Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a different kind of author. Though he writes elegant, evocative novels in English (his latest is Between Clay and Dust, published by Aleph Book Company, David Davidar’s new publishing venture), he is also a passionate advocate of Urdu literature and has translated epics like The Adventures of Amir Hamza. Excerpts from an interview:
You dropped out of engineering studies to become a writer. Didn’t your family protest vehemently?
It caused a major scandal. My dropping out is still a matter of some shame for my mother, and I feel that even if I won the Nobel one day, she would come back at me with, "Yeh to buss aik award hai, degree to nahin! (This is just an award, not a degree)." I know there would be no answer to that.
Your latest novel, Between Clay and Dust, unfolds like a lovely old-world tale. Why did you decide to write it?
To begin with, I wished to explore the connection between self-discipline and power in the life of a pahalwan. Then the courtesan Gohar Jan entered the story and suddenly there were two people, Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, who were both devoted to their respective arts, and whose peculiar circumstances made their relationships with loved ones somewhat complex. It became a story of the tragedy of the choices available to them and how they would acquit themselves without compromising on their integrity as artists and human beings.
The present narrative voice is not very different from the voice in the first draft written about 10 years ago. But longer reflection about the relationships created a greater layering of the story, and further clarity in my mind that it was really the only style in which this particular story could be told to maximum effect.
The novel is very ‘filmable...’
From your lips to the directors’ ears. Yes, a number of people have commented that the story is told rather visually.
Have you seen films like Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan?
I have read Mirza Hadi Rusva’s novel and seen the two versions of Umrao Jan. I haven’t seen Pakeezah, but I have listened countless times to Thade Rahiyo O Baanke Yaar and Chaltey Chaltey from the film.
You have also done a lot of translation... Hoshruba, The Land and the Tilism, The Adventures of Amir Hamza. How difficult and enjoyable – was that?
Both difficult and enjoyable. Translation taught me a lot about writing and led me to explore much arcane material which I plan to employ in my fiction.
Do you write everyday?
I really do not have a routine as such. The one thing I do religiously is my breakfast. Without that, words will indeed stop flowing.
How familiar are you with India? Do you think the Indian market is important for Pakistani writers?
My parents come from Saharanpur and Muradabad. But this is the first time that I will be visiting India. As a growing market, India is very important for all writers.
What do you feel about the whole ‘flowering’ of Pakistani writing?
Frankly, not much. It is mostly driven by Western publishers who show no interest in publishing English language translations of contemporary Urdu fiction. It was the same for Indian languages when English literature from India was all the rage. We cannot have a balanced debate about the literary merits of fiction from this part of the world under the circumstances.
What are you working on next?
I am working on the novel A Heroine of Our Time. It is the story of how a beloved institution was revived by a group of
disparate people coming together from a common outlook on life. The central characters are a Karachi bookworm and a Russian artiste.
Writers you love?
I mostly read the Urdu fiction writers from India as translations from other Indian languages are not available easily: Naiyer Masud, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Syed Muhammad Ashraf. From Pakistan, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, Afzal Ahmed Syed, Ali Akbar Natiq, Khalid Toor. And I think everyone should read Charles Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Maupassant.
Coming up next
Some of the other books Aleph will bring out over the next 12 months:
Writer Jerry Pinto’s first novel, Em and the Big Hoom, a story about the eccentric Mendeses of Mahim, who try and be a family.
The Freethinker’s Prayer Book by Khushwant Singh. Quite a change from the writer’s dirty old man image.
India in Love – Love, Sex and Marriage in 21st Century India by Ira Trivedi. This promises to be that difficult thing to pull off: an enlightening page-turner.
Expat Pamela Timms’ (known for her High Teas, or as she calls it, Uparwali Chai) culinary adventures in Purani Dilli, Mutton Korma At Shokkys’ – Five Seasons in Old Delhi.
Journalist Barkha Dutt finally does her book: This Unquiet Land – Dispatches from India’s Fault Lines.
From HT Brunch, April 8
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