When a group of teenagers in a Karachi high school stage a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, one goes missing. Over the years, these young men and women grow up together and apart, grappling with the ripples of the incident through their already fraught education in lust and witches, as they are haunted by both home and djinns.

In You Can’t Go Home Again, Sarvat Hasin, brings to life a collection of lyrically linked short stories, where contemporary seekers move between Murree and New York, and women own the magic of their inexplicable passions. SheThePeople.TV converses with the DSC Prize longlisted author about the contemporary and the magical, and her powerful portrait of young Pakistan — at home and in the world.  

Writing for her generation

Hasin wished to write about her generation specifically. She loves coming of age stories and wished for the narratives in You Can’t Go Home Again to read like social satire with a bite of horror. The author was intrigued by the chance of peeping in on her characters as teenagers and adults. In a world that the characters are only just beginning to discover the complications of, Hasin found there to be something remarkably seductive and nostalgic about that discovery.

The crux of the book, for Sarvat, was about exploring the tug that her generation faces with their past — the traditions they grew up with – and using superstition seemed like an excellent way to combat that pull

While some of the characters in You Can’t Go Home Again are cavalier about the traditions of their parents, others are more wedded to these customary observances. Both modernity and tradition are things that happen to these people, even when they aren’t thinking about it. Similarly, some of the more traditional characters find themselves doing things they wouldn’t otherwise — a girl in one of the stories sneaks off to the beach with her boyfriend despite being aware of her mother’s disapproval, because even when confronted by her own traditional ideas, the tide of the world moves her along

Image Credit: Penguin Random House India

Hasin opines that the private and the public life in Pakistan is deeply divided, and so is the realm of the unspoken. Some of this division is now disintegrating, but she wished to explore how that line could affect young people. “Repressing things that are difficult to deal with can lead to those very things embedding themselves, more deeply, in the lives of people,” notes Sarvat.

Based on urban legends

You Can’t Go Home Again is based more on cases of urban legends than folklore. While teenagers and children in other parts of the world have ghost stories, growing up in Karachi gave Sarvat Hasin and her cohort stories of churail and djinn. These tales were of warped versions of things — that their parents told them to make them behave better – and of things they were told by older children and things they told each other to prove that they were braver and more knowing than the rest. “Some superstitions are hard to shake and can persist even if you think you’re too modern for them,” comments Sarvat.

“Some superstitions are hard to shake and can persist even if you think you’re too modern for them,” – Sarvat Hasin

Writing You Can’t Go Home Again as an anthology of short and connected stories was the easiest way for Sarvat Hasin to piece the tales together. “With a novel, I feel I am often spending a lot of time trying to wrestle it into a coherent shape. Here I could let each story discover itself and breath independently,” she says.

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She loves the book’s cover. It’s based on key moments from a few stories in the book and encompasses an overarching thread of the work — someone looking over their shoulder (either for a threat or something they have left behind).

According to Hasin, Pakistani fiction isn’t about bridging gaps. With fiction from South Asia still being perceived in the west as an anthropological exploration, she holds steadfast to these narratives being pieces of art

Hasin would love to see more Pakistani genre fiction. She sees some great writing coming up, but believes that there has to be enough interest in Pakistani literature to see writers taking bigger risks. The author doesn’t think that her stories, or writings of the young contemporary life in Pakistan, are the most important ones to tell, and says that she isn’t writing for people who want to learn more about Karachi. She maintains that what is sorely needed is a multiplicity of narratives. “There is no such thing as a single Pakistani story,” concludes Hasin.

Feature Image Credit: Penguin Random House India

You Can’t Go Home Again, by Sarvat Hasin, has been published in Hamish Hamilton by Penguin Random House India. It is priced at Rs.499 and is available online and in bookstores.

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