Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist with Hindustan Times. He was a senior assistant editor with the Indian Express until June 2018. Born and raised in Kashmir, Khatlani began his career with the now-defunct Bengaluru-based Vijay Times in 2005 as its national-affairs correspondent. He joined the Times of India in 2007. Over the next nine years, he was part of the newspaper’s national and international news-gathering team. Khatlani has reported from Iraq and Pakistan and covered elections and national disasters. He has a master’s degree in history from Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and is a fellow with the Hawaii-based American East-West Center, which was established by the United States Congress in 1960 to promote better relations with Asian and Pacific countries.

We got an awesome opportunity to interview the author.

  1. Apart from your professional career and life, tell us about Sameer as a person.

I am shy and reserved, and sometimes overly sensitive. I would also like to believe that I am an uncomplicated person, who trusts people easily. I make very few friends but when I do, I put in my heart and soul into those relationships. And, I am not a very social person, so in the present context, social distancing is coming easy. I am usually on the extremes: I can sleep for more than 15 and can also sit in one place and write for as long. I love home-cooked biryani and can relish on it for weeks without getting bored.

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2. When and how did the idea of writing a book on this topic arise?

I always wanted to be an author and it was a matter of when I would write a book. In 2013, I read Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi’s book Delhi By Heart on his discovery of the Indian capital and thought it was the kind of book I wanted to write as well. The following year, when I visited Lahore, I had made up my mind about writing The Other Side of the Divide before actually embarking on the trip. It was meant to be my second book. The first book was supposed to published—as I always wanted it to be—before I turned 30. But then I realized writing and publishing books is not as easy as I thought. The experience of writing my first unpublished book stood me in good stead. I learned from the mistakes I made and importantly avoided the information overload that I felt made the narrative laborious earlier. 

3. What kind of research and detailed study have you done in getting all the information?

A lot of research went into writing The Other Side of the Divide since Pakistan is an extremely sensitive subject. I had to substantiate every little detail I was giving. In fact, I often over research and being a newsperson desk person trained to be the last line of defense, I edited and edited the manuscript over and over again, plugging as many information gaps as possible.      

4. There must have been emotional threats or displeasure among the family or close ones with your decision to travel to Lahore. How did you deal with all those?

By reasoning with them that the trip was important and good for my career as a journalist.

5. What exactly was your feeling the moment you have had your first foot after alighting the flight?

I actually crossed over on foot. I was just making mental notes about everything I was seeing because I had to write the book.

6. Did you feel indifference while walking on the roads there? Can you explain what was running in your mind?

Not at all. The people I met were very welcoming and I experienced the usual stuff—shopkeepers refusing to charge you money etc.

7. How was the publishing journey and did u feel any discomfort during the process?

I had my share of problems but overall, my experience has been great so far

8. What more stories did you get to hear during the research process?

I learned a lot during the research including the fact that Asghar Khan, who is known as the father of Pakistan’s Air Force and was highly-decorated, was a bitter critic of his country’s wars with India and yet remains an iconic figure there. Many such surprising stories emerged during the writing of this book.

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10. What are your favorite books and do you recommend them?

NisidHajari’sMidnight’s Furiesis my all-time favourite and I often recommend it for the sheer beauty of his writing.

11. Which genres you enjoy reading the most? Which you don’t enjoy at all?

I enjoy politics, history, travel writings, biographies and autobiographies. I find reading fiction difficult. But one can really improve one’s writing by reading non-fiction.

13. What are some ways in which you promote your work?  Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?

I am very shy of self-promotion and that is not a good thing. I am trying to overcome my reluctance and try to promote my book via social media. It can be a distraction but you have to do it.

14. What projects are you working on at the present? When can we expect a new fiction/non- fiction book from you?

I am working on a couple of projects. Hopefully, my second book should be out in two years.

15. What do your plans for future projects include? Any plans for a motion picture/web series based on your book(s)

The latter would be very ambitious now. I am not thinking that far and just focusing on writing for now.

16. How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

E-books are fine. But I still prefer the real books that are print books and conventional books with lots of editorial control and scrutiny.

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17. Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?

Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies and Rana Dasgupta Capital really inspired me. They are not just rich in detail but as lucid as books can get.

19. What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?  

My intention is always to tell the untold stories and I would like to believe I have been able to achieve that in the Other Side of the Divide.

20. What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was least useful or most destructive?

The most useful is to read good writers and actually know what good writing is.

One liners/One word based answer questions

Please respond to these questions in one line or one word wherever possible –

  1. Your all-time favorite author/writer?

Reza Aslan and NisidHajari

  1. Do you believe in writer’s block? Did you have it anytime or not?

Yes, I do. Several times.

  1. Your favorite place to write your book(s)?

I can write anywhere. Writing is my bread and butter.

  1. Research and then write or research while writing? Which one you prefer?

Research while writing

  1. What do you do in your free time?

Nothing; just laze around

  1. How many hours a day do you write?

I have written for up to 12 to 14 hours daily

  1. Do you Google yourself?

Yes. Sometimes.

  1. Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Not really.

  1. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?

Writing is the only skill I have.

The interview is published in Storizen Magazine April 2020 Issue.

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