The Telegraph
Tuesday , February 5 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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Why ants don’t wear shoes
Musharraf Ali Farooqi at KLM.
(Anindya Shankar Ray)

Hopping from one literary meet to another, Pakistani-Canadian author Musharraf Ali Farooqi drew quite a full house on Day One of the Kolkata Literary Meet, held in association with The Telegraph at the Book Fair. From children’s books to adult novels and Urdu translations — the session ‘Partition, Liberation, Transition’ with Sayan Bhattacharya (of Kindle magazine) in the Google Dome threw up some interesting facts about Farooqi’s writing. A t2 chat with the author...

Is this your first time in Calcutta?

Yes. In fact, take a look at my tweet today morning — One meal at @KolkataLitMeet and I can tell you with absolute certainty that Bengali food is best in the world. The best. Write that down. (Twitter handle: @microMAF)

Between Clay and Dust was one of the best-sellers of 2012. Tell us about the book... what made you write this novel?

I had just read an abstract on the pehelwaans, and the book is not about them but rather about the essence of a pehelwaan. When I started writing the story, however, it became about redemption, forgiveness, relationships and of difficult choices.

The pehelwaans saw their peak before Partition and after the division of the princely states, which happened as a result of the Bengal partition, everything changed for these sections. The pehelwaans and the tawaifs were largely dependent on the princely states’ nawabs and maharajas, people who could spend lavishly on their pastimes. But suddenly they no longer had that kind of money and as a result, their patronage over these institutions of wrestlers and courtesans fell and the latter, who had lived a certain standard of life till then, were forced to make compromises. The story starts with two people (Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan) faced with the same consequences and choices. They both are in a very difficult spot and one of them is more sacrificing than the other, and then there is the play of ego.

It was shortlisted for The Man Asian Literary Prize 2012 and longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature…

It is not a challenge to win an award because you don’t have any effort. You have written your book and it’s done! The challenge is to write the next novel.

You took 10 years to write this novel. What took you so long?

Because I was not sure about the kind of voice in which this story had to be told. It was a good thing because in the spots of revision and more reflection and thinking about the characters, the story became more layered and complex, much deeper. But it is not like I wrote this one novel continuously for 10 years, at times I would set it aside for six to eight months and then go back to it.

Tik-Tik, The Master of Time is Pakistan’s first English language novel for children. What was the reaction?

It was very nice. I now have a publishing house in Pakistan called Kitab. I always wanted to focus on children’s literature…. In the first one month, we sold about 2,000 copies. Children’s literature is very big right now.

What is the literary scenario there, in English?

It is not as big as in India, where you have a proper publishing industry and network and huge readership. In Pakistan, English language publishers are very few. Let’s put it this way, the numbers are lower and the literacy rates are also lower.

Your illustrated works all have pretty unique names — The Cobbler’s Holiday Or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes; The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories

The names came up by thinking crazily.... I am a crazy man (laughs). There are these characters and you want to make them funny for the reader, especially considering the age group to which they are catering.

And how is it working with your wife, Michelle Farooqi, with whom you have been collaborating for quite a few of the illustrated works?

It’s a great thing. First I finish the story and then she takes it on and starts chalking out the characters. We have the same kind of eye for quirkiness and mad characters. She reads much more than I do, so whenever I write something if I run it by her she gives me some really good advice. And when she is drawing characters, she consults with me.

Do you think fiction with illustration gets across to readers better than books without pictures?

I love picture books and if you have two editions of the same novel, one with pictures and one without, then I think it is the one with pictures that readers are more likely to pick. Though a novel like Between Clay and Dust is a completely different kind of book. It is the kind of novel where the reader would like to be left alone with the words. But The Story of a Widow (2009) might do well through pictures. I think there is a particular voice in which the story has to be told and a particular idiom. You can’t have the same kind of voice for all the stories. Each story comes up with its own unique requirements for the voice, narrative words, idioms, language.

Rabbit Rap: A Fable for the 21st Century (Penguin) is quite an unusual fable…

One day, I was working in Toronto and I had to go to IKEA, the ready-made furniture store, and I suddenly thought what if rabbits could also order furniture from IKEA?! The book started as a graphic novel, but after the first four chapters we realised it would become a 700-pager the way we were working. That’s when we switched to an illustrated novel.

Why rabbits?

I don’t know. It just came to me like that.

Do you prefer writing for kids than for adults?

I love writing for children, it’s more fun. Writing for adults is like writing sad stories, all that rona-dhona. Second, it is more challenging to write for kids. Like if you have written three good books for adults and the fourth book is crap, even then the adult readers would be like, ‘no, it’s a good book’. But kids don’t care. If the story is not good, they would just throw it away and not bother to give it a second look. They are far better readers and more critical.

What are you working on now?

Two novels and a collection of short stories. One is a serial novel, The Goat-Spy Letters, about Dajjal, the anti-Christ and Islamic tradition. The collection of stories is going to be on Partition, while the other novel is about a group of book lovers and how they come together.