On Place-Based Storytelling: A Conversation with Bee Gul
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On Place-Based Storytelling: A Conversation with Bee Gul

“I think I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree” 

Joyce Kilmer

Watching contemporary Pakistani drama serials can never make one come to terms with the fact that drama, after all, is a genre of Literature. Such is the damage which commercialization has caused to the drama industry which was once (and not too long ago) inhabited  with writers having credible educational backgrounds. However, there is hope which the viewers seek in the scripts of writers like Bee Gul.

Bee Gul, who holds a degree in English Literature, adapted one of the most intricate pieces of South Asian fiction, The God of Small Things and whose Dar Si Jati Hai Sila ended on a realistic, instead of an idealistic note is known for her serene, subtle and post-modern narratives that flow like the human life itself – at times slow, at times fast, and at times, not moving at all. Although Gul’s scripts’ close connection with reality may disturb some people not ready to meet life as it is, her stories have carved a special niche for themselves: as deep and hard-hitting narratives that come every once in a while on our TV screens and leave an imprint for many months to come. Keeping in view how Literary theory has evolved over time, it seemed imperative to interview a writer such as her in order to discuss how Pakistani place-based narratives come to the fore in the contemporary times, which pay a lot of attention to how geography affects stories. Bee Gul, who has travelled Pakistan extensively, producing dramatic works from all corners of the country was therefore selected as the ideal choice for being interviewed, to see how the cities she has travelled helped shape her stories. With special focus on Karachi, or “the city by the sea” as Kamila Shamsie puts it, the interview covers other cities too; especially the ones Gul has stayed in and their influences on her as a writer.

MA: As someone who has studied Literature, you must be aware of the fact that settings have a significant role to play in stories. During your years spent in Karachi, how do you think the city helped shape your narratives?

BG: Yes, settings definitely influence your storytelling. When I moved to Karachi, stimulated by my nomadic disposition that keeps me traveling from one place to another and has thereby helped me explore multiple provinces, I found the sea to be the most prominent feature of it. I was living right across the vast water-body and couldn’t help but notice how it keeps changing its mood. The same sea emerges as a different entity every time the sun changes its position. The dawn has its own effect on it, while noon and dusk cause its waves to play a unique game altogether. This romanticism embedded in the varying moods of the sea directly influenced my writings. Apart from that, Karachi is not a very comfortable city to live in. This discomfort, that stems from an unstable socio-political structure and has permanently associated itself with the city, has brought a lot of texture to my stories. The chaos helped me find my identity and kept on urging me to explore myself amidst the never-ending hustle and bustle of the biggest city Pakistan has. Finding myself lost in Karachi, my stories took on motifs that had to do with self-connection.

MA: Which of your Karachi based works is closest to your heart and why?

BG: Raqeeb Se, without a second thought! Raqeeb Se was exactly what Karachi gave me; the opportunity, as I mentioned before, to connect with my deeper self. It turned out to be the recluse you seek for in an environment that is not providing you the serenity you require in order to compose yourself. The more unsubtle the city was, the more subtlety started surfacing in the script of Raqeeb Se. The shallower I found the city of Karachi, the deeper the nuances of Raqeeb Se started to grow.

MA: Name one thing that renders Karachi a more conducive place for writing.

The chaos that is Karachi! The chaos inclines you to connect more with yourself, thereby adding depth to your stories.

During the Shoot of Talkhiyan, Bhurban, Murree, 2013 “The trees are coming into leaf Like something almost being said; The recent buds relax and spread, Their greenness is a kind of grief” – Philip Larkin

MA: A great team of Pakistani writers belongs to Karachi. While Faseeh Bari has written about the city’s lower middle class, Haseena Moin has focused on the upper strata. In which category do you place your characters? Can they be labelled, or are these identities fluid like the city itself?

BG: Faseeh Bari Khan and Haseena Moin belong to Karachi, which I don’t. I, on the other hand, belong to so many cities simultaneously. It would be even better to say that I belong to a certain class instead of a certain city. Although hailing from the middle class, I have been in very close connection with the upper as well as the lower middle classes. Coming towards my characters, I believe I haven’t dealt with a specific city’s class hierarchy ever. I have tried to talk about, what we may call, a collective middle class society of our entire country, for, I identify more with it.

