Farah Ali’s debut novel The River, The Town is a haunting portrait of lives relegated to the margins by capitalism and its resulting byproduct: the inequitable distribution of resources. The world of the novel centers two places, the Town and the City, and the narrative focus, in typical Farah-Ali-fashion, is on people. Farah tells me her recurring fascination as a writer is to explore relationships and indeed, in her novel we find relationships thriving, morphing, breaking in the ebb and flow of poverty-stricken conditions.
The story opens with Baadal, a teenager living in the Town where thirst, hunger and diseases drive people’s relentless pursuit of miracles they think would, one fine day, restore the river that once sustained them. Baadal’s days are half spent in school, where teachers from the City preach about the virtues of hunger and thirst, and half spent loitering with his friends, avoiding home where he would have to face his mother Raheela’s constant abuse and his father’s incessant silence. When Baadal finishes school, he has no reason to withstand the abuse, to stay in the Town where people have begun setting up makeshift tents by the river, giving up their regular lives to atone for the sins they think have held back the rain and goodness from the Town and spurred the deaths of many children. Baadal’s drive to find his fortune in the City is heightened when he falls for Meena, his divorced older neighbor. He wants to marry her, provide for her. Reluctant at first, Meena eventually succumbs to the stability Baadal promises, and the two move to the City, only to discover that severing ties from a troubled past doesn’t guarantee a better life, that the rungs of the financial ladder can crack and slip from under their feet at any point.
Farah Ali is the author of People Want to Live. Her work has appeared in VQR, Shenandoah, Copper Nickel, among other places, and has also been anthologized in Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize.
Sharing Karachi as our hometown, Farah and I found our conversation gravitating toward our similar experience witnessing Pakistan’s poverty, media and its vulgar curiosity with the poor and how Farah navigates the idea of Pakistan and Islam being perceived through her work.
Bareerah Ghani: I want to begin with the novel’s throughline of survival and hope. In the Town, despite extreme poverty and destitution, we see people arranging marriages to save lives, believing that babies can bring good luck. I’m wondering how you deconstruct this notion of hope. Can you speak to this in connection with Pakistani culture and the rampant reliance on myths and superstitions?
Farah Ali: As I was revisiting some old notes on the novel, a lot of this is there, this idea of hope, of distorting beliefs in a way to make something easier to live with. These are all coping mechanisms.
The people in the Town are coping with this recurrent problem of a lack of water, and are contending with how to survive as individuals, as a people. Some of them, if they’re able to, they leave. But to leave a difficult economic situation is a luxury that people don’t realize. It’s not easy to get up and leave for greener pastures or more water, in this case. Some people are just stuck there, or have this stubborn belief that maybe if they stick around long enough, the tide will turn, something better will come along. So they resort to such beliefs that let’s just keep on having children and name them a certain way, and maybe that will protect them from the kind of misery that their parents were subjected to. In the same vein of myth and belief, some of the people in the Town end up living by the river because they believe that it’s their fault that they were brought to this state.
In Pakistani culture, it is quite rampant, this stubbornness of holding onto a version of the belief and using that to understand something else. There are a lot of cultural ideas mixed up with the actual parts of Islam. I think the people in the Town behave in a similar way. There’s this one point where they go to the river to cleanse themselves, and start hearing miracles in the water. At no point do I disprove that. I have respect for that belief to the degree that I won’t disprove it, and insinuate that they’re just making it all up. Maybe some of them do end up experiencing something at the water. I leave it to the reader to decide to believe it or not.
Having grown up in Pakistan, and visiting there now, seeing that things really are not better, that daily wage earners are just scraping through their lives, I think that if they want to believe in something, if it helps them somehow, mentally, maybe that’s okay.
BG: I love how the novel explores faith as a coping mechanism too. We watch Meena lean on her faith multiple times, particularly after she loses her first husband as she is navigating loneliness. I would love your thoughts on how you think about faith in fiction, especially since a lot of Pakistani fiction tends to be secular.
FA: I would not want to move away from putting Islam and faith in the book somehow, because my own life deeply centers around that belief and the support it gives. More and more I find that because faith is so key to me, somehow it’s key to at least a few people in my stories. So in this novel, faith is present in every form, whether someone is challenging it or skeptical about it. For instance, Raheela definitely belongs to the Skeptics, or to the people who maybe think that they don’t have time for pondering philosophically about this, you know. But then there are other characters like Meena, who doesn’t question it, she continues keeping faith as part of her, as the thing that sustains her.
