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Ali Sethi's 'The Wish Maker'


Of all the countries in all the world, Pakistan generates the hottest headlines lately.

North Korea comes close, with its nukes. But Pakistan has nukes, plus Al Qaeda, plus the Taliban, plus near civil war, plus drones, plus a hot American war in Afghanistan right next door.

Debut novelist Ali Sethi is Pakistani and 24, an American-educated son of Lahore, son of prominent Pakistani journalist parents, now looking to make sense of the cultural roots of his own country’s trials. His new book is “The Wish Maker.”

This hour, On Point: The life behind the headlines out of Pakistan, with novelist Ali Sethi.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Ali Sethi joins us from New York. He grew up in Pakistan, the son of prominent Pakistani journalists, and went to college in the United States. He currently lives in Lahore. His work has been published in The Nation and The New York Times. His debut novel, out yesterday, is “The Wish Maker.”

Here’s a video in which Ali speaks about the book:

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  • Lorie

    This detailed understanding of the situation in PK is so important. Thank you to Tom Ashbrook for having Ali Sethi on and thank you to Ali Sethi for helping us understand. The U.S. seems to think PK is the key to a lot of trouble and so has been putting a lot of pressure on the nation, but it is so important for us to have a deeper understanding of PK history and the population’s orientation, our role in the country’s history, etc. I wonder what is the possibility for reform of land ownership in the country – although this isn’t the foremost problem in the country today, I wonder if it is at the root of a lot of the nation’s problems – illiteracy, poverty, a regressive conservatism that is prevalent in some rural areas? What does Sethi think of this issue?

  • ashish verma

    I enjoyed listening to Tom Ashbrook and Ali Sethi. It is important that we are able to hear the voices of moderate Islam which is so brushed aside by this barrage of evil videos in the ongoing propaganda war. For centuries, Sufism, a very moderate and progressive form of Islam, has been the dominant form of Islam in South Asia but the followers have not had any visibility/voice since the British left the subcontinent. The void has been filled by a succession of military juntas who have imported and fomented on the hapless people of Pakistan a more radical way of life to justify their own existence and their perpetual struggle with the secular state of India. It is surprising to see how similar the Indians and Pakistanis are to each other despite sixty years of segregation. Yet where as India is emerging as a secular, democratic nation state, Pakistan is literally on deathbed. The only reason for this dichotomy is that while democracy thrived in India, the voice of the people of Pakistan has been suppressed and the ruling elite has ignored nation building. There is a lesson for all those who think democracy doesn’t work!

  • Mike

    get show, deep and thought provoking

  • Susanna Golden Tyagi

    I just loved hearing about Sethi’s book today and I am
    going straight over to Barnes & Noble to buy a copy
    What an eye opener!

  • Ellen Dibble

    I second that last comment.

  • Shelagh Foreman

    Thank you for the excellent program with Ali Sethi. Itis so important to hear his calm and lucid description of the situation in Pakistan at this time. Will he be coming to Boston to promote his novel? How can we contact him to encourage him to do so?

  • CRamS

    First of all, I assume Ali Sethi the son of Najam Sethi, the well-known Pakistani journalist?

    Ali Sethi definitely does sound moderate, but as a keen observer of the rich, educated, suave, anglo-phile Pakistani elite like Ali Sethi, whose voices are often heard in the western media, I suspect there is an element of sophistry and duplicity in his pronouncements.

    First of all, for all his protestations that majority of Pakistanis (especially from the Punjab region) are vehemently opposed to the Taliban, my suggestion to Ali would be to roll tape to pre-9/11, and witness the state of denial by the Anglo-phile elites like him at that time, namely, Pakistan has no control over the Taliban, there is no such thing as terrorism and extremism emanating from Pakistani soil; and this at a time, and which continues to this day, when Pakistan’s state-sponsored Islamic terrorism against India was in full throttle. The bottom line is that the elites like Ali Sethis only started to speak out against the Taliban when the United States exerted tremendous pressure on Pakistan post 9/11. Likewise, to this day, most Pakistanis, moderate or otherwise, are either in denial or covertly and overtly support the likes of other extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), who under the direct tutelage of Pakistan’s army, intelligence (ISI), and suave political elites (who profess abhorrence to the Taliban), have caused colossal mayhem and mass slaughter in India. Witness the lack of any contrition or remorse among the Pakistani public at large to the recent Mumbai massacre (and countless others) perpetrated by the LeT and other assorted extremists under Pakistan’s control. And this will not stop until either India brings to the fore the kind of pressure United States exerted, which sadly India is incapable of or unwilling; or Unites States sheds its brazen hypocrisy and holds Pakistan accountable (with conditions attached to the massive military/economical aid) for eliminating all kinds of extremists, not just the “bad” Taliban & Al Quaeda, but also those “good” terrorists like LeT.