MA: Name a few writers from the literary canon who belong to Karachi and have inspired you a lot.

BG: Zahida Hina, Asif Farrukhi, Ghulam Abbas, Fehmida Riaz and Zehra Nigah.

MA: River Ravi of Lahore had an essential part to play in Raqeeb Se. While it shed light on the disturbed relationship between Maqsood and Hajra, its dryness also succeeded in associating itself with Hajra’s lackluster married life. Had Raqeeb Se been shot in Karachi, which place would you have chosen for Maqsood and Ameera’s respite?

BG: It was never River Ravi while I was writing the script for Raqeeb Se. It entered because the serial came to be shot in Lahore. Otherwise, I had thought out the setting to be a pre-Partition locality of Karachi, and the sea, to be more specific about Ameera and Maqsood’s visit to a fluvial area. Karachi’s sea, at that point, held a lot of importance for me. I had conceived an entire scenario of Ameera and Maqsood bringing back to their home some remains of their errand to the sea, such as the grains of sand caught in their sandals while hanging out on the beach; a collective procurement from the site. Apart from that, there is a roughness to the sea of Karachi: one that becomes linked with it, owing to the madness the city carries, and the garbage that is there on its beach, producing a foul smell. While the roughness would have synchronized with Ameera’s head over heels involvement with Maqsood, the vastness of the sea would have, at the same time, referred towards the absence of boundaries, or maybe, towards the openness and acceptance that both love and come to carry.

MA: We are living in an age where the literati are expected to have an eco-consciousness as well. If you were to write an environmentally concerned serial, which aspect of Karachi’s environment would you take first of all?

BG: I would love to talk about the water crisis in Karachi. I find it very ironic how in a city, by a roaring and raging sea, there is a dearth of drinking water. People, regardless of which class they belong to, have to buy it. When placed in comparison with Punjab where there is ample water flowing from every tap around every corner of every street, the province of Sindh comes forward as much neglected.  All the same, the absence of drinking water becomes incomprehensible seeing a sea so vast that it can engulf the entire city. I have also pointed this out in my recent theatre play called Kal Agar Mein Mar Jaun. Water, you see, is a symbol of life. Its absence, particularly in the lives of Karachiites who work extremely hard day and night, is quite a painful fact to come to terms with. Karachi, like its sea, is quite absorbent to various ethnicities and therefore has accepted people from all regions who go there to make money. But, when they come across the water scarcity in the city, it results in disappointment. I become teary-eyed for Karachi when I see rains and greenery and security here in Punjab, all the while thinking that Karachi, which pays the heftiest amount of tax is suffering from the absence of so many things.

MA: From Quetta to Islamabad to Karachi to Lahore, how has the characterization evolved? Which city would you choose as your final writing resort providing the most well-grounded characters?

BG: All of the four cities are quite different from each other, not only in terms of their respective cultures or the vibes they give off, but in terms of their landscapes as well. From their cartographies to their weather conditions, they stand out as unique in their own ways. Accordingly, their influences on me have also always varied. Quetta may carry vast, barren lands and extremely cold winters, but spring in Quettta never fails to please, with its trees loaded with apples, cherries and apricots. Faiz’s verse jaise veerane mein chupke se bahaar ajaye applies quite well to Quetta’s springs. My writing career began in Quetta, and it was this delicate and romantic environment of the city that became my muse. Back then, I wrote a couple of theatre plays and a short story, which ironically was set on an extremely hot summer day. The story revolved around a man walking towards the bus station, but the entire description it carried was of intense heat, while Quetta was witnessing one of its coldest Decembers at that point in time.

