A Writer’s Passion: A Conversation with Musharraf Ali Farooqi
“Nobody remembers my first book,” Musharraf Ali Farooqi grins from across the table. He’s right. His rise to fame came well after the 2000 release of his debut novel Salar Jang’s Passion – his most autobiographical but least remembered book. We’re sitting at the Café Blue Ginger on Zamzama, Karachi, to talk about a feat that he performed seven years after his first book was published – one that made him a near perfect candidate to interview for the Papercuts ‘Tall Tales’ issue.
Farooqi’s entry into mainstream literary discourse came when he produced the world’s first English translation of Dastan-e Amir Hamza (The Adventures of Amir Hamza) – the Urdu version of one of the definitive magical fantasy epics to have emerged from the Muslim world. The Dastan fictionalised Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Hamza, portraying him as a larger-than-life warrior and adventurer engaged in wizarding warfare. (The real Hamza’s bravery in battle was also legendary but he suffered a more ignominious end: he was murdered during the battle of Uhad, his liver ripped out and devoured raw by the enemy who’d sworn to avenge her father’s death at his hands.)
To say that Farooqi’s translation was an important contribution to world literature would be an understatement. “It has a very strange aspect for those who’re interested in the theory of literature,” he says, sipping on a cup of green tea. Born out of a long tradition of oral storytelling (dastan-goi), the narrative of Dastan-e Amir Hamza was malleable and ever changing, unlike its counterpart: the static Western Epic. All the major aspects ofAmir Hamza’s narrative were foretold right in the beginning: the birth of the great Hamza, the lands he would conquer, the way it would all end. But how he would do all that was left undefined, open to the interpretation of whoever was narrating the tale. Here was a story with a beginning and an end, but no particular desire to reach that end: a book that, in theory, was the sum of all possible plots of its story and could therefore be written, rewritten and expanded limitlessly.
Interesting though that is, where’s the thrill in a story that gives everything away before it even gets off the ground? “It’s in the small episodes,” Farooqi explains. “One story starts, then it finishes; and then another begins. So you get the thrill and then you get that release. It’s a unique story telling experience in terms of an epic or a longer narrative.”Dastan-e Amir Hamza thus forever existed in the moment, and that was what constantly drove the action within it. It evolved according to the needs of the narrator, who had only a very basic obligation to be loyal to what had passed or what lay in the future. The narrator’s needs, in turn, depended on the response of the audience.
One of the interesting consequences of this format was that the story of Amir Hamza truly became a story for everyone, regardless of their origin or station in life. “If you read any books on literary theory or the world classics you’ll find mention of Alif Laila and of theShahnama,” Farooqi points out, “but these were very different books.” The Shahnamawas a commissioned history for the king’s personal library; accordingly, it was decorous towards the emperor and made him look good in all his adventures. Alif Laila (better known as A Thousand and One Nights) was meant for the masses: a collection of folk tales that had been told in India, Iran, the Middle East and Central Asia, and did not paint a rosy picture of the decadent princes and kings of these dominions. Amir Hamza, on the other hand, contained both worlds: that of the people and that of the nobility. The dastan-go would visit each assembly – people and nobility – and would accordingly adopt the medium of his audience. The narrator’s style would thus change from rowdy and evocative for an audience of commoners to circumspect in the company of men of nobility. This fluid style eventually became a unique feature of the written dastan, combining both “body and elegance”, in Farooqi’s words.
A particular mix of social sensibilities, fascination with the written word and love for fantasy attracted the translator to this work, and to understand these, one would have to go back further into his past. The young Musharraf Ali Farooqi was an insatiable reader. A culture of reading was nourished and supported in his household. One of his uncles would bring storybooks as gifts for him and his siblings when he visited, and their father would take them by way of excursion to the only bookshop in Hyderabad, called Adbiyat.
He and his younger brother (pictured to the left with their cat, Mano) inherited the back issues of the children’s magazines that his two elder sisters subscribed to:Taleem o Tarbiat,Nonihal, Bachon ki Dunia. This was when the seeds of his interest in fantasy literature were laid. The juvenile versions of Urdu classics that he read introduced him to many of the whimsical characters and stories that he would be inspired by later in life, when he started writing children’s books. He loved Chalaak Khargosh Ke Karnamay(in part inspired by Brere Rabbit) and would religiously read Tarzan’s adventures, published daily in the newspaper Jang.
“You can say that these were not realistic tales as compared to stories nowadays, which have all kinds of themes from cancer to divorce, but the latter is not my idea of children’s stories,” he says. “Literature has a very central function: to tell a good story. It does not have to have a message or a moral every time.”
As soon as he was old enough, Farooqi started spending all his pocket money on Ishtiaq Ahmed’s novels, then Jasoosi Digest and the Imran Series. “I would literally bring fifteen or twenty Jasoosi Digests or Suspense Digests, pile them up on my bedside and finish them within a month,” he remembers, his eyes suddenly lighting up. “Then I would sell them back and buy new ones with some more money. I’ve read at least a thousand digests, if not more.”
There is an enduring sense of mischief and a certain irreverence in Farooqi’s otherwise serious demeanour that is very clearly influenced by what he read and what he saw at home as a child. His first novel (the one that no one remembers; he is planning to re-release it in Pakistan now) was almost wholly inspired by his own family. His Nana probably deserved a whole novel on his own: at the grand old age of 85, he would put out advertisements in the newspaper soliciting marriage proposals for a 55-year-old bachelor.