    Also, Ali Sethi did not offer a convincing rebuttal to one of the callers, who brazenly suggested that all of Pakistan’s internal turmoils are the result of partition of British India in 1947, with all of the Moghul’s grandiose achievements, including the Taj Mahal, and other symbols of Muslim glory like Kashmir etc going to India. It is the result this deep rooted cancerous thinking embedded in the Pakistani psyche, that Pakistan is unable to re-concise itself as a nation. It is always India’s fault. And this manifests in their use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy against India, to either unsettle India, or take India down in a nuclear holocaust. Moderate voices like Ali Sethi, if in fact they choose to be genuinely moderate, must find a way to rid themselves of the India-centric hateful obsession if they are to rid themselves of the extremist gangrene in their midst.

  • Guru Shubhada

    The so called sufis were first and foremost agents and spies of middle-eastern imperialists who used religion for enslavement, loot and plunder of the people. There were few Sufis who were genuine saints but even for them question is why did they not use local language.., why they have to make distant desert land sacred why do they have to make alien foreign language

  • guru shubhada

    The day local Panjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, Brohi, Kandhahari became Arabically named Ahmed or Najam, gave divinity to distant alien Allah he became internally dispossessed person (IDP). He picked up alien identity throwing away his ancestral rich culture, language and history. Such as IDP is not at peace with himself and so a threat to humanity. He can be easily manipulated by outsiders be they Turks, Mongols, Arabs or British. After 1857 nationalistic freedom of India was fought by the people who identified themselves with the land such as Hindus and Sikhs.

    Mohammed Ali Jinah the so called founder of Pakistan retired to England in 1931 and was living there for six years where he was briefed and enticed by British to lead the partitioning of India so that a permanently dependent state can be created to fight others wars and work for its distant masters. Partition happened at the cost of lives of one million humans and rapes of half a million women. Later Pakistani butchered three million its own citizens mostly Hindus in todays Bangladesh. At that time 10 Million refugees came to India.

    We should say Yes to spirituality but NOOO to religion which robs peoples identity, culture and language. Root cause of violence and terrorism is this Abrahmic concept called religion.

  • guru shubhada

    Fellow Americans please ask right questions:

    a) why there is no democracy in any of the Muslim land, even our dear friend Saudi Arabia?

    b) why 9/11 was hatched in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistani ISI and all the hijackers of those ill-fated planes were Arab but none Iranians? Because Iran though Muslim kept its identity intact. The people of Iran are not IDPs and so are more at peace with themselves but we cannot say the same with other converted people such as Pakistanis.

    c) After partition todays pakistan had 24% Hindus, today they are hardly 1%. In India Muslim population increased from 8% to 14%

  • Ellen Dibble

    I am wondering if someone can recommend a book that presents Pakistani ways before the invasion of Arabic religion and control (or British). Ali Sethi mentioned one contemporary poet, and referred to 15th century and 16th century poets. Are there some poets who were keeping civilization centered in its roots? Or were these Muslim poets.
    Maybe very few non-Westernized sources have been translated. If literacy in Pakistan is low, traditions are oral… It would explain a lot.
    I have to review the history of the Bangladeshi split in 1971. Or maybe I’d better not. It seems publications can be very slanted toward the West if available here.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Ali Sethi was talking about Zia in the 1980s bringing in madrassah’s, Wahabi I suppose, from Saudi Arabia. It makes me think of guru shubhada’s remark about a kind of vacuum in the civilization where a transplant religion has not solidified an identity. So bring in Saudi money and Saudi schools and Saudi religion? Is that it?
    I think of Iran as having a strong civilization from thousands of years back, Persia, a crossroads, a center of culture and strength.
    We should maybe think of Pakistan the same way. I believe every child learns in elementary school that the great civilizations began in the river valleys, notably the Indus River, the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates.
    So the Indus River is still in Pakistan. An ancient identity should be available to reclaim. Right?

  • guru shubhada

    Panini the grammarian of Sanskrit and so of all the so called IndoEuropean languages came from Pushkalavati, Gandhara ie todays Peshawar in NWFP and Swat valley.

    Patanjali who wrote YogaSutra came from same area.