From Quetta I moved to Islamabad, which if placed in comparison to Quetta, was quite a well-developed city. It was new, modern and did not have a lot of culture to its history. However, the winding roads and slopes at every corner set it apart. Moreover, on Eids, the city would grow breathtakingly serene as all the people who had come to earn would move to their respective cities, leaving Islamabad drenched in quietness. It was then when I wrote Pehchaan, Firdous Ki Dozakh, Jashan Ka Din Hai and Talkhiyan, an adaptation of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

The peaceful landscape of Islamabad is quite comforting, especially when compared to Quetta’s extreme weathers which upset you emotionally. There is a placidity to Islamabad which keeps you emotionally stable, and your mood pleasant. Whenever I had to write, I would go to a park or a hill or a walking trail and conceive stories. I would keep writing for hours and hours on benches that I had chosen for myself, observing trees as a respite between my writing hours. I chose all the locations myself for Pehchaan, most of them being those places where I had written its scenes. Islamabad and I accepted each other, the city providing me with all of its peace and comfort and me giving it all my creativity. The city’s quietness also made me socialize less and focus on my characters more, thereby infusing richness and depth into them. While in Islamabad, I started living my stories, all of them carrying Islamabad’s golden autumns, short-lived springs and benign summers, or to be precise, the romance of Islamabad. Moving to Karachi from Islamabad gave me a cultural shock. I felt myself as invisible amidst the noise in Karachi. Quite opposite to what I felt about myself in Islamabad, Karachi made me feel as if no one has the time to notice what I am doing as a creative writer. Talking about influence, you can see how my Islamabad based screenplays have a lot to do with nature, while Raqeeb Se, Dil Aara and Dar Si Jati Hai Sila are domesticated stories, set within four walls. These stories came from the inside, linked to people existing all around me, in a populated city like Karachi, and not to the environment. Talking about Lahore, which is my birthplace, I have come back here after many moons.

However, the city was once far greener and more beautiful. The new roads, bridges and flyovers have made me lose my way countless times. Most of those paths and recently developed societies are entirely new to me. The people of Lahore have changed too. They are not the Lahoris I used to know back then when I was studying here. Lahore’s culture has grown louder, yet continues to remain caring. Here, in Lahore, I have written a serial by the name of Working Women for Yasra Rizvi. The story is open like Lahore’s roads and Lahoris’ hearts. In Lahore, my stories got out of the four walls of Karachi and faced the broad roads and alleys of the Lahore. I believe that I have developed more relatable characters in Working Women, the common type you come across in Lahore. It can be considered as Lahore’s capacity to make you meet people from all social classes. It does not let you cling to a specific class. After resettling here, I had to move about a lot to find a place for myself, which made me meet all kinds of people. Those interactions helped shape my writing in a more relatable manner while working on the script of Working Women.

MA: You adapted Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The novel is being looked at from a hydro-critical perspective by the existing literary scholars. If you were to adapt the novel in 2021, how would you bring its river Meenachal into play?

BG: Well, this is the quality of a good piece of Literature. A writer writes it from a different point of view, but with every passing day, the story starts connecting itself with new thoughts and needs of the time, thereby remaining relevant and everlasting. Similarly, The God of Small Things is as much inspirational to me as it was ten years ago. Thinking of adapting it still gives me goosebumps, the way it did when I first made the decision to adapt it. However, if I were to go for it again, I might take the river itself as the narrator, in accordance with the importance water-bodies have gained in Literature over the years.

MA: The river, according to one of the characters, smells “of shit, and pesticides”. While this callousness towards water may sound as something connecting both Pakistan and India in terms of their attitude towards nature, what is it that inspired you to go for Roy’s novel’s adaptation?

BG: I don’t think there can be a straight or simple answer to this question. The novel and I share a very strong emotional bond. Each and every word of it had entered my soul while I was adapting it as Talkhiyan. Now when I come to think of why I was so attracted to the novel, I realize that it is the real tragedies the story is fraught with. I am naturally inclined towards tragedies. Sadness, I believe, is an emotion far bigger and everlasting than happiness. Tragedies continue to haunt human beings for many years, impacting them more than their days of happiness. Time and again, The God of Small Things tugs at your heart with its recurring episodes of sorrow. Roy has dealt with death in a very straightforward manner, making your fears come true. Similarly, through her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, she hurts you at the places you are already bleeding. The God of Small Things is an honest tragedy giving birth to an honest trauma. I got addicted to the novel so much that I would repeatedly go through it. Even while I was writing Dar Si Jati Hai Sila and Raqeeb Se, I would open up Roy’s novel off and on and read a paragraph or two to re-enter an emotionally charged, inspirational phase. The only other novel that gives me such a stimulus is Qurutulain Haider’s Aag Ka Dariya. These books give you stories drenched in sadness. And, I believe, you cannot write anything without going through life’s sorrows, which constitute a major part of it.