As far as Pakistani fiction is concerned, from the Old Guard, so to speak, Islam is not prevalent as a practice so much in the lives of the characters. If it is present at all, it’s at a distance and viewed as skeptically or philosophically, I’ve never really found a narrator in Pakistani fiction that is really out about their religion. You know, maybe it’s not the cool thing to do, or maybe it’s not rigorous enough.
BG: That’s what fascinates me about it. We don’t see Pakistani fiction addressing this very central aspect of Pakistani life. It’s like faith exists outside of the spectrum of lives in a lot of fiction. I’m curious, were you thinking about the perception of Islam as you were writing? Or was it something you don’t even think about?
FA: No. Maybe it sounds like a bullheaded answer. But for me, thinking about the perception of Islam comes in the same category as thinking about the perception of Pakistan. I mean, I don’t want to worry about what people will think about a really practicing person, or like power outages in Pakistan. I don’t want to make the faith look cool or uncool. It is what it is. It’s central to me, and it’s central to definitely some of my characters’ daily lives, whether they’re talking about it outright or not. There’s this belief that something somewhere will figure itself out, or when solutions present themselves it’s not assumed that they came from nowhere. It is thought that they were the result of a greater design. So I wasn’t thinking about Islam’s perception. And if by that, you mean its aggressive political aspects, I wasn’t worried about that. Talking about practicing faith really of any kind in a more visible way is really unfashionable. It’s not considered a clever thing. And so there’s a way to write about it in fiction without making it look like an answer to all problems. Because then there is no story. In our daily lives as well, every day there are scores of problems. But having faith does not mean you say, Oh well, it is what it is. I am gonna say my five times prayers, and that’s it. There’s still anxiety, depression, and faith is not a Band-Aid. It explains that this world is not supposed to be perfect. So the people in my book are not going toward Utopia, thinking Oh, our river is gonna flow big and wide again, and we’ll never run out of food or water, our marriage will be perfect. They do understand that the world is imperfect while struggling with their difficulties. I think that it’s maybe a dialectical approach like, you can understand this is a shitty place to be in while saying, Well, okay, it’s not supposed to be perfect, but it maybe can be a little less difficult. For people who maybe don’t entwine faith in their lives so much, maybe it’s an impossible reconciliation of the two things.
BG: Earlier in the novel, we see that a history teacher comes from the City and makes a comment to the students about how, despite losing children to hunger, thirst, or diseases, people in the Town continued having more children. This reminded me of the campaigns the urbanites have often held in many impoverished areas in Pakistan for raising awareness on family planning, not realizing that for the poor, more children mean more earning hands. How do you contend with such judgment and tone-deafness exercised by the upper class and how do you think we can steer the conversation toward the core issue, the inequitable distribution of resources?
FA: In the world of the novel there are two geographic locations, the City, the Town. But in a mega metropolis like Karachi, where, you know, next to a really posh area we can find a so-called slum district and yet, there are these comments that oh, they have no money, but my maasi has so many children. And there is this tone of judgment, this idea that they lack intelligence, planning and foresight. Like, Sure they don’t have money, but they could improve their circumstances themselves. It’s in their hands, I mean, just have fewer children. There is that superciliousness back home when talking about the poor. So in the novel, I wanted these visitors to come to this Town and do some good. And they do that really visibly with posters, handing out food, doing their good deed of the day. And what I was trying to show was that it’s not a solution. A visit or two, a campaign—these are distraction tactics. These are not focused on, Let’s see what the root of the problem is, let’s make their access to the rest of the city better, make it easier for them to come there for work, find out why the river is drying, and how integral it is to the lives of these people here. It’s this whole idea of looking at the people in the Town as not really my problem. But, hey, they exist so I’m gonna throw some old clothes their way. There’s Junaid who comes from the City to try to fix something, but he doesn’t really do anything. I wanted to have this as a simple reflection of what we see back in Pakistan as well.
When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, there was this hari chabi (Green Key) scheme that would run on TV every day, about having fewer kids to reduce the population. When we say “have fewer kids” who are we addressing? We’re not thinking about the really well off people with really large families. Why is this in our heads that that is okay? Why is it that when they take up land, it’s not encroaching but when others are forced to live on the outskirts of land because it’s more affordable, it is called encroaching? There are so many terms that creep into our vocabulary where we distance ourselves from the people with less economic power. We don’t really see why they have less economic power. I think that’s a conversation a lot of households back in Pakistan need to have because a lot of them have house help, including really young children coming from places like the Town. And the employers think that well, we’re giving these children jobs, bonuses, paying for someone’s wedding or medical expenses, which is fine but it doesn’t see the issue. Like, why is this kid in your home working in the first place?
