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How a Novelist Became a Pop Star

“I hope you fall in love, I hope it breaks your heart” is the refrain (in English translation) of “Pasoori,” Ali Sethi’s 2022 global hit. Is this a curse or a blessing? The song, performed as a duet with the Pakistani singer Shae Gill, defies such simple classifications — it’s a pop banger sung in Urdu and Punjabi, punctuated with flamenco handclaps and driven by a reggaeton beat. Sethi, a Pakistani-born artist who lives in Manhattan’s East Village, composed it in the wake of a thwarted collaboration with an Indian organization that feared reprisal (because of a 2016 ban on hiring Pakistani creatives). Drawing on themes from ghazals — sly courtesan poems about desire and betrayal that have doubled as political critiques, a genre that dates to seventh-century Arabia — “Pasoori” is at once “a love song, a bit of a flower bomb thrown at nationalism, a queer anthem, a protest song, a power ballad [and] a song of togetherness,” Sethi says. It’s now been viewed some 850 million times on YouTube, including by countless Indian fans.

Sethi, 39, is a master of microtonal singing, gliding between the notes of the Western tempered scale. He’s been lauded for sounding like a vestige of another age — his supple, keening tenor the result of years of apprenticeship to the Pakistani artists Ustad Saami and Farida Khanum. Growing up in Lahore, where he was recognized at school for his academic and artistic abilities but also, he says, “taunted by both students and teachers for being part of a queer cohort,” he found in traditional music a way to be good but also fabulous, rooted without being fixed.

Back then, he didn’t see the arts as offering a viable career path. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early aughts, he was expected to study economics. He instead took courses on South Asian history and world fiction, and first read Jane Austen at the behest of his teacher Zadie Smith. In 2009, he published “The Wish Maker,” a semiautobiographical coming-of-age novel set in his home city. The narrator navigates the wounds and thrills of adolescence, as well as a factionalized, globalizing country, alongside his female cousin: They watch an “Indiana Jones” film (“about an American man of the same name who wore hats and enjoyed the company of blonde women”) and are puzzled by its Indian villain; they fuel their crushes with love songs by Mariah Carey and the Pakistani artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

According to Sethi, his hit single “Pasoori” is at once “a love song, a bit of a flower bomb thrown at nationalism, a queer anthem, a protest song, a power ballad [and] a song of togetherness.”Credit…Philip Cheung

The book was well received, though Sethi now thinks its realist form couldn’t fully accommodate Pakistan, a society in flux. As he was finishing the novel in Lahore in 2007, the country was besieged by sectarian violence. His father, Jugnu Mohsin — both he and Sethi’s mother, Najam Sethi, are prominent journalists and publishers — received death threats, and Sethi spent over a year in hiding, staying in the basements of friends. In 2011, he traveled to India to work as an adviser on Mira Nair’s 2012 film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel. One evening, when everyone was eating and singing, Nair was so moved by Sethi’s version of a ghazal famously sung by Khanum, “Dil Jalane Ki Baat,” that she urged him to record it. The song became part of the soundtrack and the first step toward Sethi’s recording career.

Storytelling is still inherent to his work. Whether at concerts or on Instagram, Sethi often describes the inclusive nature of traditional South Asian music. Because it’s always been “anciently multiple” and cosmopolitan, it contains the “antibodies,” he says, to heal a divisive culture from within. But there are moments when he wishes to not represent but present for a while. He plans to write another novel, in the more experimental form of lyrical autofiction. Today, the burden of being an ambassador is lightened by the presence of other queer South Asian artists, including the writers Bushra Rehman and Sarah Thankam Mathews, and Sethi’s own partner, the painter Salman Toor. Last year, Sethi appeared at Coachella along with several other South Asian musicians, whose multilingual sets slotted right in alongside the Spanish artist Rosalía and Nigeria’s Burna Boy, who performed in English and their native languages.

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