In conversation with author Osman Haneef, about his debut novel Blasphemy (Published by Readomania, April 2020) and his inspiration behind it all.

Osman Haneef dons many hats with equal élan. He has worked as TV actor, a strategy consultant, and a diplomatic adviser, and was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2017. Recently, he made his debut as an author with Blasphemy.

Haneef’s debut story of a Christian boy in Pakistan accused of blasphemy is gut-wrenching and thought-provoking. As noted writer and journalist Aatish Taseer says, ‘In this novel of quiet creeping horror, Haneef forces us to confront the supreme evil that lies at the heart of Pakistan’s Blasphemy law.

Team Kitaab was in conversation with him recently, where we spoke about his debut novel, his inspiration behind it and the journey so far, before giving us a glimpse of what’s in store for his readers in future.

“Is this how you want it?” Sameera says. The pain is clear in her eyes,  words and  face. 

“If he refuses, maybe Baba will listen…,” Ayla words fall crippled and deformed from her lips. The lounge falls silent.   

It is hard to remember this lounge being this silent. I remember so many green and red blobs of mint-chutney and ketchup had dripped on this coffee table, and we used to wipe them away with our fingers quickly before Sameera came back from the kitchen with the next batch of hot pakoras. But there are no pakoras cooking today, no blobs of chutney either. No laughter or requests for one more cup of chai. Only solid, paralyzing silence. 

This House of Clay and Water (1)BHANGGI

My body, ji, isn’t my own. It’s a communal vessel for lust that finds expression in dark corners. I learnt that early in my life, na. I am like the spaces that belong to no one; a dirty thought never acknowledged.

This cage of bones and flesh that holds me prisoner . . . makes a mockery of me and my desires, destroys me daily. How can anyone be held responsible for the body they’re born with, ji? Who can help that?

Growing up, I’d watched men haggle with the older hijras, over the price of an hour of guilty pleasure. It’s the price of a life they squabble over, and it’s cheaper than an old chicken. Few hijras live past the age of forty. We trade our lives for a few rupees, ji, agree to bear the burden of desires, confidences and diseases that no one else will. Women are more trouble. More expensive too. Hijras are simpler; no questions asked, even if caught by the police—some of whom are regulars too.

Some prefer about anything else to a woman.

I watch the Nightingales every night. Once the streets are empty and everything is quiet and even the dogs stop barking, the silence is broken only by the sounds of occasional cars passing by, or a drunkard, yelling at a cat underfoot, the hijras known as Nightingales emerge from the few houses in the alley, a space that is only ours: the hijra chawl.

There are five of them, and their haunt is the crossing, where the narrow alleyways meet. Twinkling like fireflies in their sequined shirts and shiny synthetic silks, they laugh and chat as they wait for the regulars. They are prettier than the other hijras, whose job is to beg in the streets by day; they act as pimps for the better-looking ones. The beggar hijras look different. Their powdered faces look grey, and the exaggerated thick eyebrows and painted red lips only accentuate the hardness of their features. It is a poor disguise. as soon as one looks into their eyes, one knows.

They all said I was pretty too. I would be a Nightingale when it was time, not a pimp beggar. I could hardly wait. Nightingales are important. They bring in the big bucks, so everyone treats them well. They get the best bits of meat in the curry, and the best clothes.

The Nightingales stand together at the corner,  talking, laughing, and at times  a  hearty  guffaw  would  carry  in on the night air and thrill me as I lay in the small room, listening.

They were happy, I thought. as a child, laughter is all you need as proof of happiness. as a child you don’t know there are so many different kinds of laughter—like different varieties kinds of birds. Some are flightless.

They share a bidi, and the ends glow in the darkness. Sometimes they share a bottle of homemade liqueur. and I long to try both. Even though I know it is Shaitan’s drink. Or maybe because I know it is.

Gulabo, the master, the guru of our community, found me as a newborn, wrapped in a filthy bloodied towel outside the door of daata’s dargah. She took pity on me, she says. She fed me and clothed me, yes? She looked after me, even when those who’d helped me abandoned me. They didn’t want me. They didn’t want the shame that comes attached to me, a hijra.

Gulabo took care of me. She was also the one who sold me the first time, when I was eight. I was nothing more than an investment, an object to barter for little conveniences: indemnity from the police and a discount at the grocer’s for an hour every night, maybe a few rupees sometimes from a street wretch, if times were hard. That is the only life I am entitled to. There is nothing more, nothing else.

Growing up, I found refuge from the neighbourhood boys in the dilapidated junk shop with the kabbadiya. I hid there because, by then, I already knew why the bigger boys chased me. No one followed me into the dark alley where the kabbadiya lived, usually passed out on his piles of outdated books, magazines and newspapers. There was always a lantern burning low, hanging on the wall inside the shop, the corrugated-iron shutter only half closed. Two gigantic piles of newspapers, so old they were stuck to the floor, held the runner of the shutter up. I squeezed in between those two columns of newspapers, panting, listening to my thudding heart, waiting for the dreaded whispered insults of the eldest boy with the cruel eyes. Often the boys didn’t follow. They were afraid of the kabbadiya. People said he was a jinn. Few people had seen him in years.

But the kabbadiya found me one night.

I’d gone to sleep looking at the colourful pictures in a tattered, yellowing magazine. It was the smell of his  breath that awoke me. It was hot and sharp. I’d smelled it on men before, yes? It was Shaitan’s drink. I woke up with my hands reflexively covering my head to avoid the blows I knew would follow. But they didn’t. The kabbadiya pulled me out of the corner.

‘You’ve been here before, haven’t you?’

I nodded; I couldn’t get my tongue to detach from the roof of my mouth.

‘You  leave  the  magazines  lying  around.  You  wouldn’t make a good thief. You know who I am?’

I nodded again. He was the junk-shop owner. The jinn.

His eyes were sharp, dark.

‘You don’t know.’ He gave a short laugh and said, ‘That’s new. I used to be the gossip for years. Whose shame has taken over mine, I wonder, that people no longer talk about me. Well, what does it matter? There’s plenty of that to go around.’

He sat down with a big laugh, on the single, broken chair in the corner. He looked at me.

‘a little hijra, eh?’

He looked down at his hands. He had the magazine I’d been ogling. I was ashamed. It was full of pictures of women. Beautiful women, ji.

He raised his eyes to me and asked, ‘Can you read?’ I shook my head.

‘are you mute?’

I shook my head. He laughed softly. ‘Come here. Sit. are you hungry?’

I  didn’t  respond. My  legs  were  still  shaking. My  heart, curious and fearful, waited for the jinn to do something jinn- like. From a small half-broken wooden crate next to his chair, he took out a newspaper shaped into a cone and began to unfold it. It revealed two chapattis carefully nestling some vegetable curry. He gave half of his dinner to me.

‘Eat. I cooked it this morning. It’s fresh. Eat.’