    Sage Valmiki a tribal ex-decoit wrote Ramayan the longest epic at that time 10-12K years back came from bank of Ravi in Panjab. Lahore was established by Lord Ram’s son Lav.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Thank you very much, guru shubhada. You give a little frame for what you were talking about and a few places and names to read about. — I had thought the Ramayana was Indian — I mean, I hadn’t thought of Pakistan. Personally, I view old Indian religions except Buddhism as hard to understand (too many deities, too distant from my ken). Actually, I keep hoping for novels that will tie the old and the new (for any part of the subcontinent), so it makes better sense to me. From what you say, Pakistanis could use some knitting of the old to the new as well.

  • JE Menon

    Thank you for your patience and interest Ellen. As a matter of fact, the Ramayana is Indian… Pakistan is a very recent construct, having been conceived only in the mid-20th century as the “Land of the Pure” (that’s what “Pakistan” means) – a refuge for Muslims who did not wish to co-exist with people of other faiths. The area which constitutes Pakistan today used to be India. It was the Indian civilisation that was uprooted and excised from these areas by the sword of Islam in numerous waves of invasions since the 8th century AD.

  • Ellen Dibble

    JE Menon, I heard on NPR, I believe — national media, anyway — someone stating that “Pakistan” is a construct patched together from P for Punjab, K for Kashmir, Stan for Baluchistan — there is another region also in the word. I suppose Paki is Urdu for pure.
    Oh, I found “pakeezgi” on the net as Urdu for purity.
    I see parallels for Pakistan as Land of the Pure, while we’re looking in so lofty a way at national identity, with (a) 17th century colonial America, and (b) Israel. In the case of the Pilgrims, peregrine people, displaced ones, Puritans, in 1620 coming to Plymouth, they were seeking refuge to live their faith. In the case of Israel, Jews who went there were seeking the same.
    In the case of Pakistan, the huge number of people makes the situation seem different. I believe multitudes were violently herded there by Hindus.
    But Pakistan seems to me more an ethnic than a religious identity, swept together in a way more akin to the caste system in India, in an attempt to prevent mobility and opportunity. Or maybe a legacy of pent-up hatred/resentment. You point to “the waves of Islamic invasion since the 8th century,” and I can imagine Indians would build that into their hostility, though modern Muslims are not the ones who invaded. Maybe the liberation from England brought up all the ancient rage at the Islamic conquest, which continues heated.
    I just do see Pakistan as secular, not “land of the pure,” and therefore having a better shot at modernization than some of the more “dyed in the wool” Muslim countries. Sethi said the “civil war” was had when Bangladesh split off in ’71. We’ll see.
    All over the world — Iran right now in its election, the U.S. to some extent — the role of tradition, of religion, is getting a shake-up.

  • guru shubhada


    “I believe multitudes were violently herded there by Hindus.”

    Not True! There are more Muslims in India than in whole of Pakistan. Pakistan is a construct of colonialists. Even todays North West Frontier was against formation of Pakistan. Baccha Khan (Gaffar Khan) was Gandhian in his struggle against British. It’s the feudal and government salaried class who wanted Pakistan as their fiefdom since Gandhi and Nehru of India wanted a people’s democracy with land reform and socialistic governance.

    Cast was not based on birth in old days. Extreme nonviolence of Buddhism and Jainism made India weak and could not defend itself against the brutes such as Mongols and other Muslims from the north west. Social evils of fossilized cast system is due to uncivilized brute invaders and colonialists.

    Watch out what happened to India will happen to Sweden and Denmark in next few decades. Indian civilization still could survive because of its inherent strength and wisdom but Europe may not.

  • guru shubhada

    “In 1193, the Nalanda University was sacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji;[21] this event is seen by scholars as a late milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India. Khilji is said to have asked if there was a copy of the Koran at Nalanda before he sacked it. The Persian historian Minhaz, in his chronicle the Tabaquat-I-Nasiri, reported that thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword,[22] and the burning of the library contin ued for several months and “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.”.[23] When the Tibetan translator Chag Lotsawa (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197–1264) visited the site in 1235, he found it damaged and looted, with a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, instructing a class of about 70 students.[24].[25]

    Ahir considers the destruction of the temples, monasteries, centers of learning at Nalanda and northern India to be responsible for the demise of ancient Indian scientific thought in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy.[26] Many institutions off the main route such as the Jagaddala Monastery in northern Bengal were untouched and flourishing.[citation needed]
    [edit] ”

