By Sonya Rehman
Six years ago, during his research for an article on Pakistan’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the late Dr. Abdus Salam, Zarrar Said had an epiphany. Why not write a book about the man who was lauded by the world and yet ousted by his own country? Why not initiate a dialogue on an unsung hero’s extraordinary story of love, identity and loss?
The more Said studied Salam’s life, the more he was seized by a feverish urgency to share the physicist’s remarkable journey from a small town in Jhang, in the province of Punjab, to the world stage of groundbreaking scientific discovery.
“His life was a tragedy,” Said states, “It hurt me that not only were his achievements ignored by his homeland, but that his community – the Ahmadiyya minority in Pakistan – [have been] systematically persecuted and deemed as imposters.”
Inspired by Salam’s life, Pureland, published late last year by Harper Collins, is the 38-year-old’s debut novel which includes some of the many intriguing elements of the physicist’s story amidst the backdrop of a country in the chokehold of religious fundamentalism.
A gripping read, Said admits that there were many times during the six years of penning Pureland when he felt compelled to abandon the notion of ever getting published, given the excruciating process of dealing with rejection upon rejection from a number of book publishers.
“There were many times I had given up,” he says, “But there was something about the story that kept me going. My characters are real living entities for me. I had to find them a home. I wanted to do justice to Salam’s legacy and at the same time, release this burden that I had put on myself.”
Based in New York, the author reveals how the running thread of magical realism in Pureland highlights the many fantastical incidents that took place in Salam’s own life; incidents which mesmerized Said to no end.
“[His] life was full of magic. When he was a young boy, his father took him to a soothsayer because he wasn’t able to talk,” the author states, “The mystic announced that he would one day speak so loud that the world would hear him. Salam’s life was a prophecy. Pureland begins with this very prophecy, but then throughout the course of the book, this is reminded to the reader through instances that might seem magical, but are firmly rooted in reality. Without reality, magical realism doesn’t work.”
With his novel currently shortlisted for the local Adab Festival Pakistan’s Getz Pharma Fiction Prize and his upcoming trip to Lahore as a featured author at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), next month, Said hopes his novel sparks a much-needed dialogue on the disregarded physicist in Pakistan.
“I only imagine what shape the country would have taken had Salam been allowed to live in Pakistan as a regular citizen with the ability to inspire other scientists,” he states, “But that’s not the case. Pakistan’s loss was Europe’s victory. My point is, societies cannot survive if they buy into the idea of being culturally monogamous. Building walls and spreading hate has its shortcomings. These kinds of stories always have bad endings. That is what I am trying to say in the book. Pureland can be anywhere. Let’s not let that happen.”