Before he became a novelist, Osman Haneef worked as a tech entrepreneur, strategy consultant and diplomatic adviser. He was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2017. Osman studied creative writing at Yale, Stanford and Colby, Curtis Brown Creative and the Faber Academy, and is the recipient of the Frank Allen Bullock Prize for creative writing at the University of Oxford. His debut novel Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih was reprinted as The Verdict in Pakistan. In this conversation, he discusses the inspiration for his work and his struggle to find a publisher for his novel.
Taha Kehar: What compelled you, a tech entrepreneur and impact investment adviser, to write fiction?
Osman Haneef: I write because it brings me joy to create and share stories. When I was a child, before I could read and write, I would draw comics with made up languages and then share them with people. I am still that kid — I just write stories down in languages that people understand.
This love for storytelling (which I think is the foundation for any author) came about because of my father’s obsession with books and our frequent trips to the old book stores that littered Islamabad. That was the most fun ‘outing’ for me: the smell of old books, and exploring stacks of comics and novels, looking for hidden gems.
My father died from cancer soon after the digital edition of my novel came out in 2020. Before he passed away, I was able to share that my novel had been published. He was overjoyed, and said it was something that he’d always wanted to do. I told him about the dedication in my novel: “To Baba for introducing me to the wonder of books and the places they can take us”. He smiled and said, “that’s everything”. I am glad I was able to share news of my debut novel’s publication with my biggest cheerleader.
TK: I read somewhere that you “enjoy struggling to write fiction”. What were some of the creative struggles associated with The Verdict?
OH: I had many of the common creative struggles that an author encounters when writing a novel. There are periods where you aren’t sure if you’re writing anything worth reading.
I have read reports that show most people write three novels on average before they publish their debut novel. This is technically my first novel but I rewrote it, and changed it so many times that I probably wrote a few others in draft form that are lost forever.
The feeling of being lost and uncertain about where the novel was going was amplified by writing as a discovery writer who didn’t know how the story would end. I kept changing the story as I wrote it, and the process felt never-ending. A teacher once told me that the problem with young writers is that they are changing faster than they can write a novel. If you start a novel at twenty and finish a draft by twenty-three, you’ve probably changed so much that you no longer have the same ideas, and, in your next rewrite, will want to change the entire story.
There were many things that I simply didn’t know but those were resolved through research. I also encountered moments when I was shopping the manuscript around in London and a prominent literary agent told me to make the story about something other than blasphemy because after Salman Rushdie, no one wanted to touch the subject. I explained that my book centres on a blasphemy trial but doesn’t commit blasphemy. The agent responded that most people in an angry mob don’t actually read books by the author they are targeting. I am sure plenty of agents felt this way but he was the only one to say it. So I was confronted with the option of changing the very nature of the trial at the heart of the novel. However, as you’ve read the novel, you know that this would have been a very different book if the trial was about a different subject. I felt the story needed to be told and that changing it would force me to lose something irreplaceable.
TK: In an interview with Colby Magazine, you mentioned that you wrote the first draft of the novel as a “discovery writer”. Why was that the case?
OH: Novelists tend to be on a spectrum between what is called a discovery writer (one who begins the story without a sense of where it goes) and a plotter (one who maps out everything before they begin). Most people fall somewhere between, i.e. they may have a general idea of the broader narrative arc but not how to get there. With my first novel, I wrote it as a “discovery” writer. That is, I wrote the first draft without a strong sense of the narrative arc or central conflict. The initial draft focused on a protagonist still finding his place in the world, familial conflict, and a doomed love affair. However, it didn’t go anywhere. The novel may have been interesting for brief moments but it would not be able to sustain a reader’s interest. But as I wrote, my mind kept coming back to a trial from the 1990s. In the case, an illiterate teenage boy, Salamat Masih, along with two others, was accused of writing blasphemous statements on the wall of a mosque in a village in Punjab. There was no physical evidence, and the judge was never told what was said because to repeat the statement would have been blasphemous. Eventually, the conviction was overturned, and Masih fled to Germany. However, the injustice of an obviously innocent young boy wrongfully convicted in this Kafkaesque court proceeding in Pakistan stayed with me. I had to write about it.
After the first draft, which felt like it belonged to two different genres, the real work began and the revision process took me several years. And this is typical of discovery writing, the editing process is intense because a writer has to lose the excess fat and focus on the story he or she wants to tell. Eventually, I brought the disparate strands together into The Verdict.
TK: The Verdict explores how our country’s sacrilege laws are misused. What inspired you to choose such a controversial subject for your novel?
OH: I was doing research on human rights law, and I came across the Salamat Masih case, where a clearly innocent boy was persecuted for defiling a mosque. Perhaps the story resonated with me because of the Islamophobia I had encountered in the US in the wake of 9/11.
