie rendition of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in which the hero Jean Valjean remains at odds with the constable Javert. Valjean is the man on the wrong side of the system but on the right side of human decency and ethics. Javert is on the right side of the system but on the wrong side of human decency-being driven by a sense of the law in his case. What's more interesting is the fatalist perspective of Javert who believes that a criminal is inherently so and can never be redeemed. Contrast that with a 20 year struggle by Valjean to be that better person. I simply transposed this tension into the relationship between a prisoner and his interrogator at Guantanamo with the interrogator being consumed by prejudice and revenge but directing his feelings against a stereotype in general and the wrong person in particular. I also built on the idea of a turning of the tables as in Les Miserables but wanted to show how things don't simply reverse when humanity remains in control.

From this core idea, it was relatively easy to go backward and forward from that point to build the "turning points" of the story. Filling the spaces between the turning points became the job of my characters to accomplish and sometimes they surprised me too by "deciding" to take the story in a different direction from the one I had originally imagined!

As for the research, I can only describe it as feverish and intense. Being ethnically a Pasthun I had a lot of background on my own culture but also filled in details from online research. For the historical interplay between mujahideen, Americans, British, Soviets and Pakistanis as well as the occasional flare-ups between Pakistan and India, I was able to gather most of this information from multiple online sources - never depending on any one alone. For battles and battle tactics, I also bought books including ones of the mujahideen commanders' own accounts.

Finally, I downloaded research reports on specific cases relating to Guantanamo and made the experiences there in my book be an amalgam of several documented cases. The topography's role (almost like another character in the book) in dominating the decisions made in daily life - especially in Afghanistan made it worthy of research down to individual contour maps to figure out best pathways and the relationship between the terrain and for example the sun or moon from a lighting point of view - all were researched though I also have my own recollections of physically having been to that part of the world. By the way even every phase of the moon is described accurately relative to the historical time and place it is described in the narrative.

Q. What is your favorite part of this book?

There are really two segments I like the most. Chapters 9-10 and Chapter 17.
Chapters 9-10 carry the warmth of the relationship between Sikander and Rabia to its logical conclusion but I didn't want to make something uncharacteristically torrid or vulgar, which would have been out of keeping with the cultural mores in that part of the world. I also wanted to weave in the fun and games when "aunts and uncles" join the fray of orchestrating a relationship. Chapter 10 closes with a paragraph which is also one of my favorites as it puts a seal on Sikander's transformation from boy to man and frames what it means to be "home".

Chapter 17 is an escape from despair but not without scars. I particularly like the interaction between Dianne and Sikander and the transformational gradient from being a prisoner to flying in a luxury private jet within only hours and yards of separation between the experiences. Exploring Sikander's captivity challenging his identity and then leading to an inner peace followed by his imminent release also releasing the anger of bitterness albeit for a moment, was interesting and unplanned. It just made sense for him to think and behave that way. Lastly, I felt a natural quality to the closing scene of Chapter 17 in which Sikander though clearly physically returned, must still work through returning mentally, while his mother looks upon the the silhouetted family group with her own wistful reflections.

Q. Can you think of some other ending for this story and if yes, what could it be?

The options making the most sense would have been Mahler's death or a tight friendship between him and Sikander.
Without seeming clichéd, the ending which would have mirrored Les Miserables would have seen Mahler either die or take his own life upon realizing his mistake with Sikander. However, for me Mahler was the metaphor for all of us who fall victim to prejudice and who have the good fortune to become aware of it to an extent promoting action. Mahler is not a demon but the victim of circumstance. An essentially good person who has done something shameful (along with other heroic things) and that makes him, for me at least, someone real and not a caricature. But, I suppose, we might have drawn similar messages from his death. Life and death were less important than realization and redemption. The realization and redemption might also have emerged from a tightening friendship but it would have lacked the dramatic tension (and release upon completion) that I think the story needed for the reader.

Q. As a reader I feel some characters rise above the rest to leave an indelible mark and I can say that Sikander was one such character. As an author what kind of association do you feel with the characters that you have created?