MA: You have to your name, an award-winning pre-Partition themed telefilm called Kaun Qamar Ara. If we talk about adaptation, which of these pre and post Partition works would you like to adapt, and why?

Dastak Na Do by Altaf Fatima
Angan and Zameen by Khadija Mastoor
Aage Samandar Hai by Intizar Hussein
Udaas Naslein by Abdullah Hussain
Khaak Aur Khoon by Nasim Hijazi

BG: I would like to adapt all of these. I was brought up by my nani (maternal grandmother) and I have remained in very close connection with that generation ever since I was born. These people were the immigrants who had left their homes behind, and were victims of both nostalgia and denial. Despite terribly missing their original homeland, they would never say that the decision of partitioning the subcontinent was wrong. Their sorrow, however, was quite evident. My nani migrated to Lahore to settle into a very old house in Model Town. When the chaos of 1947 subsided and traveling became easier, the real owner of the house would visit my nani to pick up a few things he had left behind; and to spend a few hours in the comfort of his real home. I saw people from both the sides grieving, yet keeping to themselves what they had in their hearts and minds. I saw them confused as to whether they should say that what happened should not have happened, or to accept it as a sacrifice in the name of religion and nationalism. This conflict in their personalities made me go for Kaun Qamar Ara as my first telefilm. I tried to cover that sorrow, nostalgia and the denial all the same in Kaun Qamar Ara which I had observed and heard. If I were to make a sudden choice from the list you have given, I would go for Khadija Mastoor’s Angan. I was quite unhappy when Mustafa Afridi dramatized it for HUM TV, all the time sulking on an opportunity being snatched away from me (laughs). I have my mother’s copy of the novel, the very cover of which inspires me. Angan gives out a very realistic picture of how middle-class families were affected during 1947. Moreover, its strong-headed female protagonist makes me relate even more to it. Her efforts to be an independent woman with a strong sense of integrity have always rendered her an ideal female character for me. Besides, the subtle cultural shock that is there in the last chapters of the novel adds to all the important aspects which the novel covers regarding the Partition. After Angan, I would go for Intizar Hussein’s Aage Samandar Hai.

MA: Coming towards Queer Literature, Pakistan’s capital city harbors some of the most creative of Pakistan’s bisexual artists. Still, the most hard-hitting Pakistani LGBQT telefilm “Chewing Gum” emerged from Karachi, under your supervision. Why do you think Islamabad’s creative artists choose to remain closeted when it comes to gay/lesbian dramatic works?

BG: Islamabad is a very small city that does not let you hide. The few parks and trails or restaurants are known to everyone and therefore, people frequently keep running into each other. This has, accordingly, resulted in subtle queer stories being told in whispers only. This is not the case in Karachi at all. Karachi is already so chaotic that even if you are standing in a crowd, people wouldn’t notice you. Even if they do, they won’t bother to probe into your personal matters. Karachi’s social setting is intricate like a web, unlike that of Islamabad’s. The richness of ethnicity therefore, and the diversity in personalities makes Karachi a place where you can narrate such stories without offending a majority of your population who still is rigid when it comes to unique sexual orientations. Karachi is a port city, where people are not concerned about keeping their roots intact; since there is no single culture over there, no one will tell you to save the integrity of that single, acceptable culture. Karachi, therefore, gave us the margin to tell a story like Chewing Gum. Adeel Razzaq, the writer, brought it to me although with many doubts pertaining to the reception of a story based on lesbianism. We decided to go ahead with it and succeeded. As I mentioned earlier, the sea of Karachi is in synchronization with the sea of people here, and that sea of people further produces a sea of narratives. Stories which cannot be told in small cities are brought by writers to Karachi, which gives them the margin to tell them with courage.


Muhammad Ali is an M.Phil scholar and a former visiting lecturer at Government College University, Lahore. His interest areas include classic and contemporary Pakistani television drama, Literary Environmental studies and Partition novel. He has also written for various local newspapers including The Friday Times, The Current, The Nation, Daily Times and The News. His research work on Sahira Kazmi’s Zaib-un-Nisa which was a part of his graduation thesis has been presented on various platforms such as Olomopolo Media and UMT’s conference on the Contemporary Trends in Linguistic and Literary Research.

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