Later, when I was writing the novel, my mind kept wandering back to Masih’s case. It didn’t even fit with the story I had written up to that point but it didn’t matter. Sometimes writing feels like an act of divination where the conjured characters tell the author what happens next rather than the author planning out what to write. In the end, I couldn’t write anything else.
TK: Did you find yourself engaged in self-censorship while writing the novel? How did you overcome any initial hesitations?
OH: You can never feel completely secure when writing about blasphemy. I didn’t censor my early drafts because no one else read them. But later, I would have arguments with my wife about what I could put in my novel and what I needed to take out. At one point I met Elif Shafak, the Turkish author who had faced persecution in her own country for her work, and I asked her for advice. She told me not to think about how people would react because one couldn’t write that way. It would suffocate me. I have followed her advice ever since.
If those of us with the ability to write about these topics, don’t out of fear, then we cede the debate to the most extreme elements of society. Those of us with the power to do so, need to speak for those who don’t. If we don’t confront them while we can, it will soon be too late.
TK: How did you go about conducting research for the novel? What do you think is the role of research in writing a novel about Pakistan’s socio-political realities?
OH: Although all the characters and most events are fictional (or have been fictionalised), it is a deeply personal novel. Much of my lived experience ended up in the novel. My parents are from Balochistan so many of my summers and holidays were spent in Quetta. The sense of the place I captured through those trips, the places I visited, and the people I met. I have seen the effects of dementia in people I know so I was able to capture it in my novel, but I also borrowed from other sources. I researched almost every little thing that was outside my own experience. For example, what happens when your jaw breaks? I looked it up. I used research to help build a world and characters, which readers would accept as authentic.
For the courtroom scenes, I visited the courthouse in Quetta, and watched some of the proceedings. I spoke with human rights lawyers about their experiences in Pakistan. I read the records for different blasphemy cases. I then had experienced lawyers review certain facts and proceedings. A leading human rights lawyer in Pakistan, actually commented that “anything is possible” in a Pakistani courtroom because he had seen everything. So I shouldn’t worry too much about credibility.
For the extremist characters, I read extremist literature and watched videos of religious radicals to understand how they justified their positions. I have been to mosques where radical sermons were given, and I have spoken with people who practice a very extreme ideology or version of Islam. I combined that with what I knew from all the research on radicalisation and extremism I read in university to develop the underlying psychology of the radical characters. I then tried to imagine how a character with this fabricated background, and way of engaging the world, would think and respond in different scenarios.
What I found most interesting in all the research is how education is not a cure for an intolerant ideology, and intolerance is a disease that is not limited to a single faith, ideology, or country. As there are also many more moderate voices in the world, which we encounter more regularly, I included their voices in the novel as well.
This isn’t a novel that is against a faith or a country. Instead, the novel deals with how laws and ideology can be perverted to target the innocent.
All the research informed my writing, and I would regularly check-in with experts. For me, the research was a tool to create an authentic world that did justice to the challenges of the socio-political realities in Pakistan. That is why, after I wrote any characters or scenes with the help of research, I kept editing it until it felt true. In the end, that is the only purpose the research serves — to create the illusion of truth.
TK: A reviewer writes that your novel “seems to owe an immense artistic debt to Harper Lee’s magnum opus To Kill A Mockingbird“. Do you agree with the comparison? If yes, what makes The Verdict similar to Mockingbird?
OH: I loved To Kill A Mockingbird as a kid growing up, and it’s an honour to be compared in any way to Mockingbird. As an adult, I recognise the problematic white saviour at the heart of the novel, and how, despite the central themes of tolerance in the novel, Harper Lee’s home state of Alabama is still deeply afflicted by racial injustice (captured masterfully in Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy). It is still a great work of literature, and I appreciate any comparison.
My novel certainly has some similar plot points where an innocent member of a minority community is accused of a crime he could not have committed and the town, blinded by prejudice, seeks to convict him and punish the lawyer. Also, like Mockingbird, my novel isn’t really about the trial. It’s about different characters and how they grow and develop.
The best part of the comparison is that my novel, like To Kill A Mockingbird, is not a legal thriller but rather a literary novel or book club fiction. It’s a book that is supposed to make people think as well as entertain them. It’s a book about characters and bigger themes, and not just plot.
If people read it and expect a traditional thriller, they will be disappointed. It’s slower but I hope, consequently, more rewarding.
TK: The Verdict is intrinsically the story of Sikander Ghaznavi’s return to his hometown of Quetta. Does he view the city as his home?
OH: Home is an interesting concept. I think he views where his mother lives as “home” after he leaves the US. In fact, I think I may have written that in an early draft of the novel, and I almost called the first chapter “Homecoming”. However, Sikander notes how Quetta isn’t home because, even though he has visited in the past, he hasn’t grown up in the town. In some ways this limitation was created so that I could accurately convey the experience of Quetta from the eyes of someone who was as familiar with it as I was in real life.
