BOOK REVIEW: Wake Up Ali, Wake Up Now by Sumit Sharma Sameer
Stories about south Asian immigrants in the U.S and Canada appear as regular as clockwork, largely by Indian, Pakistani, Bangla Deshi and Sri Lankan authors. So, it was refreshing to lay hands on the work of a Nepali writer.
Sumit Sharma Sameer’s debut novel ‘Wake Up Ali, Wake Up Now’ translated by Sushrat Achary encapsulates several themes — migration and the trade-offs, hope, separation, guilt, identity, extra-marital relationships and life experiences in an alien land.
In short, it provides an honest glimpse into the longitudinal impact on a man forced to migrate.
From Lahore in Pakistan to Canada and back to Lahore, the novel delineates Ali’s life at home and as an immigrant. A life of separation from his family — a wife, daughter and a brother — life in a new country, a lowly job for a qualified engineer, coming to terms with the cold reality, the constant pain of being separated from loved ones, the joy and misery of a new relationship and its break-up. Seems like the typical immigrant story? Only, Ali is a philosophical and introspective human with a never ending quest to find his identity, an inner voice constantly screaming ‘Wake Up Ali, Wake Up Now’.
Alas! when he decides enough is enough and returns like a homing pigeon, a sense of relief and fulfillment pervades his being as he feels settled ‘at home’ as also within himself. And then the unexpected happens!
To readers of diasporic novels, this book may seem commonplace but for the author it was a story that had to be told after living and interacting with the South Asian diaspora in the U.K and Canada. Nevertheless, Sameer’s debut novel written with honesty and clarity is sure to resonate with many readers especially South Asian migrants.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
What prompted you to write this debut novel? Is it in some sense autobiographical disguised as fiction or based on someone you knew?
Writing is something that I have inherited from my family. My grandfather had written and published a couple of works. My father used to write short stories and his elder brothers are renowned literary figures in Nepal. My father always encouraged me to write. I had been writing, mostly, op-eds on politics and other issues in the past. But, this is my first fiction.
This work is not autobiographical disguised as fiction nor is it based entirely upon someone’s life that I know. During my course of travel and stay in the UK and Canada, I have had the opportunity to meet with South Asian diaspora, meet different people from these countries and look into their lives deeply. This I think is their collective experiences narrated through the protagonist, Ali.
You are from Nepal but your lead character is from Pakistan. How did this come about?
I had always wanted to write about something that is common to South Asian countries. I think ‘migration’ is one such issue that binds ‘South Asians’ together. South Asians either migrated from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or Nepal may have travelled from their specific country of origin initially, but when they reach their country of destination, they become one and the same. Their story of hardships binds them together and helps them create a ‘common’ identity, despite differences. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter whether that story of migration and hardship is led by a Pakistani, Nepali or Indian. That becomes their common story.
There seems to be a philosophical streak in the protagonist Ali, who often tends to think and philosophize in a rational way. Did you intentionally make him so?
I think Ali reflects the dilemma of a ‘modern’ man who comes from a lower middle class family of developing countries. There are layers of complexities that these modern men and women live with. It is quite natural for ‘reflective’ men and women to view life in a certain way. And, perhaps the protagonist is also making a call for a need to become ‘reflective’ in the present time.
We are in the midst of great transformation. Social and political institutions are decaying. We are witnessing the rise of the digital world and algorithms. What does it mean to be living in such a context? What does it mean to have a family? How would we define and maintain relationships in such a context? Aren’t the ‘modern’ men themselves struggling to determine their new ‘identity’? There are many questions. Some claim that the future is promising, whereas some are doubtful. Ali, the protagonist, represents this larger process in the world and hence he has to be reflective to deal with such big questions.
How long did you take to write the novel and how did you juggle work and writing?
It took me five years to complete this work and it was very difficult to manage my hobby and professional life. But, somehow I managed my time. Drafting a story doesn’t take much time for me. But, sharpening it, choosing the right words for specific characters, authenticating sentiments are the toughest tasks. I need more time for that.
How involved were you in the translation of the novel?
I was quite involved. The translator, Sushrut Acharya always went back and forth with me while translating it. And, I’m so happy that he has been able to translate it so well.
What kind of reading do you do? Any favourite authors?
I read a lot of classics- small novellas by English, Russians, French. I’m fascinated by that style of writing. I also read non-fiction. I have read quite a bit of Hindi literature. I love the depth of writing in authors like Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, Premchand, Mahadevi Varma and many more. There are many authors in South Asia and beyond who are my favourites.
Are you working on another novel?
Yes, I have just started. Not sure how long will it take to finish
Sumit Sharma works at the British Embassy, Kathmandu.