By Mitali Chakravarty

Penguin

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is an author-journalist based in New Delhi. He has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper with a circulation of 10 million daily, since July 2018. Khatlani worked in a similar capacity with The Indian Express, India’s most influential newspaper known for its investigative journalism, until June 2018.

Born and raised in Kashmir, he began his career with the now-defunct Bangalore-based Vijay Times in 2005 as its national affairs correspondent. He joined Times of India (TOI), one of the world’s largest selling broadsheets, in 2007. Over the next nine years, he was a part of the paper’s national and international news gathering team as an Assistant Editor. Khatlani has reported from Iraq and Pakistan and covered elections and national disasters. He received a master’s degree in History from prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

The other side of the divide coverKhatlani is a fellow with Hawaii-based American East-West Center, which was established by the US Congress in 1960 to promote better relations and understanding with Asian, and the Pacific countries through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Penguin in 2020 published Khatlani’s first book, The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan. Eminent academic and King’s college professor, Christophe Jaffrelot, has called the book ‘an erudite historical account… [that] offers a comprehensive portrait of Pakistan, including the role of the army and religion—not only Islam’. In this exclusive, Khatlani talks of his learnings from the journey into Pakistan and his extensive research on these issues.

 

Your book is about your around a week-long sojourn to Pakistan as a journalist for Times of India. What event were you covering for TOI and which year was this? Was it prior to Modi being elected the PM?

I went to Pakistan in late December 2013 for my first and last trip to that country at the invitation of the World Punjabi Conference for a peace conference in Lahore. This was five months before Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in the summer of 2014 and around the time my former employer—Times of India—was involved in a campaign called Aman ki Asha for promoting greater people-to-people contacts between India and Pakistan for conflict resolution.

Bhaswati Ghosh

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.

I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.

The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.