TK: As the novel progresses, Sikander becomes passionately involved in a legal battle to acquit a Christian boy named Danesh Masih who has been falsely accused of blasphemy. Does this change his outlook on his new life in Pakistan?
OH: Readers will leave with their own views, which I believe are equally valid. However, he returns to Pakistan with a sense of guilt and a lack of purpose. The case gives him purpose and direction, and does, in a sense, change his outlook on his life in Pakistan.
TK: It is widely believed that stories about characters returning to their homeland have been done to death. Do you agree?
OH: That’s a bit like saying love stories or dramas have been done to death. It’s unreasonable to dismiss an entire body of literature based on an overarching theme or narrative device. There are so many different variations to this theme that it can never be done to death. Storytelling is all in the execution (rather than in the idea). In fact, there is a quote (often attributed to the author John Gardener though I have struggled to find a reliable source), that there are only two plots in all of literature:
1) A person goes on a journey.
2) A stranger comes to town.
A character returning to their homeland effectively describes both plots.
From a storytelling perspective, it’s a useful device because if someone returns to their home, things have changed and they can comment on the world as an outsider. It is not strange for them to describe their surroundings to the reader. And you can drop the reader in the middle of the action. What has happened since they left? Why did they leave? What are the stakes? A homecoming naturally creates questions, which can propel the narrative forward.
TK: What led you to choose Quetta as the setting for your novel? Do you believe Pakistani novels are geographically limited in terms of their choice of setting?
OH: Pakistani novels in English are extremely limited in terms of their setting. They’re mostly set in Lahore and Karachi. So I am glad this novel offers readers a change of scenery but I also don’t particularly emphasise that it is set in Quetta.
My parents are from Balochistan and I spent many vacations and holidays in Quetta, visiting grandparents and family. Still, I am not from the city the way my father (who was born and raised there) is from the city. I set the novel in Quetta because certain characters and the story had to be set in the city. Authors make all sorts of elaborate plans but these are all ultimately overridden by their characters who tell them what to do and where they want to live.
Although I appreciate being considered a Quetta novelist (and an author from Balochistan), I am not completely comfortable with the idea of presenting The Verdict as a novel of Quetta.
Why? Let me illustrate with a story. A friend recently complained, based on the synopsis of my novel, that ‘oh, now you are going to make everyone think that along with all its other problems, Quetta has issues with blasphemy’. My purpose wasn’t to damn Quetta in the eyes of my reader but to highlight the global problem of rising religious intolerance through a fictional trial. My friend wasn’t convinced and perhaps there is something to be said about his fears.
As with any representation of a place, if you only have one story of a place then it becomes the entire story of the place. There is danger in a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, and, if my novel becomes the novel about Quetta, I worry readers won’t understand or appreciate it for its ambiguity and different hues. My hope is that my novel encourages other authors to write about the smaller towns and cities in Pakistan, and that more authors from Quetta are able to share their stories. In the end, I hope The Verdict becomes one of many Quetta stories, and that its setting is no longer noteworthy.
TK: Through the character of Sanah, you’ve examined the challenges faced by women lawyers in an inherently male-dominated legal profession. What drew you to explore this issue through the novel?
OH: At the risk of sounding like I am virtue signaling, I am a proud feminist. When I wrote the sections of the novel where Sanah discusses her life as a female lawyer, I was living and working in Pakistan, and I was shocked at how talentless, mediocre men were promoted and given preference over harder-working and more deserving women. This wasn’t just in the legal profession but practically every profession. At the same time, globally there was an increasing recognition of the inequity women face in the workforce. When the Aurat March came to Pakistan, I was disturbed by the backlash against women asking for their basic rights. These weren’t controversial in my mind yet men publicly responded in the most ridiculous and dismissive ways. I would listen to women (including my wife) and would be horrified at what they had to endure.
I took much of the frustration I was hearing and put into Sanah’s voice. This is someone who had to navigate a patriarchal system, and had to adjust how she speaks with men to keep them from feeling threatened. It is the reality of women in the workplace in Pakistan (and many other parts of the world). I wanted to capture it because I found it frustrating, and I felt Sanah’s character would as well.
TK: Sanah seems to be far more knowledgeable about the machinations of the Pakistani legal system and is, therefore, more pragmatic about the struggle for justice. Sikander, though well-meaning, appears to be hopelessly idealistic about the realities of the justice system. Do you agree?
OH: With any question concerning the characters and the meaning, I have opted to be vague in my answer. Why? Because I think every reader brings their own unique perspective to a novel, and my version, even though I wrote it, is no less or more valid than anyone else’s.