“And he would give me the letter to post. I’d be reading it as I went to the newspaper office, obviously,” Farooqi laughs, visibly delighted by his grandfather’s antics. “It was an open secret that he was sending these ads to the paper. Everyone was worried that he might send a letter to someone who was in our social circle – that would be a huge embarrassment. So everyone we knew had been advised that if such a letter came to their house they should just ignore it!”
This apparent interest in the morally dubious appeared again and again in Farooqi’s work later in life. Dastan-e Amir Hamza (2007) and Hoshruba (2009) were both tales that celebrated high adventure and all the waywardness that went with it (Amir Hamza, for instance, ran on three main principles: Enchantment, Trickery and Warfare. Playing Fair, Sharing and Making Peace did not appear in the list.)
In the writer’s second novel, The Story of a Widow (2010 – shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature), the protagonist sought to break away from social norms that limited her chance at happiness and thus invited her whole family’s censure. Farooqi’s ongoing project, called Scandals of Creation, also picks up themes that showcase anything but mankind’s best practices.
From the outside, it may seem that Farooqi instinctively seeks opportunities through his writing to escape the mundane and the morally prescriptive. But the truth is simpler and perhaps more profound: to his mind, he is simply remaining true to his socio-cultural roots.
“Look at Amir Hamza,” he offers as an example. “He comes from a tradition that is embedded in Islam, and yet you find him drinking and having affairs within the narrative. Those were our elders who were listening to those stories, yet no one objected to them because that was part of our culture and there was an acceptance for this way of life. There’s been a fundamental change of aesthetic between what we were then and what we are now. It is a big cultural change, but you see, cultures are not supposed to change – they’re supposed to evolve.”
But what of that fundamental pillar of modern-day storytelling: the soap opera? Soaps, from The Bold and The Beautiful to Kyoon ke Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, have a huge audience across the subcontinent. Entire families sit around the TV to watch as characters enact the most sordid aspects of human behavior, including alcoholism, adultery, telling lies, embezzlement and even murder. One could even argue that the soap has the same format as the dastan: a story that could go on forever, episodes, stalling and ‘cliffhanger’ endings, never-ending trickery and intrigue and so on. Could it not be, then, that the institution of the dastan has just shifted medium rather than died out because of intolerance for its content?
“You make an interesting point,” is his response, “but there is a difference. We’ll watch all the soaps, but if we try to mimic them here, there will be an uproar. We’ll watch everybody else doing things that our own Musalman girls cannot do.”
Farooqi is of the opinion that if we don’t know who we are, it is because we have completely divorced ourselves from our tradition and language. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of Pakistan’s history is that despite being famously founded by the “Urdu-speaking elite” of the subcontinent, English was seen as the way forward for the new country after independence. Farooqi’s theory is that the members of this cadre were Urdu-speaking only by virtue of the places they came from and the culture they had originally belonged to, but were so completely immersed in the colonial ethos that they were not seriously invested in Urdu by the time Partition came about.
“These people didn’t really engage with their culture,” he says. “All their children used to go to study abroad: Oxbridge was the ‘thing to do’. And this class that had power and was at the forefront always considered its own literature – that is the novel and the dastan – a little subpar.” By this reasoning, a dichotomy was created when Pakistan was founded, whereby the people who were in charge of making policies on Education and Culture were no longer subscribed to local education or their own culture. “Tell me, who could be proud that their children speak nothing but English?” Farooqi asks. “What kind of people treat their own language as inferior?”
Fortunately, he has hope for the future. Today’s generation, he finds, is more aware and culturally engaged and does not have to deal with the complexities of its grandparents’ society, where things like having to learn the Queen’s English in order to write application letters were very real requirements if one was expected to get anywhere with the colonial administration. “This generation is the one that can bring change,” he says.
It was out of these sentiments that the Urdu Project was born: an online initiative spearheaded by Farooqi to bring together all available Urdu lexicons and integrate them with Unicode text, thus making the Urdu language more accessible to web readers. The project was Farooqi’s “dream for a collaborative effort where everyone pools in and creates these devices that make access to language and literature so easy.” Many people find it difficult to read calligraphed Urdu text on the net, but if it were to appear with translations and all available explications, it could help people access it and then take it to the next level, where it could be translated, shared with others and debated.
And because the Urdu Project was supposed to be a collaborative effort, Farooqi is not willing to pursue grant funding for it.
“If as a people we can’t collectively do something about our language, then I’m not going to beg for money to make it happen,” he smiles. “I know money makes a lot of difficult things easier, but… you know… there must be idealism in something.”
More pragmatic people would consider this philosophy to be as fantastic as Amir Hamza’s exploits. But the thing to realize is this: most of us spend our lives thinking of how we would like to be pursuing our passion. Musharraf Ali Farooqi is living a life in which he only pursues his passion. There’s something to be learnt from that.
Watch out for the second part of this feature in our May installment: a review of M.A. Farooqi’s new novel Between Clay and Dust, which will be published by the Aleph Book Company in India and is slated for release in the first week of May in Pakistan.