    The state is yet to recover from this – the region, ie present day Pakistan is yet to recover from destruction by the islamic hordes.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Guru Shubhada, I had many questions about your 6/14 7:12PM post. Is India weak or strong; how exactly did the caste system evolve out of the invading brutes; how is it I see documentaries of Muslims being forced to leave India, and read about it in both fictio and nonfiction, and you say no?
    So I went to a bookstore that has good stock on this sort of subject and came home with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which does not have an index, but anywhere you open it, it has good information. She did not intersect with India’s poor, nor will she tell exactly where in India she went: hours outside of Mumbai somewhere. But page 143 she finds a thread connecting most world religions, the “spirit,” as Christians call it. On page 208, “The Hopi Indians thought that the world’s religions each contained one spiritual thread. and that these threads are always seeking each other, wanting to join. When all the threads are finally woven together they will form a rope that will pull us out of this dark cycle of history and into the next realm.”
    Gilbert is an American woman who went to Italy, then India, then Indonesia. She pursues yogic, mystic awareness. She depicts, I think, some of the religious matrix into which Islam intruded.

  • Amrit

    “[..] Oh, I found “pakeezgi” on the net as Urdu for purity. I see parallels for Pakistan as Land of the Pure, while we’re looking in so lofty a way at national identity, with (a) 17th century colonial America, and (b) Israel. In the case of the Pilgrims, peregrine people, displaced ones, Puritans, in 1620 coming to Plymouth, they were seeking refuge to live their faith. In the case of Israel, Jews who went there were seeking the same.
    In the case of Pakistan, the huge number of people makes the situation seem different. I believe multitudes were violently herded there by Hindus.”

    Huh?? Come again??
    Ellen, where are you getting your information and facts from? It was Muslim League and Mohammad Jinnah who wanted a separate country, since the “pure” people apparently couldn’t live with the “impure” ones with their ‘too many deities’ and needed a separate land of their own.

    “But Pakistan seems to me more an ethnic than a religious identity, swept together in a way more akin to the caste system in India, in an attempt to prevent mobility and opportunity.”

    There we go again. Why do so many people, especially in the US, associate Hinduism with only the caste system, when there’s very little in any religious texts to support the prejudice based on caste system, and many examples of mobility from one caste to the other exist?

    It’d be like associating American society with only slavery and nothing but slavery, ignoring all other contributions or the amazing ideals penned down in its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Or Australia with its abhorrent treatment of Aborigines and nothing else. Or France with its shameful colonialism in Africa and nothing else. Look, it’s a class system – just like every society, including America with its blue-collar, white-collar, academics, intellectuals, plutocrats (like our current President) etc., has a class system – and with the passage of time, it became rigid and was misused.

    And Pakistan is an Islamic state – how does that not make it a religious identity? Are you suggesting that Islam is not a religion? I’m sorry Ellen, but either you are very ignorant, or willfully avoiding the facts – I hope it’s the former, though those with a leftist mindset are known to whitewash any and all atrocities by Muslims, for reasons they know best.

    “Or maybe a legacy of pent-up hatred/resentment.
    You point to “the waves of Islamic invasion since the 8th century,” and I can imagine Indians would build that into their hostility, though modern Muslims are not the ones who invaded.”

    I agree. Let’s absolve Muslims from atrocities done in their past, but at the same time, hold Hindus accountable for their past atrocities. Such two different standards are a hallmark of us honest intellectuals which should make us proud.

    “Maybe the liberation from England brought up all the ancient rage at the Islamic conquest, which continues heated.”

    Look up the history of India-Pakistan since 1947 and which country has been the aggressor. Look up Operation Searchlight – but having seen how your mind works Ellen, I have no doubt that you will find a way to blame the Hindus and absolve Pakistan for its terrible acts. Look up how many terrorist attacks (supported by Pakistan) have happened in India over the past decade, and the number of dead. It’ll surpass the number of people who died on 9/11 in America. But hey, those are Hindus with their evil caste system, so they deserve it – it’s called ‘blaming the victim’ mentality. Let’s worry more about anyone pointing fingers at Pakistan and questioning them, instead of human rights of those killed in these terrorist attacks.

    Seriously, the ignorance displayed in these comments is mind-boggling, to say the least.

    Actually, I must thank you Ellen, for speaking your mind, because it tells me that this subtle prejudice against Hindus/Hinduism/India/Indians is much more widespread than I thought, though it’s Islamophobia that gets all the publicity.

    Such intellectual dishonesty and obfuscation is par for the course, I guess, for left-leaning intelligentsia as they smoke their Cuban cigars while praising Castro and criticizing Gen. Than Shwe.

  • Amrit

    Ellen Dibble-

    I was hoping you’d respond to my comment above so that we can discuss, but I guess not.

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