You are right about the relative depth of their knowledge and understanding of Pakistan’s legal system at the beginning of the novel. But, both of them, by the end, are aware of the grim realities of the system. And, like so many human rights lawyers in Pakistan, they continue to work in the field because it’s important, and, on a rare occasion, they are able to make a real difference and save a life.
TK: Do you believe Danesh Masih is a victim?
OH: In the end, we are led to believe that Danesh fled to save Sikander. In some sense, through that action, he isn’t a victim but a hero, dying so that another may be saved. Readers may have another perspective but he isn’t just a victim or pawn. He demonstrates some agency in the end.
TK: Do you view Pir Paya as a villain in the story or is he merely the product of the intolerance that plagues Pakistani society?
OH: Among the different themes, The Verdict explores individual versus collective responsibility, and the idea of predetermination versus self-determination. A reader’s views on these topics and the arguments made in the novel, will determine how s/he views Pir Piya. Pir Piya could be a villain, a product of intolerance, or something in between.
When we consider him a villain, we focus on his selfish actions, always geared towards self-preservation and personal enrichment. We dismiss his statements concerning his own motivations to help save Danesh as simply self-delusion. Though compelling, this view isn’t necessarily right.
We could just as easily argue that he is a product of religious intolerance in society, and a victim of circumstance. We discover the abuse he suffered as a child (a common characteristic of child abusers) and how he is blackmailed into turning on Danesh. In The Verdict, his final confrontation with Sikander has been removed. However, in the Indian edition of the novel, he acknowledges that he finds himself in a metaphorical prison, which lends itself to the idea that he feels he is trapped. Still, we see other characters face tremendous hardship who don’t turn into villains. So where does the blame lie? Is Pir Piya a villain or a product of intolerance? Perhaps, he is both. I hope readers will come to their own conclusions.
TK: Was it difficult finding a publisher for your novel in Pakistan?
OH: As you know, in the old days, Pakistani authors could find a publisher in India who would edit the work, design book covers, print the books, market the novels, and negotiate with distributors to make the books available in bookstores in Pakistan. This worked out well for everyone. However, for the past couple of years, a book ban has prevented Indian publishers from selling their books in Pakistan. This means Pakistani authors have had to find local publishers. This is easier said than done.
In Pakistan, there aren’t many established publishers. Even the ones that do exist don’t offer the kind of support and systems that publishers in India offer their authors.
But for me, the bigger challenge was overcoming a publisher’s concerns with printing a novel that tackled such sensitive topics in Pakistan. This was made even more difficult when the Punjab government introduced stricter censorship laws. In fact, one publisher whose internal reviewers had unanimously approved the novel, cited the new laws and a fear of being targeted as the primary reason that they would not publish the novel. Other publishers simply didn’t respond, possibly for similar reasons (or perhaps it didn’t match their tastes).
I started to think that the book would only be sold by printers who would distribute pirated copies of the Indian edition. But then an author and entrepreneur reached out to me about a new publishing house she was setting up. She had been frustrated by the lack of support for authors, and she reached out to me because her friend had recommended my book. I shared it with her, she made me an offer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
TK: The Verdict has both an Indian and a Pakistan edition. How different are the two editions of the book?
OH: The Indian edition did not say anything blasphemous. An Islamic scholar should not take issue with any of the statements in the novel. However, in order to minimise any risk of a misinterpretation or public backlash, my editor highlighted some potentially problematic segments that they thought I should rework. I reworded certain phrases and I removed several scenes.
Your next question would obviously be what were those scenes and how do I feel about the changes.
There was a scene in the middle of the novel where we see the relationship between Baba and Pir Paya develop against the background of the formation of the blasphemy law. I understood how these scenes may have become problematic for the publisher so I agreed to remove them. It was arguably also less interesting for the reader. For those who are interested, an article in Dawn by Arafat Mazhar, titled ‘The untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law’, addresses many of the broader issues raised in the scene.
The other major scene that was removed was at the very end of the novel. Those scenes brought the story and characters into the present and tied them to the current events. However, I had not written these chapters in the first draft I shared with my Indian publishers. In fact, the original version I shared with them, ended where The Verdict ends. My Indian publishers had felt that the ending didn’t feel complete and that readers needed to know more about what happens next.
Though I was happy with the extended ending when I wrote it for the Indian edition, I like the ending of The Verdict because it allows the reader to imagine what happens next (while also tying up all the loose ends). I also think the ending in The Verdict is a better ending for readers in Pakistan since readers in Pakistan do not have to be told as much about what is happening today.
In the end, both versions are very similar. The primary message of the novel is unchanged and the essence remains the same. I am proud of both versions, and am especially happy that I can share the story with readers in Pakistan. The book was always meant to be a conversation with them.