Several people have come to me saying they wanted to be Sikander's friend and how his story changed them. I feel a strong affinity with him too, though he's something of an aspirational role more than a reflection of me.
As for the characters in general, the sense of them being real people that I know was wholly unexpected but palpable nonetheless. One feels one is flirting with insanity at times by treating them as such, but it helps to see how the story unfolds when they are real. Amazingly, although they became familiar to me, they did do unpredictable things and I let their natures dictate the action. Just as long as the turning points in the story were achieved more or less as intended. There were times though that this did not happen and I still let the action proceed. As personalities, each was something of a blend of people I've come across with one notable exception which was Julie Barnes (Sikander's assistant in Henderson, NC). She is very much modeled after a very specific and wonderful executive assistant I had in my last job at NAVTEQ.

Q. Is there any other book that you are planning to write next? If you ever plan to write, what would it be on?

I am becoming serious about a human perspective on the Partition of British India and the hatred and forgiveness that this experience has spawned.
My parents were from Delhi but left their home and possessions behind, dodging bullets and surviving a train ride of death on their way to Pakistan, where I was born. I've been to India and Pakistan many times and I'm always struck by the sense of a yearning for friendship at the personal level between people whose countries are too often at the precipice of war. Whenever I interact with people from India, their genuine human qualities are the ones that resonate with me and their reciprocal feelings toward me feel genuine. Along with something deep in us all that looks for the common "human" ground, we seem to be bedeviled by an urge to find otherness in any way possible. Stress in our environment, economic or physical hardship, real or imagined, all seem to drive us to seek out the other and exclude him/her from being one of us. Perhaps it helps in such difficult times, to give more definition to our sense of identity by focusing on those we can reassure ourselves of their lacking the same identity. Something of the lifeboat mentality in which exclusion suggests a better chance of survival.

The sense of common human ground is, in my belief about as pronounced in the India/Pakistan relationship as in for example that between Americans and Canadians. Although there are flash points such as the Mumbai attacks, I think there is much that binds the two populations. This is what makes Partition to me a fascinating story along with the direct experience of my parents' generation. I almost feel I owe them an honest telling of the story but safely through a fictional medium. To that end I'm still searching for an apex or denouement since it works for me to begin there and work backwards and forwards.

Q. Having researched so much on this complex issue, can you pinpoint one thing which if happened differently would have changed the whole situation?

An American (or regionally led) nation building plan for Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet defeat.
Few examples of the adage "A stitch in time, saves nine" can be more graphically presented than that of post-Soviet Afghanistan. The American decision to wind down its involvement was a callous failure to acknowledge the human sacrifice made by all the dead mujahideen whose deaths were coincidentally buying an American Cold War victory. It was also short sighted from its own national self interest point of view. The lesson of intervention must always surely be that it must result in a viable peaceful state. American intervention in post-war Japan and Germany (both enemies during their wars with America) was far more benign than that shown to Afghanistan and Pakistan, America's Cold War allies. It cost America in many ways, not just just in 9/11 but also in things like the world trafficking in heroin and its impact on American and other developed country civil society. Most of all, it cost them a possible lasting friendship with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. Had the Americans remained engaged, (not physically present) the warlords would not have ruled and the Taliban would not have been their sad byproduct.

I'm not so naive as to suppose that al-Qaeda would not have emerged because I think the al-Zawahiri vision of global jihad would still have existed. It would likely have been less effective, though al-Qaeda's real genesis as a negative force I think stems from the aftermath of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and the arrival of "non-Muslim" troops on Saudi land. In the absence of such far-sighted thinking as for example George Marshall's after WW II, 9/11 happened. The subsequent military response in Afghanistan has done a great deal to destabilize Pakistan which was already in an economic struggle and the backlash has unknown ramifications for the future.

Q. Can you think of one thing which can immediately improve the condition in western Asia region?

Any one thing will only cause minimal immediate improvement and probably not a lasting one at that. This is a complex topic. It requires actions on a number of fronts. Perhaps after a Partition book, we might revisit the question?


  1. Very interesting interview and I liked the insightful answers.

  2. Great interview. Want to read the book now. Thanks for this interview.


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