Ayesha’s life is thrown into turmoil by the violent death of her father. The Pakistani authorities talk of suicide, but why would Ayesha’s happy, gentle father kill himself? In Ayesha’s Gift (Simon & Schuster, £18.99), Martin Sixsmith, also author of the bestselling Philomena, joins Ayesha on a dangerous quest to Pakistan to find out the truth. They are split over the repercussions of the story, yet joined together by shared experiences of grief.
Why did you decide to write Ayesha’s story?
When my book Philomena was published in 2009, I was approached by several people with stories they wanted me to write. Among them was a British Pakistani woman from Yorkshire (not Ayesha) who told me that her father had died in Pakistan. I discovered that the woman’s brother had been in an arranged marriage with a cousin from Pakistan; the family brought his bride to Britain, but the marriage fell apart. The groom’s father dumped the young woman back in Pakistan and confiscated her passport. Her family took this as an insult to their honour, so when the father next visited Pakistan, they murdered him. That story wouldn’t work as a book, because no one emerged from it with much credit; there was no natural hero. But I was hooked on the Pakistani setting and the raw, emotional drama of the place. So when Ayesha approached me several years later, with her tale of goodness and love and redemption in the face of cruelty and evil, I knew I had found the perfect story.
Did you see parallels between her and Philomena Lee?
Yes. They were both very brave women, faced with a terrible tragedy in their lives. Both came from male-dominated communities where it took a great deal of courage for a woman to stand up for the truth; but they both did so. Their moral strength and refusal to back down made me admire them both immensely. Their undying love for the person who has been taken from them – Philomena’s son; Ayesha’s father – inspired me to write their stories. Both books begin with me ostensibly helping someone with a problem in her life. But in both cases, it is I who end up benefiting from their example, from their emotional strength and understanding.
How did the dangerous neighbourhoods of northern Pakistan compare to the war zones you experienced during your time as BBC foreign correspondent?
In war zones the danger is more overt and, in many ways, easier to avoid – as a journalist, you can take shelter when shelling begins. Probing into events in Pakistan that involve the interests of powerful criminal gangs, murderers and corrupt officials brought a different kind of danger. People were worried about talking to us, either because they had been threatened or because they had been bribed. When Ayesha hired a private detective, he was shot for asking the wrong questions. When we took over the investigation, we were warned that we were putting our lives in danger. I have had to change names and locations in the book to anonymise people who might be at risk.
You fell out with Ayesha over the portrayal of her father. Do you agree with Graham Greene that there’s a splinter of ice in the heart of the writer? Should there be?
Very much so. It’s something I learned as a journalist. If you get too emotionally involved in a story, your judgement can very quickly get clouded. Ayesha and I argued over how the story of her father should be written, and who should decide what to include and what to exclude. She wanted her father to be portrayed as a perfect man, a hero with no faults. I wanted to write the story objectively and that meant describing him warts and all. For a long time, as we were carrying out the investigation, it was unclear if her father had been a good man or an evil villain. Along with the identity of his murderers, that is one of the central mysteries of the book. Both questions are resolved by the end of the story but neither of us knew what we were going to uncover.
How did your closely felt experiences of someone else’s loss affect the perception of loss in your own life?
Of all my books, this is the one with the most personal resonance for me, because I suffered a tragedy in my own life as I was writing it. While I was in Pakistan researching the book, my brother killed himself. Because of it, I decided I could not write Ayesha’s story. But in those terrible weeks after my brother’s death something remarkable happened. Instead of reproaching me for abandoning her, Ayesha extended the hand of sympathy. She showed me a compassion that I had never shown to her. Just as she had come to doubt how well she had known her father, I was having to question if I had ever really known my brother and why I hadn’t recognised the terrible agony that would drive him to take his life. Ayesha and I were both consumed now by an obsessive search for the truth about someone we had loved, and that shared understanding brought us together. When I did eventually return to writing the book, she and I felt much greater sympathy and kindness towards each other.
Some argue that the first wave of Pakistani immigrants to the UK preserved their conservative social habits while back in Pakistan attitudes moved on. Is that what you saw?
Yes. Many Pakistani communities in the UK preserved their social, religious and tribal bonds. That was a positive thing, as it enshrined moral values and family ties. But in many cases, it also resulted in inward-looking communities that were reluctant to engage with the society around them. Taken together with the racism shown by some sections of the white community, it contributed to the difficult relations of recent times. In the book I have attempted to show both the good and the bad aspects of first wave immigration.
You studied Russian and were in Moscow at the end of the Soviet Union. Are we heading for a new version of the Cold War with Putin?
I very much hope not, but the signs are not promising. The Trump-Putin relationship is such a game-changer for East-West relations that it is impossible to predict what will happen next. While I certainly support Donald Trump’s wish for a better relationship with Russia, I do not think that secret negotiations and covert political deals are the best way to go about it. In his past life, Mr Trump ran a TV game show; Mr Putin ran the KGB. If it comes to a showdown, I know who my money would be on.
Do you have plans for your next book?
Yes – with unplanned but immaculate timing, I am working on a psychological history of the Cold War!