By this time the press in Lahore, recommended by Javid, had also readied the book. I had sketched a crow for the royal purple cover.
Javid Iqbal did a strange thing. He tore off the front and back jackets from some books and distributed them among the writers in Lahore, most of whom were his friends.
Now it happened that my brother, Minoo, was sitting next to the beloved poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz on a flight from Islamabad to Lahore. Faiz was of course well known and everyone on the plane greeted him. After chatting for a while with Minoo, he took out a shabby looking book from his pocket and knowing my brother was a Parsi, handed it to him saying ‘This book is written by a Parsi woman. Would you know who she is?’
After leafing through the book, Minoo found some of the material uncannily familiar and said: ‘I think my sister writes…I think it is written by her.’
They came straight to our flat from the airport. I was so honored to see Faiz Sahib in our home. In those days, we had only one air conditioner and it was in the bedroom. My husband and I ushered Faiz Sahib straight to a small alcove there. It had, a cushioned bench against a window with a coffee-table before it, a couple of chairs, and book-shelves on either side.
I remember the scene vividly. Before sitting down, Faiz Ahmed Faiz dropped the book on the coffee table and said: ‘Have you written this book?’
Although I recognized it, I wondered why the book had no covers on either end. I said hesitantly: ‘Yes, I wrote it.’
‘It’s a good second rate book,’ he announced magnanimously.
After Khushwant Singh’s laudatory remarks about The Crow Eaters manuscript, I felt a twinge of disappointment, but coming from Faiz, it was nevertheless a compliment. I mumbled: ‘Thank you, Faiz Sahib.’
He said: ‘It’s a good book. You write like Narayan, Naipaul and all those writers…you know who I mean.’
I revered Naipaul’s writing and I said: ‘But Faiz Sahib, that’s blasphemy. How can you compare me with Naipaul?’
‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I can.’
‘If Naipaul is a second rate writer,’ I asked timidly, ‘who do you consider first rate?’
Faiz said: ‘Shakespeare, Milton, Dante…’
I looked at him, unable to say anything.
We had some tea and samosas and spent a pleasant evening together before my brother took Faiz away to his home for a drink. Faiz Sahib recommended the book to a Russian publisher and it was titled The Fire Worshippers.
The Crow Eaters was launched at the Intercontinental Hotel in Lahore. A slew of writers lined up by Javid Iqbal talked about the book. But before we were halfway through, we were requested to quickly vacate the hall because of a bomb threat. We later discovered, to our surprise, that a Parsi had made the phone call; Faiz Ahmed Faiz had been precinct when he wrote on the back jacket of the book, “… Her exposition, or exposure, may or may not please her confreres [Parsis] but it will certainly endear her to every reader who comes across the book…” Up to this point, the Parsis had almost never been written about in fiction and they could not stand to see themselves depicted as less than perfect.
After the launch, the shabby little self published book was sent by an English friend to Caroline Dawnay, my new agent in London. Two weeks later I received a marvelous acceptance letter from the esteemed editor Liz Calder at Jonathan Cape. Caroline Dawnay has been not only my agent but a dear friend ever since .
Liz Calder was considered the best literary editor at the time and when the Crow Eaters was published every newspaper and magazine carried a review. It won the David Higham award for first books. (The award was withdrawn when Mr. Bhutto slapped his shoe on the table in a fury and withdrew Pakistan from the commonwealth) A year later Cape published The Pakistani Bride and soon after that both books were published by St. Martin’s in America.
I would like to make an observation here: I think the printed word appears to make a book look more worthy than just a typed manuscript.
As I was an absentee writer, St. Martin’s did nothing for the book, and it fell through the cracks. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. and Cracking India was published by Milkweed Editions, that I achieved recognition in the United States. They subsequently published all my other books, including The Crow Eaters.
During that time, Kushwant Singh had recommended The Crow Eaters to Penguin in India, and they consequently published all my work, as did Oxford University Press in Karachi. In fact, my first collection of short stories, Their Language of Love has just been published by Penguin in India (February 2013) and by Readings Books in Lahore, Pakistan, simultaneously.
I never had a set time to write. I wrote when the children were at school and my husband at work. I wrote whenever I could snatch a few moments to write, at other times I wrote the whole night through. I hastily wrote narrated anecdotes or thoughts that suddenly came to me while driving or at a party on scraps of paper or even napkins and receipts. We took plenty of vacations but the novels remained in me and I could always return to them where I had left off. I wrote when I found time.