Q&A With Shaukat Ajmeri March 25, 2020 – Posted in: Interviews – Tags: Fiction, Keepers of the Faith, Shaukat Ajmeri
Shaukat Ajmeri is the author of Keepers of the Faith. This is his debut novel, due to be published in April. We asked him a few questions about the novel and some of the challenges he faced in writing it.
Was there any special research required for Keepers of the Faith?
Not a lot, but I had to read up on Islamic history and philosophy especially pertaining to the various Ismaili communities. Farhad Daftary’s tome The Ismailis was very useful in that.
The novel covers some historical events, so I made sure I got the dates right and also some of the salient details. Although the scenes surrounding those events are fictionalized but I’ve tried to maintain the feel and the authenticity of what came to pass.
What were some of the hardest scenes to write and why?
The scenes I struggled with the most were the ones that deal with relationships. My challenge was to remain true to the characters, the ways they behave and the choices they make. Some scenes needed to be handled with nuance and sensitivity, and at the same time allow the reader to see the world from each character’s perspective. The main protagonists are complex people and fate has put them in a very tight and unenviable situation, which they have to come to terms with somehow. A few scenes I rewrote three times until I thought I got them right. But of course, readers are the ultimate judge and I would like to know what they think.
What is something that you want readers to take away by reading your book?
I’m bit chary about telling readers what to make of the book. Each individual brings their own sensibilities, worldviews, biases etc. to the text and each of them interprets it in their own way, in their own light. And that is the beauty of fiction, it is open to interpretation and readers will see and understand things which the author has probably never thought of. What they take from it is truly their own; they own the meaning, so to speak. The writer writes and the reader reads, and both of them are engaging with the text separately in solitude, in ways that are creative, intellectual and subliminal. Reading books seems such a mundane thing but if you pause to think you realise what an amazing and unique human experience it is.
What I’ll say about the novel is that I have attempted to explore the perils of blind faith and how it destroys lives and relationships. There are a host of other things and the chief among them, in my view, is to illustrate the oppressive nature of all authority, especially religious authority.
What are your writing habits?
I have a day job, so usually I write in the evenings from eight to ten. And on weekends and holidays for a few hours in the morning. There was a time I used to get up at five in the morning and would write for two hours, but that didn’t last very long for I couldn’t awaken myself enough to be productive. I feel a mellow dread, a sort of reluctance always as the writing hour approaches, but once I start, it is not so bad. Sometimes it flows as if by some divine grace at others times not so much. Writing is a mysterious process; I’m still baffled how the damn thing happens.
What are you currently reading? Any recent favourites?
I’m reading Waiting for the Barbarians by J M Coetzee. Barbarians is an allegory of our times, for all times, I suppose. It is a beautifully written account of how we are complicit in the crimes and injustices our governments commit.
My recent favourites are Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh and the brilliant For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian. The latter is a meandering narrative of a young Jewish man in the 20s and 30s Romania. I reckon it is a good translation and bears rereading. The book is part meditation, part philosophic inquiry into conflicting identities that a Jew must contend with. Again, very relevant in our age of rising xenophobia and rampant “othering” of minorities.
You were recently in India. What were the responses to your book?
The book was very well received, I think. I had a couple of book events and readings where people had all kinds of questions about the book, its subject matter, why I wrote it and what I hope to achieve by writing it etc. I was in India for almost five weeks and while I was there quite a few had finished reading it, and some of them were kind and thoughtful enough to get back to me with their comments. They had positive things to say about it. So far the responses are very encouraging.
I also met Indian publishers and agents to discuss the book and see if they would like to publish it in India. I see the subcontinent as a big potential market for the book.
**author image credit: Sameera Tayabali