BG: I know we’ve been talking about Pakistani culture and Pakistan’s poverty because we share Karachi as common ground. And when I came to the novel, Karachi is the only place I could think of. But the interesting thing is, you never tell us where this City and Town are. I’m wondering why you made that choice and what it means to you. Were you thinking about Pakistan when you wrote it?
FA: I was 100% thinking about Pakistan, about Karachi. When I was growing up there, water shortage was such a part of your daily vocab. You grew up hearing—oh, okay, papa’s gonna get a tanker of water to the house because we ran out, or didn’t you hear? So and so’s neighbor stole someone’s water. Or you grew up with other shortages like power, you know, load shedding at scheduled times, which seeps into unscheduled times. I remember sleeping on the roof many nights with my family. That’s how I grew up and I don’t think it’s improved at all. If anything, the water shortage has gotten worse. So when I was writing this novel, I was thinking about the water tanker mafia, about those who can afford to pay and those who stand with jerry-cans at water stations, about privilege and how we define it growing up in Pakistan. Other countries like the U.S., which loves talking about privilege, don’t understand the nuances of it. Like, basic things that someone might take for granted in the western world are still a privilege to an upwardly mobile family in Pakistan.
As far as keeping the names off the page is concerned, I don’t like naming places. Maybe I have a fear that I will tie myself down to that place that I’m naming, even though in my head it is. But if I call it Karachi, then the world of the novel will shrink. Maybe part of it is fighting against a preconceived notion of the place.
BG: A particularly striking moment in the novel is when a TV crew arrives to interview the Town people but instead of trying to shed light on the Town’s issues, they ask Raheela these ridiculous questions about how she cleans herself and if she genetically passed on her resilience to her son. How do you perceive the role of the media in being the voice of the underprivileged and awakening the conscience of the wealthy, especially in current times where social media offers almost instant access to information but also exposure to political propaganda?
FA: In the world of the novel, the media is coming from a place of vulgar curiosity, more for a delicious headline. I think mainstream avenues to a great degree are fighting for viewer attention. A lot of the time, it’s about what sells a story. And in Pakistan, the stories don’t really change in their timber. The stories stay horrific. I think we’ve become inured to what it does to our conscience because that’s all we’ve seen growing up on TV and that’s all we hear. And now what is our source of news, really? It’s Whatsapp groups or Youtube vlogs, I don’t know how many people tune into regular standard GEO and ARY anymore. People still do, to a great degree, and they’re so influential, those channels. But to an equal degree people go on to social media to get their news. There is a great opportunity that now, the reporting of news is not in the hands of a few mighty voices any more. You can’t hide the truth so much, but therein also lies the danger of an influential voice, of someone putting the news out there in a soundbite fashion.
BG: I was really fascinated by how the novel does a really good job at highlighting this vulgar curiosity in different ways, like the moment where a teacher from the City asks students to “analyze a poem about forbearance, read an essay on the virtue of abstaining from too much water and food.”
FA: I think there’s this feeling of wanting to explore a difficult life voyeuristically. There was this bulletproof bus in Karachi that would cost a lot, that would take you through the so-called gangster parts of the city, but safely. The idea of it is so fascinating—that you can pay a bunch of money, so you can safely visit those places that people are actually living in. This curiosity, I think, stems from a feeling of being really secure in what you have. And maybe thinking that you deserve the luxuries that you have, even when there’s nothing you did to earn that place. Maybe the thrill lies in knowing that this is not their permanent situation, that they can stop the ride whenever they want.
BG: I didn’t know about the bulletproof bus, but I do know of other instances where people have shown this weird fascination, like, what is it like being you?
FA: Like the “you” is a different species, a resilient, poverty-ridden species. I think, maybe to some degree people from Pakistan are looked upon that way as well. We are maybe a curiosity to so much of the world. Years ago when I was living in the States, my kid’s pediatrician would tell me, oh, you’re going back home, be safe! I had given her no indication that I’m going into a war-torn zone, but she assumed that I needed special bravery. Or the way we’re asked about Pakistan. Just a few years ago I was in a taxi ride on the way to the airport in Portland, Oregon, and the taxi driver found out where I’m from, and I have no idea about his breadth of knowledge, but he started lecturing me about women’s rights and oppression. This exists in our own land Pakistan as well. And the media does a really good job of playing upon that curiosity.